Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags


An Article For “Focus”, The Semi-Annual Journal Of The Antiques Council, Winter 2006

by Jeff Bridgman, 2006

If you are looking for a Colonial / Revolutionary period 13 star flag, in other words, one made prior to the Treaty of Paris in 1783, or at the very least during the period when we had 13 states, prior to the 1791 addition of Vermont, I have some very bad news for you.  Almost none exist.  And those that are claimed to be of that time period are highly suspect until they are identified by one of the tiny hand few of people who are capable of the highly specialized task.  To put things in perspective, consider that there are currently only one or two 14 star flags are thought to exist that are period to when we had 14 states.  And although this was an unofficial star count, and our 15th state was added only one year later, only three period 15-star flags are known to exist.  Their time span was far longer. 

Kentucky became the fifteenth state in 1792 and our flag was officially changed from 13 to 15 stars in 1795.  It then remained official until 1818.  This is a rather long period for an official flag of these United States, but there are only three, period, 15-star, Stars & Stripes flags known?  That’s hard to believe but true all the same.  Most of us are quite familiar with at least one of the three.  This is the Star Spangled Banner, which is housed at the Smithsonian.  Made by Mary Pickersgill in 1813, the Star Spangled Banner, one of the earliest and most loved examples, is plainly not an 18th century flag.  Even the Smithsonian does not own a period 13 star flag.  And it is this mystifying statement that I always feel puts things in a very clear light with regard to the rarity of these very important, historic objects of our nation’s heritage.

The next thing to understand is that while there are almost no period examples, many thousands of early 13 star flags exist.  They simply don’t date to the 18th century.  In fact, many people are surprised to learn that 13 is one of the most common star counts on Stars & Stripes flags made in the 19th century.  They were produced for a whole host of patriotic as well as practical reasons and have been made throughout the entirety of our existence as a free nation.

One of the more prominent early uses of 13 star flags occurred in 1825-1826, when General Layfayette returned to the U.S. from France for America’s 50th birthday celebration.  He toured the states for the final time on that visit, and many parades were held in his honor in that two-year period.  13 star flags were made both to celebrate 50 years of American independence in 1926, as well as to commemorate Layfayette’s vital role in the freeing of our country from British rule.

13 star flags were carried by soldiers in both the Mexican War (1846-48) and the Civil War (1861-65), as a patriotic remembrance to our colonial struggle for freedom.  They were also used in flags made for early presidential campaigns.  Most notable are several varieties of printed flags (commonly called parade flags or hand-wavers), made to promote the presidential aspirations of William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  But one of the most common uses of 13 star flags was at sea.  The U.S. Navy used 13 star flags in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, of course, but they may have never entirely stopped using them until the 20th century.  The navy maintained the practice of using 13 star flags on small boats for a very long time. 

The reason was undoubtedly due to the hope of being consistent with naval ensigns on the open seas.  naval use was the purpose of creating a national flag in the first place, and land forces didn’t carry it with any regularity until much later.  As more and more states were added, and more stars were added to the flag, Naval officers were very concerned that foreign ships might become confused and the safety of American ships could be jeopardized.  Many foreign sailors would neither know nor care how we divided up our land for governmental purposes.  No other nation had a flag that was going to be subject to such regular change and many foreign captains and pirates would be poorly informed of regular changes in an object that, for other nations, remained fairly constant.  So it was that large Stars & Stripes flags often carried the full star count, because it was easier to recognize them, but small 13 star flags were used on small flags especially, which were harder to see through a spyglass.  And though the reasons for their use are not well documented, one can be certain that the difficulty in sewing smaller and smaller stars, and more and more of them, also played a role in the U.S. Navy’s hesitation to change smaller flags.

Universal use of 13 star flags on small navy boats seems to have been more limited in the first half of the 19th century, and prior to the Civil War (1861-65).  Captains using what was at hand and/or what they chose in the early periods.  Flags become destroyed quite quickly at sea and require regular repair or replacement.  Many naval ships actually flew flags with other star counts, such as 20 stars and 16 stars (for reasons I won’t explain here, in the interest of clarity).  But the practice of using 13 stars seems to have become more standardized, or at least followed with much more regularity, sometime in the 1860’s.  Many flags have survived from small navy boats in the period between the Civil War and the early 20th century.  I encounter them frequently.  That said, most people have never seen one of this period, and may never seen one, which makes them interesting objects to own.

Little is written about the use of 13 star flags by the navy, as I said, but as time progressed and methods of international communication improved, the reason for the use of 13 star flags on small boats probably became more of a tradition than a necessity.  It wasn’t until 1916, however, that President Woodrow Wilson wrote an executive order that terminated their use entirely in favor of 48 star flags.  But even this did not completely put an end to it.  According to at least one flag historian, Wilson’s order was not immediately accepted on all navy ships.  Old habits die hard.

