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ENTIRELY HAND-SEWN, 13 STAR, U.S. NAVY SMALL BOAT ENSIGN WITH A DUSTY BLUE CANTON, SIGNED AND DATED, 1889

Web ID: 13j-1425
Available: In Stock
Frame Size (H x L): 66" x 40.5"
Flag Size (H x L): 54" x 28"
 
Description:
13 star American national flag of the type used by the U.S. Navy on small boats in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. The Navy produced signals in several locations, including Brooklyn, New York, Mare Island, California, Boston, and Cavite in the Philippine Islands. With but a few exceptions, such flags went unmarked until the 1880's and after. It was at this same time that the size of the stars increased significantly and this change in scale made a significant contribution to the flags’ visual presentation.

Made in the customary fashion of the time, and with its stars configured in a 3-2-3-2-3 arrangement, this example was probably made in New York. The reverse side of the coarse linen sleeve is stamped in black ink with the following text: “U.S. Ensign No. 8, Sept. 1889”. Although the location is unmarked, New York is the only point of origin that I know of in the late 1880’s where at least some of the flag produced by the Navy were being regularly signed.

Navy regulations of 1882-1899 list only 3 sizes of small boat flags as having been official during this period. At approximately 28 x 54 inches, the flag's measurements properly coincide with the prescribed scale of a No. 8 ensign, which was designated as 2.37 x 4.5 feet. This was the smallest of the 3 specified varieties. In fact, one of the flag's most appealing features is its small size when compared to others made for extended outdoor use during the 19th century. Printed parade flags (sometimes called hand-wavers) were made for short-term use and were generally three feet long or smaller, but flags with sewn construction were generally 8 feet long and larger. This is because most flags needed to be seen from a great distance to be effective in their purpose as signals. Both the Navy and the Army employed smaller flags for various purposes, but surviving examples fall between scarce and extremely rare.

Even flags made for decorative use were often very large by modern standards. Because the average pieced-and-sewn flag of this era is difficult to frame and display in an indoor setting, small flags like this one, especially with military attribution, are of special interest to collectors.

An unusual and very important feature of this particular flag is its entirely hand-sewn construction. Flags of this period are almost never entirely hand-sewn. The sewing machine was mass-marketed by Singer in 1855. Even among flags of the Civil War period (1861-65), I estimate that sixty-five to seventy percent of stripes were joined by treadle machine. By the 1890, the fraction would fall closer to ninety-eight percent.

Note how the coloration of the canton has faded to a dusty blue-grey. This is both an attractive feature and indicative of its date of manufacture. When this trait is present, it is most often encountered in flags that date between 1885 and 1895, and more often in the second half of that ten-year date bracket. The color is a result of what is known as a "fugitive" dye, which is one that breaks down chemically, of its own right, whether or not it has prolonged exposure to light. After 1895, either flag manufacturers caught on to the fugitive dye and ordered different wool, or the textile company that was producing it changed its dying process. In any event, flags that were made with this particular fabric and have survived to the present day, have an interesting presentation that many collectors find pleasant to the eye.

Why 13 Stars? As the number of stars grew with the addition of new states, it became more and more difficult to fit their full complement on a small flag. The stars would, by necessity, have to become smaller, which made it more and more difficult to view them from a distance as individual objects. The fear was that too many of them close together would become as one white mass and distort the ability to identify American ships on the open seas. Keeping the count low allowed for better visibility.

The U.S. Navy used 13 stars on its small-scale flags for precisely this reason, but flag experts disagree about the precisely when the Navy began to revert to 13 stars and other low counts for this practice. Some feel that the use of 13 star flags never stopped, which seems to be supported by depictions of ships in period artwork. This was, of course, the original number of stars on the first American national flag, by way of the First Flag Act of 1777, and equal to the number of original colonies that became states. Any American flag that has previously been official remains so according to the flag acts, so it remains perfectly acceptable to fly 13 star flags today by way of congressional law.

The star pattern used by the Navy on its 13 star small boat flags of the mid-1860's and prior typically arranged them in staggered lineal rows of 4-5-4. The transition to rows of 3-2-3-2-3 is not known with certainty. Some say it continued in this fashion until the 1870's, and some say the transition came in the latter part of the Civil War, perhaps 1863 or 1864. I am a fan of the latter theory, though there is evidence to support that some use of the 4-5-4 continued after the fact. Military traditions tend to die hard, even if there are regulations to the contrary.

In most cases the 3-2-3-2-3 design can also be viewed as a diamond of stars, with a star in each corner and a star in the very center. It is of interest to note that the 3-2-3-2-3 pattern can also be interpreted as a combination of the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George, which some feel could have been the design of the very first American flag and may identify a link between this star configuration and the British Union Jack. The pattern is often attributed--albeit erroneously in my opinion--to New Jersey Senator Francis Hopkinson, a member of the Second Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, who is credited with having played the most significant role in the original design of the American national flag. Hopkinson's original drawings for the design of the flag have not survived and his other depictions of 13 star arrangements for other devices are inconsistent.

In addition to their use on small Navy boats, 13 star flags have been flown throughout our nation’s history for a variety of purposes. They were hoisted at patriotic events, including Lafayette’s visit in 1825-26, the celebration of the nation’s centennial in 1876, and the Sesquicentennial in 1926. They were displayed during the Civil War, to reference past struggles for American liberty and victory over oppression, and were used by 19th century politicians in political campaigning for the same reason. Commercial flag-makers mirrored U.S. Navy practice on small scale flags beginning around 1890 and some private ships flew 13 star flags during the earlier periods. The use of yachting ensigns with a wreath of 13 stars surrounding a fouled anchor, which allowed pleasure boats to bypass customs between 1848 and 1980, persists today without an official purpose.

Although the official use of 13 star flags by the U.S. Navy theoretically ended in 1916, following an Executive Order of President Woodrow Wilson, as previously suggested, old military traditions die hard and according to at least one expert, Wilson’s order did not completely dispel the presence of 13 star flags on U.S. Navy craft.

Construction: The flag is entirely hand-sewn. The canton and stripes of the flag are made of wool bunting. The stars are made of cotton and are double-appliquéd (applied to both sides). The rectangular gussets (reinforced patches) at the top and bottom of the hoist end are original to the flag. These were included at the points where the flag would endure the most stress. There is a coarse linen sleeve along the hoist with four brass grommets, each of which is stamped with the following text: “Pat’d Aug. 26, 1884”. The presence of patent-dated grommets is a relatively consistent feature in the U.S. Navy flags of this period, but is basically nonexistent across all other flags that I have examined.

Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed in our own conservation department, which is led by masters degree trained staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples; more than anyone worldwide. Feel free to contact us for more details about how this particular flag was mounted.

The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color. The mount was placed in a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding, but this can be easily changed if you desire, to meet the needs of your particular design. The glazing is U.V. protective Plexiglas.

Condition: There is minor mothing below the canton, in a limited area between the 9th and 13th stripes, accompanied by a tiny amount elsewhere in the stripe field. There is minor bleeding of the red stripes into the white, but in a surprisingly attractive manner, and there is minor soiling. There are minor nicks and holes in the binding. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age gracefully. This is exceptional condition for a wool flag of this period, especially one that is entirely hand-sewn and especially rare.
   
Collector Level: Advanced Collectors and the Person with Everything
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 13
Earliest Date of Origin: 1889
Latest Date of Origin: 1889
State/Affiliation: 13 Original Colonies
War Association: 1866-1890 Indian Wars
Price: Please call (717) 676-0545 or (717) 502-1281
E-mail: info@jeffbridgman.com


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