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Finials and Fringes on Flags

Last modified: 2011-12-30 by rob raeside
Keywords: pole | finial | fringe |
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The appropriate indoor pole ornaments for national flags are, for example, for the US flag an eagle, Canada a Maple Leaf, etc.
I have heard of a few others -
Ukraine has the special U/Trident symbol;
Eritrea a Camel;
Cambodia has had Hanuman the monkey God;
and some of the Arab Emirates have the Crescent Moon.
John Niggley, 30 August 1995

I don't think there are any standards anywhere for indoor display of flags, but they often follow the military model:

Britain: Royal Crest (Crown surmounted by lion), replaced spearhead 1858
India: Ashoka lions replaced Royal Crest when India became a Republic.
Ottoman Empire: Crescent Moon.
Switzerland: spearhead.
France (1st Empire): Eagle.

In 1857 the Poona Horse of the British Indian Army captured the standard of the Persian 1st Khushgai Regt of Fars, which bore a finial in the form of a silver hand dated 1066 A.D. The Poona Horse were authorized to put the hand on their standard, and have continued to do so since independence.

T.F. Mills, 30 August 1995

I've seen crosses and Magen Davids in churches/synagogues.
Edward Mooney, 7 October 2000

The proscribed finial for the Maryland flag, frequently seen in indoor displays such as schools, as well as some outdoor displays, is a gold cross bottony. (Protocol of the Maryland State Flag 2.03)
Steve Kramer, 7 October 2000

Minnesota at one time required a gopher finial, but this is no longer in effect.
Nathan Bliss, 9 October 2000

In Sweden, the most common finial is golden and in the shape of an onion. You can also see white finials and finals shaped like balls or like a ball which is "squeezed" so that it looks oval from the side.

The word used in Swedish is "knopp", "flaggstångsknopp" or "kula".

For a "fana" (a flag permanently fastened on a staff and intended to be carried) other finials are often used. They are often in the shape of an onion too, but the upward spinning finial is flat (so you can't see its ornamentation when seeing it from one side) and in some yellow metal.
Elias Granqvist, 7 October 2000

I don't know what we have on our Hungarian flag that we have in our church, but interestingly, this August, when I was at a Hungarian Scout in Exteris Association jamboree, I noticed that all the flags of the scout "regiments" had a finial not of an eagle, but of the mythical Hungarian bird, the falcon-like "Turul". At the risk of sounding political, this can be attributed to the Association's purpose of preserving Hungarian culture, including the promotion of pre-Trianon Hungarian borders.
Georges Kovari, 7 October 2000

On Royal Navy warships the jack staff is capped with a naval crown, the ensign staff with a royal crown, both in full colour. Warships of the Commonwealth monarchies follow the same practice except for those of Canada which have a royal crown on both staffs.
David Prothero, 8 October 2000

In Denmark, it depends on the pole/staff being used, I think.

On a regular flagpole, we'd use a ball, usually red, white or golden. On a staff, I think I have seen most spear heads. Some of the spear heads (especially in the labour movement) are real pieces of art, with the spear head voided and the logo/emblem of the organization in the void.
Ole Andersen, 7 October 2000

The U.S. armed forces use the spread eagle finial with the national flag only to denote the rank of the official or officer displaying the flag. National flags carried as colors by Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force units have a chrome- or nickel-plated spearhead finial. The Navy uses a brass battle-ax finial atop the national ensign when is carried as a color in ceremonies ashore. (See AR 840-10, MCO P10520.3A, AFR 900-3, and NTP-13.) [There is one exception of which I am aware: the Corps of Cadets at West Point uses a spearhead finial of unique design, rather than the standard spearhead, on its national, Army, and corps flags.]

The spearhead is also used on all other national flags displayed by officials or units of the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

So when is the spread eagle correct? Outside the Department of the Navy, it is used atop the national color only by the President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, and other Presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed officials of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. (AR 840-10 provides for the spread eagle only for the President, but in practice it is also used by the other officials just listed.)

The Navy practice is entirely different and stems from the use of flagstaff ornaments in boats to indicate the rank of passengers. Paragraph 1275 of US Navy Regulations and NTP-13 provide for a spread eagle to be used with both the ensign (and any personal flag or pennant) flown in a boat carrying an officer or official who rates an official salute of 19 guns or more. That includes the officials listed above down to and including Under Secretaries of Defense, as well as governors, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, ambassadors, other members of the Cabinet, the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and flag and general officers of five-star rank. Officers and officials rating salutes of 11 to 17 guns (i.e., other flag officers and Presidentially appointed officials) use a brass halberd atop the ensign and their personal flags. Navy captains (and colonels in the other services) rate a brass ball, commanders and lieutenant colonels a star, other officers a flat truck.

The practice with national flags displayed indoors in the Navy is less well regulated. Generally, the national flag is displayed with the same battle-ax finial used when it is carried in ceremonies as the national color. This is the practice followed for the flags displayed in the offices of the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations: the national flag has the battle-ax and the personal flag the finial appropriate to the individual's rank (in these cases, the eagle).