By far the greatest time of private use of 13 star flags in the 19th century was in celebration of our nation’s 100-year anniversary of independence in 1876.  All manner of 13 star flags were made for the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, which was a World’s Fair event of massive scale.  13 star flag were not only made for the fair, of course, but were also produced for general celebrations of this important anniversary nationwide.  Some of these flags resemble the navy’s flags, which were unmarked during this era, so it can be difficult to distinguish the public flags from the ones made for private use.  Certain characteristics are present in most homemade flags that aid in their identification, yet by the 1870’s, most flags were commercially made and, like the navy’s flags, were also unmarked.

Beginning around 1890, the owners of many private yachts started to fly 13 star flags, a practice that lasted at least into the 1920’s.  The use of yachting ensigns, with a wreath of 13 stars surrounding an anchor, had begun in 1855 at the New York Yacht Club.  So there had already been private use of another 13-star design for a long time, both on rivers and at sea.  People who are not educated about early flags often misidentify these 13-star anchor ensigns as U.S. Navy flags.  The use of these ensigns has continued into the 20th and 21st centuries, and still persists today.  Widespread use of the 13 star private yacht flags without anchors, however, generally ceased much earlier, ending in the 1920’s.  Most of these flags are small, between three and four feet long.  And some of the same small flags were certainly flown at our 150-year anniversary of independence from Britain in 1926.  So as in 1826 and 1876, the nation’s Sesquicentennial was yet another reason to make 13 star flags for private use.

Both woven and printed silk ribbon with repeating images of 13-star flags were made for Civil War veteran’s medals, political campaign items, and other decorative badges in the period between 1876 and 1910.  These were also worn on lapels with the aid of hat-pins for staffs.  Other small 13 star flags, both cloth and paper, were made for all manner of uses, including souvenirs for cruise lines, decorations for cakes and for feather trees at Christmastime.  From the turn-of-the-century through 1950, all sizes were made for annual Independence Day celebrations, and in even larger numbers when other patriotic events simultaneously occurred, such as the  Spanish American War (1898), WWI (1917-1918) and WWII (1941-1945).  Thousands upon thousands were made for the Bicentennial in 1976, and we are still making 13 star flags today, for the 4th of July, especially, but also for general decorative use.

Even with so many obvious reasons to have made 13 star flags throughout our history, and even with so many of them currently being made today, older 13 star flags are continually misrepresented as being of Colonial / Revolutionary vintage.  A major and well-respected West Coast auction house sold one about three years ago.  It was a late 19th century flag with machine-sewn stripes.  The earliest use of sewing machines on flags in the U.S. was probably in the late 1840’s, and machine-sewing is seldom seen in flags made before the Civil War. 

This type of misdating is not uncommon, because 13 star flags are so poorly understood.  They usually think that such a flag, if it looks old, could only have been made when we had 13 states.  Sometimes they want it to be period so badly that they can see no other explanation.  There is no question that our flag deeply stirs the hearts of many Americans, and with this passion sometimes comes a degree of blindness and/or hope.  It’s a thus common mistake to misdate early Stars & Stripes flags in general, even among reputable auction houses and dealers.

The leading book for flag collectors for many years was “The Stars & The Stripes”, by Boleslaw and Marie Louise Mastai.  On the primary cover page of their book is a 13 star flag that they claim to be Colonial.  I owned that flag, and I only wish that I could claim it were so.  The same story is true with regard to some of the other 13 star flags in the Mastai collection, some of which I have also owned.  So even those persons who seem well-acquainted with early flags can and do make mistakes, especially those with 13 stars. 

The best example of this is the Smithsonian itself, which once claimed to own a period example.  When someone finally examined the flag properly for the purposes of dating it, it was found to be later.  Harold Langely, noted flag expert and a director of naval history at the Smithsonian, has been reported to say that he considers this to be one of the Smithsonian’s greatest embarrassments.  But let me be the first to come to their defense.  I know first-hand how difficult it is to manage so many objects.  Diligent as we all try to be, we are all human.  And the staff at the Smithsonian, who were hardly the first to make the error, should be commended for correcting it rather than allowed it to persist.

Now I have described why and when 13 star flags were made, but what did they look like?  Most people don’t realize that we don’t know how the stars were actually configured on the first American national flag.  We are fairly certain, however, that the stars did not form a circle.  Most people simply assume that the 13-star, perfect circle, “Betsy Ross” flag appeared at the onset of the Revolution.  In fact, the American flag as we know it did not come about until 1777, and even then was probably not produced in great quantity.  So few Stars and Stripes from colonial times exist that three or fewer examples are thought to be in private hands.  Including those represented in museums, I believe that the total dating to the period when we had 13 states is probably nearer to zero than it is to twenty.  No qualified person has ever traveled the world to inspect every one of them with a claim to be period, prove that each one dates to the 18th century, and arrive at a total. 

