Both swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Gabby Douglas were spotted during Olympic medal ceremonies standing with their hands to their sides while the Star Spangled Banner was played. Some social media users called them rude or unpatriotic for not holding their hands over the hearts, but that was not the intention. It was just a temporary oversight, and both had been to the winner’s podium several times before. So why do we do it, anyway? According to the U.S. Flag Code, Americans are supposed to face the flag during the National Anthem and place the right hand over the heart. However, the code is not law, and there are no penalties for not following it. Free speech and all that, you know. The code was enacted in 1942, and it changed the way we saluted the flag before then.
Originally known as the Bellamy Salute, the gesture came to be in the 1890s, when the Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis J. Bellamy. The Christian socialist minister was recruited to write a patriotic pledge to the American flag as part of magazine mogul Daniel Sharp Ford’s quest to get the flag into public schools.
At the time, as Jeffrey Owen Jones reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2003, Bellamy and his boss both agreed that the Civil War had divided American loyalties and that the flag might be able to bridge those gaps. His campaign centered around the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the new world. He published his new Pledge as part of a unified Columbus Day ceremony program in September 1892 in the pages of the Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine with a circulation of 500,000.
“At a signal from the Principal,” Bellamy wrote, “the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, 'I pledge allegiance to my Flag…'”
You can see what that salute looked like in the image, which was taken in 1915. Read the story of why and how that was changed at Smithsonian.