Folding the American Flag: What Does a Folded Flag Mean and Why Is It Folded Into a Triangle?

Photo Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images
Photo Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images

If you’ve ever attended a military funeral or a ceremony on Memorial Day, odds are you’ve watched guards come together to fold the American flag. While you might assume this is just an old military tradition, it’s one with a storied history – and its symbolism is important to servicemen, veterans and everyday civilians, alike.

History of the American flag

US Marines folding the American flag into a triangle
Photo Credit: Eric Lee for The Washington Post / Getty Images

The original version of the American flag – the one with just 13 stars – was unveiled on June 14, 1777, following its adoption by the Continental Congress. Whereas, before, each of the colonies flew its own flag, this was the juncture when all 13 came together for the creation of a unified nation. Nearly 200 years later, in 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower adopted the 50-star flag, which has flown ever since.

Each part of the American flag represents the country’s history. As can be easily ascertained, the 50 stars represent the 50 states that make up the United States, while the red and white stripes symbolize the original 13 colonies. The colors, too, have meaning behind them; blue represents vigilance and justice, while white symbolizes purity and red, bravery and valor.

Why does the US military fold the American flag into a triangle?

Close-up of someone holding an American flag folded into a triangle
Photo Credit: DARLENE PFISTER / Star Tribune / Getty Images

No one knows exactly when the tradition of folding the American flag into a triangle first began, but what is known is it’s regularly performed during ceremonial events, including military funerals, certain holidays and at the close of each day at military bases. The latter is known as the ceremony of retreat, and it involves lowering and removing the flag from its flagpole, folding it, keeping watch throughout the night and returning it to the flagpole the following morning.

While the US Flag Code doesn’t explicitly state that the American flag must be folded into a triangle, it does outline what should be done when it’s both displayed and retired. As such, sources provide differing opinions regarding how the tradition came to be, with some stating it can be traced back to a chaplain at the US Air Force Academy and others attributing it to the American Gold Star Mothers.

Symbolism of the 13 folds

Master Sgt. Francisco Navarro holding an American flag that was folded into a triangle
Photo Credit: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The overall process of folding the American flag is intended to represent day’s end, which gives way to the night.While the general consensus is that the 13 folds involved in the process symbolize the original 13 colonies, each individual fold also has a secondary meaning that relates back to the origins of the United States:

  • First Fold: Represents life.
  • Second Fold: Symbolizes the belief in eternal life.
  • Third Fold: Honors those who’ve left the US military’s ranks and given a portion of their lives to the country’s defense.
  • Fourth Fold: Represents the belief citizens have in God, whether that be in turning to Him in times of peace or war.
  • Fifth Fold: Acknowledges the United States of America as a whole.
  • Sixth Fold: Represents the pledge Americans make to the flag and their country.
  • Seventh Fold: Serves as a tribute to the Armed Forces.
  • Eighth Fold: Remembers those who have walked into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, as told in Psalm 23:4.
  • Ninth Fold: Represents womanhood.
  • Tenth Fold: Dedicated to the Father, who has provided children to defend the United States.
  • Eleventh Fold: Refers to the bottom portion of the seal of Kings David and Solomon and pays tribute to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
  • Twelfth Fold: Acknowledges God as the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
  • Thirteenth Fold: Reminds citizens of America’s motto, “In God we trust.”

At the end, the flag should be shaped like a tricornered hat, similar to those worn by the Continental forces during the American Revolution. The shape itself honors George Washington, John Paul Jones and the soldiers, sailors and Marines who served with them.

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Following the 13th fold, only the white stars and blue background should be visible; the red and white stripes shouldn’t be seen.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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