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By Rick W. Sturdevant
Deputy Command Historian
HQ Air Force Space Command
23 July 2003

I first was asked this question over a decade ago and I have been researching it ever since. Among the dozens of web sites devoted to the flag-folding ceremony, here is one [there used to be two but the other is now offline] worth perusing: One of the first things you will notice is that the sites differ on the symbolic meaning of each fold. The latter site credits the USAF Academy with assigning symbolic significance to each fold [this can be found here: Original Flag Folding - 13 Folds of the US Flag]

As for the origin and significance of the triangular or "cocked hat" fold itself, several years ago I contacted a local flag expert who suggested that the triangular fold might have originated in the days of wooden sailing vessels. He explained that ships like the Constitution or Constellation would close with the enemy, waiting until the last minute to hoist the colors and "breaking" them at the peak. While it is true that many flag hoisting traditions around the globe have naval origins, most of these were eschewed by American revolutionaries at the country's founding. Traditionally, the US flag is never hoisted to the peak folded but, rather, flying freely in full view. Consequently, the naval "story," though often repeated, seems apocryphal. If it were true, why wouldn't other seafaring nations, especially Great Britain, have used a similar fold when their ships closed for combat?

The use of the triangular fold came much later than the 1770s. It seems the custom originated after the Spanish American War. We had gained far-flung Navy and Army bases, where it became customary to fly larger and larger flags. A need arose for folding the flag efficiently to facilitate hoisting the next morning. Before the evolution and adoption of the triangle fold each base, and ships, were free to fold the flag whatever way they wanted. The fold made handling large flags easier. By the early 1900s, both the Army and the Navy were using the triangular fold. After 1910 the Boy Scouts of America also popularized the practice. In addition, soldiers and sailors returning from WWI helped transfer the "military" fold to civilian use. At first, the fold simply was practical, but patriotic orators later added the symbolism of the cocked hat to pay homage to Revolutionary War soldiers. This symbolism was updated to include Revolutionary marines, even though they wore a hat with one side of the brim pinned "Aussie" style. Sailors during the American Revolution had to provide their own hats, which makes it conceivable that they, too, might have worn the “cocked hat.”

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