There’s a great project for a Winterthur fellow or some other museum expert-in-training.  Some of the ones that were examined, and were long thought to be 18th century, were subsequently proved to be much later.  Most notable among these is the Bennington flag.  This familiar design, much reproduced in 1976 for the Bicentennial, has an arch of 13 stars in its canton over the numerals “76”.  Once though to be the earliest surviving Stars & Stripes, it was proved by flag expert Grace Rogers Cooper of the Smithsonian, to be no earlier then the 1840’s.  And my suspicions are that it is actually a centennial flag made with some 1840’s fabrics.  In my experience with early Stars & Stripes, this would make much more sense, as similarities exist between the Bennington flag and other centennial designs, while I know of no flags with “76” in the canton or stripes made before 1876.  Nor is the number “76” typically included in earlier textiles, whether of pieced construction or printed, homemade or otherwise.

What we do know about colonial 13 star flags is that none have a circle of stars like the Betsy Ross design.  There is a 1779-1780 painting of George Washington, by Charles Wilson Peale, that depicts, in the background, a flag with a perfect circle pattern of stars.  This flag has a blue field and stars, but no stripes.  It may be the only evidence in a painting that truly suggests that a circle-pattern flag may have existed in the Revolutionary period, yet it wasn’t a Stars and Stripes, and Peale may have used some artist’s liberty in its inclusion.  Peale was known to be very detailed and keen on accuracy, but he made at least 4 copies of the painting prior to 1782, one of which shows the Battle of Trenton in the background instead of the Battle of Princeton, like the original, so he obviously wasn’t opposed to alterations.  There are paintings of Revolutionary scenes by other artists that depict Stars and Stripes flags with perfect circle patterns, but these were painted in the 19th century and so can not be trusted for their authenticity with respect to the star configurations.  The American flag does not have a circle of stars on any of the early naval flag charts, where numerous designs are pictured.

There are colonial currencies that show a Stars and Stripes in the Betsy Ross pattern, but there are no actual flags.  In fact, most people are shocked to learn that I have never seen or heard of an American flag with the Betsy Ross pattern of stars that was, with any degree of certainty, made before the 1890’s.  And if the original was in this form, with so many 13 star flags existing from the 19th century, it stands to reason that the pattern would have been reproduced.  The design is now believed by most scholars to be a creation of Betsy Ross’s grandchildren in the 1870-90 period.  Ross’s nephew is first known to have statements about the design in Philadelphia in 1876, revealing the story of the making of the first flag and Betsy’s involvement.  But most flag scholars today feel the story was a grand hoax, fabricated by Ross’s nephew, for his own interests.  In the late 1890’s through the first decade of the 20th century, Betsy’s granddaughter and great granddaughter made flags in the East Wing of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, selling them to tourists and proliferating the same story.  The Betsy Ross house was opened to the public and carried on the belief concerning her use of the circular design.  In short, the story stuck and has subsequently appeared in more books than one can count.

Though Betsy did make early flags and there are receipts to prove it, most flag historians believe that Betsy did not even design or make the first flag.  The credit is rather placed on one of our founding fathers, Francis Hopkinson, native Philadelphian, Delegate to the Continental Congress, and signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Hopkinson was a member of the Continental Navy Board in 1776, designed many pieces of artwork for Congress, and logic would suggest that he might have been given the task of designing the flag.

The truth is that it was not so important an event, at least at the time, as nearly every American today might be inclined to suspect.  The purpose of the flag was to identify American ships.  Period.  Some haste was needed in light of the war, and many other tasks were deemed far more urgent.  The topic took so little of Congress’s time, in fact, that it was barely even recorded.  No detail was given on the configuration of the stars, and no more details on that topic would follow until the 20th century.  That’s also hard for people to believe, but true just the same.  The first official star configuration wouldn’t come until 1912, one hundred and thirty-five years after the first flag act.  It was introduced by an executive order of the president, rather than by an act of Congress, a method which I personally find surprising since that is still the way it would be done today if a new state was added.

In 1780, Hopkinson claimed to have attended to the task of designing the flag.  He submitted a bill for which he was never paid.  But Ross vs. Hopkinson aside, the point is that no record exists of what the first flag actually looked like after it was made.  The stars may not even have had five points, as most recoded designs of the 18th century did not, let alone have been configured in a perfect circle.  There was no big unveiling ceremony, recorded in drawings and paintings.  Further, and more importantly, if the design was a circle of stars, it would have been reproduced, probably with great frequency, and it would likely be pictured on flag charts.  The flag was a tool for signaling to other ships, utilitarian in its purpose and highly varied in its appearance according to what little surviving records there are of its existence in America’s earliest days.

So when you find an old 13-star flag, what are its chances of being period?  Well, you probably have a better chance of matching six numbers in your state lottery, or stumbling across an original draft of the Declaration of Independence at a Pennsylvania flea market. 

So if you are still in search of a colonial example of what we now call the Betsy Ross design, happy hunting to you.  And don’t forget to call me first if you think you’ve hit the jackpot.