As a certified genius (twice over), I am often called upon to use my knowledge to answer some trifling question or settle some dispute, such as this past week, when a friendly acquaintance inquired as to the proper method of disposal of an American flag.
The short answer, of course, is that a flag that is no longer fit for display should be ‘destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning,’ as per the United States Flag Code.
But there is a much lesser-known (and in many ways, a much more interesting) history of flag disposal, about which I will now endeavor to tell you.
The U.S. Department of Flags, Banners and Bunting, in an 1895 pamphlet titled, ‘Cheer It With Fervid Elation,’ does not make mention of disposal of flags by fire. Instead, it describes a complicated ritual in which two bald eagles would, ‘in majestic austerity,’ grip opposite corners of the flag with their talons and ‘pull [the flag] in twain by matter of force.’ During these proceedings, all adult males were mandated to salute the flag and stand in reverent silence while women were permitted to sob quietly.
In practice, however, even the most stoic men would often be moved to tears by the sight. Famed American essayist J.S. Burke had the good fortune of seeing the ceremony performed once in 1898. It would be an experience that would stay with him his whole life; in 1922, he recalled, ‘It was a sight to make the angels weep!’
But long after human tears had been dried and crowds had dispersed, the ceremony was just beginning for the two bald eagles, who would part ways and fly, still clutching the torn halves of the flag, nearly 1,500 miles in opposite directions to the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans (the ceremony was always held in Coffeyville, Kansas for reasons I’ll discuss later). Upon reaching their destinations, the eagles would throw itself into the ocean, sacrificing their lives for American decorum.
This may sound a little absurd to the contemporary reader. With about 57 million modern American households owning at least one flag, even assuming an average lifespan of five years per flag (surely the actual number is much closer to four and a half), we would be killing over 22 million bald eagles every year. With only 70,000 bald eagles alive on Earth, this would understandably pose a problem.
What you are neglecting to take into account is that flags were not always as readily available as they are today. An obscure provision of the Compromise of 1877 required that the only flags manufactured in the United States at that time be sewn by female descendents of Betsy Ross.
When this provision went into effect, an exceptionally large number of Ross’ great-granddaughters were living in Coffeyville, Kansas. Many years earlier, one of Ross’ three daughters had moved there and given birth to seven daughters. These seven daughters had married seven brothers named McCoy (this marriage was a source of endless humor to Kansans at the time, and it would later provide a very loose inspiration for the musical ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’).
Even in 1896, when flag production in Coffeyville was at its peak, the 33 daughters of the McCoy Rosses were producing only 20 flags a day. With so few flags in circulation, it was a very rare day indeed that more than a dozen flags would be returned to Coffeyville for disposal (especially when considering the superior craftsmanship of flags in that day), and it was rarely questioned that 8,750 bald eagles per year was an acceptable sacrifice.
About 75 percent of these eagles were bred locally in Coffeyville, helping greatly to revive the local economy, which had been all but decimated by the ill-advised purchase of a mule that was purportedly able to add and subtract. (It was later revealed that the mule knew only how to divide, and even then with only 80 percent accuracy.)
The remaining 25 percent of the ceremonial eagles were trapped in Canada and imported to the United States. Mark Twain is reported to have written a rather humorous short story concerning a well-to-do Southern gentleman who loses his fortune betting on steamboat races and travels to Canada to pursue a career as an eagle-trapper. But like so many beautiful things in this world, this story has been lost to us.
The advent of the Spanish-American War in 1898 effectively put an end to this bizarre tradition, when William McKinley, in an effort to raise funds for the war and to cope with rising demand for flags amid the patriotic frenzy, began selling licenses allowing ordinary citizens to manufacture flags on their own.
For a few more years, the folks in Coffeyville struggled in vain to keep alive their flag industry, advertising that their flags were of superior quality, and giving rise to the idiom ‘the real McCoy,’ meaning ‘the genuine article.’
Although such attempts to revive business were ultimately unsuccessful, there was a happy ending for the people of Coffeyville. Shortly after the doors of the McCoy Flag Concern finally closed on July 5, 1901, the town council arranged for the sale of Clarice the Dividing Mule to the Ringling Brothers Circus for a handsome sum.
There was no happy ending for the thousands of bald eagles who bravely gave their lives for their country and who are all but forgotten today. Won’t you please shed a tear for their sacrifice?