Theories abound about the flag, the fringe, the finial, and even the direction the flag is displayed. It’s a but ridiculous. Having said that, there may be some tiny bit of truth to admiralty law being represented by fringe, maybe. Still, knowledge of history is going to be our friend and help us understand what fantasy is and what is truth. Let’s start here.
In the Beginning…
Fringe originated as a way of preventing a cut piece of fabric from unraveling when a hemming was not used. It is believed that fringe was first used in Mesopotamia over 3000 years ago. Several strands of weft (horizontal) threads would be removed, and the remaining warp (vertical) threads would be twisted or braided together to prevent unraveling and vice-versa.
In Native American cultures fringe was used on outer wear for both decorative and practical purposes. In the rain the fringe on the clothing directed water away from the wearer. This was adopted by early American settlers and became an integral part of the “wild west”.
As textile manufacturing advanced, fringe was made separately and then attached to the fabric to create a strong, more visually appealing look. For flag makers, this helped the flags last longer. This makes sense, with these flags being sewn by hand, I would want it to last as long as possible, especially with the detailed embroidery. The added weight made the flags easier to display and maintain a more sophisticated look. It created a frame of sorts that set it apart from other textiles. Otherwise it would look like any other hanging sheet of fabric.
Besides the added and weight and the framing, another benefit was that fringe created a static charge that pulled dust, soot, and ash away from the main fabric keeping it clean and slowing damage that those things can cause.
Fringe was viewed as part of the nature of textiles and the manufacturing process. By the time the Flag Code was written, fringe wasn’t considered as an addition.
Controversy brewed when President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10834 (1959) adding stars for New Mexico and Arizona. The EO specifically stated that military and government flags should be fringed. This was a financially motivated statemen. Simply put, fringed flags last longer.
That controversy was further complicated by the rivalry between the Army and the Navy. These two have had a stereotypical sibling relationship. They each wanted to establish their own identity. So when the Army updated their regulations to require fringe on all flags, the Navy (and Marines) prohibited the use of fringe on the national flag.
“Mom! the Army won’t stop making its own standards!”
The rivalry had been so bad that they even went as far as to have separate designs for the Presidential flag, which caused its own problems until President Truman issued a Executive Order 9646 (1945) to establish a single flag to represent the office of the President.
The rivalry extends to guidon flags for the Army (and, by extension, the Air Force and Space Force), which are swallow-tail, and guidon flags for the Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard, which are rectangular. Lastly in this vein, the US color for the Army (Air Force and Space Force) is required to have gold-colored fringe and the national ensign (same thing is the US color) for the Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard is forbidden to have fringe.
Fringe is mandatory on military colors, not flags. It does not communicate anything other than decoration for the colors. Fringe is optional for all civil and civilian displays and color guards. Why most American and state flag displays have fringe is because many flag companies sell flag sets. These sets have two cheap, brown flagstaffs, two gold-colored floor stands, an American flag with fringe and any state flag with fringe. Most of the sets also come with the spread eagle finial for at least the US staff. Since it’s a cheap set and most people are trusting and don’t do any digging for information, we have these sets as the ubiquitous standard. Even for military units, which violates every military standard.
While the use of fringe today is viewed as decorative; historic accounts show that it was an important part to preserve the flag both physically and symbolically.
Information gathered by my colleague, DeVaughn Simper, Vexillologist.