|13 STARS WITH SHORT, CONICAL ARMS ON A SMALL SCALE SHIP'S COMMISSION PENNANT WITH UNUSUAL WIDTH, PROBABLY MADE FOR A PRIVATE YACHT, CA 1896-1908, POSSIBLY MADE BY J.S. OBERHOLZER, PHILADELPHIA
|Frame Size (H x L):||Approx. 20.5" x 66"|
|Flag Size (H x L):||9.5" x 55" (as folded), approx. 72" unfurled|
|Commission pennants are the distinguishing mark of a commissioned U.S. Navy ship. Flown at the topmast, the typical American format is a long blue field, usually with a single row of white stars, although sometimes with their total divided into two rows, followed by two long stripes, red-over-white. A ship became commissioned when this pennant was hoisted. Flown during both times of peace and war, the only time the pennant is not flown is if a flag officer or civilian official was aboard and replaced it with their own flag.
Commissioning pennants were once very important in their role as signals and thus needed to be seen from great distance. During the 18th and 19th centuries, some reached as long as a hundred feet. Sometime around 1910, the function of commission pennants leaned away from identification and more toward ceremony and custom. By WWI (U.S. involvement 1917-18) most ranged between just four and six feet in length. Today the largest examples measure two-and-a-half inches by six feet.
Early on, commission pennants had a number of stars equal to that on the national flag. As more and more states joined the Union, however, it became impractical to use the full complement of stars, especially on smaller examples. During the mid-late 19th century, many substituted 13 stars for the full count, to reflect the original colonies. This mirrored the star count used by the Navy on most of the Stars & Stripes flags that it flew on small craft. "U.S. Navy small boat ensigns," as they are called, most often had 13 stars.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the smallest examples sometimes displayed just 7 stars. By WWI, all shared the 7 star count. I once suspected this the number might reference the "7 Seas", though this is an ancient term and geographers disagree on the precise meaning. The number may just as likely have represented what seemed like a logical design choice when the overall length was substantially shortened. According to the U.S. Navy, the reason for the choice of 7 stars was not recorded.
This particular pennant is unusually wide for one that measures just 6 feet in length. Instead of displaying 7 stars in a single row, like most 6-foot examples, it displays 13 stars in 2 rows, one with a count of 7 and one with 6.
Some commission pennants came to a point at the fly end, like this, but almost never is this encountered on such a small flag. Typically the form is divided at the fly into a forked swallowtail. Both the unusual girth and the wedged shape might suggest to even a well educated flag enthusiast that this might not be a commission pennant at all, but rather some sort of yacht ensign or patriotic bunting. But the circumstances of its discovery, along with a 45 star nautical jack (a rectangular flag, blue with white stars, displayed while the ship was at port or anchor), obviously produced by the same maker, thankfully reveal its true purpose. It also helps pinpoint the date as congruent with the 45 star count, between 1896-1908.
While commission pennants and jacks were the most basic of Naval signals (beyond the national flag), they were also displayed by yachtsmen, many of whom followed Navy practices, as well as Hudson River Steamships, which often flew a plethora of visually interesting flags, more for dress than for practical purpose.
The tiny size of both the pennant and the jack (which measured just 2 feet on the fly), and the lack of common military construction, regulation measurements, or expected attributes for the period, suggests use on a private yacht.
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) with a zigzag, machine stitch. There is a twill cotton binding along the hoist. All of the stitching was done by machine, possibly treadle in the case of the stripes and hoist.
Note how the stars have an interesting shape with unusually short, conical arms. This profile is sometimes encountered on flags of this particular era, but is uncommon. I once acquired a small 13 star flag made by Betsy Ross's great-granddaughter, Sarah M. Wilson, in Philadelphia, who sometimes signed her flags along their white cotton hoists with her name, date, and place of manufacture. As an alternative to signing the sleeve, she sometimes signed a small piece of paper and gave it to the purchaser. In this particular case, however, she had chosen to sign a heavy cardboard star pattern to accompany her flag. The star pattern was of this design.
I also bought and sold a 44 star flag with the same peculiar stars. Along the hoist binding was a stamped maker's mark that read: "J.S. Oberholtzer; 5837 Pulaski Avenue; Germantown [Philadelphia], PA," which tends to denote a further correlation between this unusual star shape and Philadelphia area manufacture. I have owned other flags with these stars, sewn in the same manner, but the Oberholtzer example was the only signed one among them.
Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.
The background fabric is hemp. Three-dimensional folds were added in the stripes and a shadowbox was created to accommodate the mount. The substantial, rectangular molding has unusual depth and is of Italian origin. To this a rippled profile molding, black with gold highlights, was added as a liner. The glazing is U.V. protective plexiglass. Feel free to contact us for more details.
Condition: Exceptional for a wool flag of the period. There is minor mothing along one edge of the white stripe and there is very minor foxing and staining in limited areas.
|Collector Level:||Intermediate-Level Collectors and Special Gifts|
|Flag Type:||Sewn flag|
|Earliest Date of Origin:||1896|
|Latest Date of Origin:||1908|
|State/Affiliation:||13 Original Colonies|
|War Association:||1898 Spanish American War|
|Price:||Please call (717) 676-0545 or (717) 502-1281|