The eagle used by the Department of the Navy is of a different design than that used by the President, Vice President, and Department of Defense officials, in that the wings are slightly more elevated and the eagle faces forward rather than to its right.
Joseph McMillan, 31 May 1999

The custom regarding the Taiwanese flag: when the finial is a gold ball, it is the 'national flag'; when the finial is a silver spear, it is the 'naval flag'. Moreover, I am pretty sure that inside Taiwan the flag should never be fringed.
Miles Li, 11 September 2001

In Colombia, flags are used with finials, mainly government flags or military flags. Other pictures can be seen here: The term in Spanish (at least in common use, however it may not be correct in Heraldic terms) is "Terminación de astas" (Pole finial).
Esteban Rivera, 12 June 2011

The most commonly used finials in flags are spears (golden or silver), although other ornaments are used, such as halberds, among others. I'm speculating, as to whether this finials appeared for military use during the earl Middle Ages as part of pole weapons ( evolving from medieval club-like weapons, such as morning-star, or where actually just that, ornamental. Some are shown here:

Other ornaments (in gold or slver) in no particular nor Heraldic order are:
- Ball
- Flat Spear
- Army Spear
- Fleur De Lis
- Maple Leaf
- Perched (Spread) Eagle
- Aramaic Eagle
- Eagle on Ball
- Plain Cross
- Maltese Cross
- Botonee Cross
- Catholic Cross
- Jerusalem Cross
- Eastern Star (downward five-pointed star)
- Guiding Star (upward five-pointed star)
- Star of David
- Staff Spear
- Round Spear
- Elks Head
- Nazi Eagle inside spear
- Hammer, sickle and star inside spear
- Custom

For graphic ilustration of the different finials, please see the following:
Esteban Rivera, 12 June 2011

Myths about Finials

There are some myths about ornaments used at the head of a flag pole. Some crazies started a myth in the 1950s that the round ball commonly found on the head of outdoor flag poles in the United States contained a razor, lighter, or flare to be used in the event of a Soviet takeover to destroy the flag. This is of course sheer fantasy. The balls were in use long before there was a Cold War. Besides that, getting at the ball would have required considerable effort. Another myth is that the flat headed finials were designed to provide landing guidance for Alien space vehicles. The fact that those caps had been used long before Alien vehicles were contemplated is explained by saying that individual aliens were commonly sent ahead of the main wave by several generations so that humans wouldn't think any thing unusual about flat headed flag poles.
Phil Abbey, 7 October 1998


Fringe on national flags when they are used in parade or displayed indoors, are in the US added routinely.
John Niggley, 30 August 1995

That is more of a military regulation than a general indoor display. In Britain, cavalry standards and guidons have always had fringe, but with the reduction in size of infantry colours in 1858, fringe was added a year later (because the smaller flags had a "poor effect on parade)."
T.F. Mills, 30 August 1995

In the British Army, the use of fringe has been defined in Clothing Warrants and King's/Queen's Regulations. Cavalry standards and guidons have had fringe since at least the Civil War, and certainly from the beginning of the modern British Army in 1660. Infantry colours were fringeless until 1858 when their dimensions were reduced from 6'x5'6" to 4'x3'6". The army command decided that the embellishment of fringe would be helpful because the reduced size had "a poor effect on Parade".

Fringe on the smaller cavalry standards seems to have been common to all European armies since at least the early 18th century.

An interesting aside: I don't know much about Soviet/Russian army colours, but the Christian Science Monitor of 26 Oct. 1994 shows an intriguing photo of the Russian farewell parade in Berlin. Russian units still carried their fringed, red, hammer & sickle regimental colours, and a special colour guard carried a totally unembellished white/blue/red national colour. It would appear that the national colour had not yet been issued to regiments, nor had old Soviet regimental colours been replaced.
T.F. Mills, 4 April 1996

Here is an interesting story I always heard here in our workshop. Fringes have a reason. They are not just non-significant decorative things. They became decorative and useless in the beginning of modernism.

The origin lies in the fact that flags were kept in earlier eras much longer than now, and that even when they were worn out, or when the textile was only left as threads, they meant they had lived a life. This old life of threads, like grey long hairs, or old use had a more ritual meaning. This was the flag the generations before also used and a lot of the meaning had already flown away with the wind. But what's left was important enough as a witness of what really happened. So old flags weren't immediately sewn or hemmed again when they began to wear out. An old unraveled (frayed) flag was an object of respect. It was a kind of gift to the air that could be a messenger to other times. So in short, it's a cultural version of a kind of respect and what is sewn on an existing or new flag.
J. Cuelenaere, 18 March 2010

Although this sounds interesting, I rather doubt that fringes originated like that. Already the Roman vexillum (the only cloth flag of the Romans) showed a fringe at the bottom; and it was always depicted like that, even on small items like coins. So I guess it was already considered an important part of the flag. Now we should know (and I surely do not know) what was the cultural significance of a fringe to the ancient Romans.
Marcus Schmöger, 19 March 2010