Saluting the American flag

Les Domina of Fremont, Neb., gives a patriotic salute in this undated photograph. Though its origins aren’t clear, the hand-to-forehead salute has been a long-standing tradition to show respect for the American flag.

Saluting the American flag

According to a Congressional Research Service report, the National Flag Conference adopted the National Flag Code on June 14, 1923. June 14 commemorates the day the U.S. adopted the Stars and Stripes as its official flag in 1777, and had been celebrated as Flag Day since President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation in 1916 (Library of Congress). Americans further elevated the flag when President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional act into law on March 3, 1931 that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem (History.com).

Congress made the flag code into law in 1942 and established National Flag Day in 1949. The flag code serves as the guide for all handling and display of the flag, but it does not impose penalties for the misuse of the flag (CRS Report). According to the flag code, “When not in uniform men should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute” (Smithsonian). The flag code doesn’t discuss hat behavior for women. But manners expert Emily Post dictates that fashion hats can be left on when saluting the flag because they are usually pinned on and difficult to remove. Women do need to remove unisex hats or ball caps (Emily Post Institute).

The origin of the hand-to-forehead salute isn’t clear, but the U.S. Marines Corps’ website discusses several possibilities. In medieval days, mounted, armored knights raised their visors to identify themselves when meeting friends. Another explanation is that when assassinations by dagger were common, people approached each other with their hands raised, palm to the front, to display that they held no concealed weapon. The final – and most likely – explanation is that the hand salute evolved from the British navy because it was the first part of how sailors uncovered their heads in front of a senior.

This gesture evolved into a sign of respect or trust, and men doffed their hats to greet friends or guests, particularly women. Americans in the mid-1920s transferred those emotions to their flag. The American flag is referred to as female, and they saluted to demonstrate trust and respect for the authority behind the flag. The evolution of the current hand-over-heart salute is much easier to trace. The Smithsonian’s American History blog says how before the 1940s, American school children saluted with a gesture that is now a symbol of fascism. Children used to salute the flag by placing their right hands to their foreheads and then extending their right hands out toward the flag. They didn’t say “Heil, Hitler,” of course, but this salute too closely resembled the Nazi one-armed salute, so it was replaced in 1942 with the practice of placing the right hand over the heart.