|13 star flag of the type made from roughly the last decade of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th. The stars are arranged in the circular wreath pattern most often associated with Betsy Ross. Flags in this design are widely admired, due to the longstanding popularity of the Betsy Ross myth. While many Americans were taught in grammar school that this was what our first flag looked like, there is unfortunately no way to prove the claim. No colonial examples have survived with this pattern of stars. In fact, I have encountered just a couple of examples of Betsy Ross pattern flags which I feel pre-date the 1890's.
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 stars would appear as one white mass at a distance and distort the ability to identify American ships on the open seas.
The U.S. Navy flew 13 star flags on small craft for precisely this reason. 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. To the Navy, a small flag generally meant anything short of 10 feet. Prior to the 1890’s, the smallest sewn flags encountered with any regularity were approximately 6 feet on the fly. Because the primary use had long been more utilitarian than decorative, flags needed to be large to be effective as signals. Private use grew with the passage of time, however, as did worldwide ability to recognize the American flag, both of led to the production of flags of smaller scale.
Beginning around 1890, commercial flag-makers began to produce smaller flags for the first time in large quantities. These typically measured either 2.5 x 4 feet, or 2 x 3 feet (like this example). Applying the same logic as the Navy, they selecting the 13 star count rather than the full complement of stars, for sake of ease and visibility. Any flag that has previously been official remains so according to the flag acts, so even today 13 star flags remain official national flags of the United States of America.
The 13 star count has been used throughout our nation's history for a variety of other 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, as well as for annual celebrations of Independence Day. They were displayed during the Civil War, to reference past struggles for American liberty, and were used by 19th century politicians while campaigning for the same reason. 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.
One of the interesting misconceptions about 13 star flags is that the Betsy Ross pattern, even if not the original design, must have been common in early America. Logic would suggest this, given the frequency with which it appears in modern times, but this isn’t actually the case. In fact, the pattern is seldom encountered anywhere until much later. Exceptions include a 1779-1780 painting of George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, by Charles Willson Peale, that depicts in the background a flag that appears to have a circular wreath of stars, but no stripes. This is one of the few appearances of a circular pattern in a work period to the Revolutionary War, yet it wasn’t the national flag and Peale may have used some artist’s liberty in its inclusion. While known to be especially detailed and keen on accuracy, he made at least four copies of the painting prior to 1782, one of which shows the Battle of Trenton in lieu of Princeton (the original), so he obviously wasn’t opposed to alterations. Trumbull, included a flag with what may be a circular pattern in a 1787 painting of the Battle of Yorktown but the flag is waving and it is not known if the intended design is circular or oval.
Francis Hopkinson, credited designer of the Stars & Stripes, actually rendered a circular pattern of 13 eight-pointed stars, presented like the rowels of a spur, on a piece of 1778 Philadelphia currency. This did not show a flag and was not part of one. He included a similar rendering, surrounding a liberty cap, on a 1778 draft for the seal of the U.S. Board of War, but there is a flag affixed to the liberty pole on which the cap rests, and the flag, which displays only stars, arranges them in a 4-3-4-2 lineal pattern.
The only surviving 18th-century illustration of a 13 star, Stars & Stripes with a circular wreath and no center star, appears in a sketch by William Barton, which served as his 2nd draft for the Great Seal of the United States, presented to the 3rd Committee designated to select it. Though it does not survive, Barton’s first draft is also said to have included such a flag. The final draft was not rendered by Barton, but by Congressional Secretary Charles Thompson, who included no flags, but did include an arrangement of 13 stars above the head of a federal eagle, placed in a random pattern. It is of interest to note that Francis Hopkinson produced some of the initial drafts of the seal, which also included 13 stars in a random scatter (fig. 4).
One of the best arguments against the Betsy Ross pattern having appeared on the original flag is illustrated by the fact that so many 13 star flags exist without it. If the Ross design was the original, it stands to reason that the pattern would have been reproduced with at least some degree of frequency. Most people are surprised to learn, however, that one will rarely encounter an American flag with the Betsy Ross pattern that was, with any degree of certainty, made before the 1890s. In fact, I have owned just one that I have claimed to pre-date the last decade of the 19th century.
Research conducted by the National Museum of American History notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the very first American flag for General George Washington, in the company of George Ross and Robert Morris, entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 centennial. The tale was immensely popular among an American public eager for stories about the Revolution and its heroes. The first documentation of it appeared shortly beforehand, in 1870, in a paper written by Betsy’s grandson, William Canby, for the Pennsylvania Historical Society. At the time, Canby made no mention of how the flag was designed, save for the fact that it had 5-pointed stars, per his grandmother’s suggestion. Because no earlier documentation supports the story, most flag scholars feel it was a grand hoax, fabricated by Canby for his own interests. Nothing survives in the collective writings of the three men, for example, nor in records of their words and deeds, which are fairly extensive. As with most things, reality is perhaps somewhere in the middle ground, with some of the details based on fact and some on fiction, made up, misinterpreted, or imagined from family accounts.
The first time that a star configuration gets attached to the Ross story appears to have occurred during the last decade of the 19th century. In 1892, Charles Weisgerber painted a nine-by-twelve-foot rendition of the fabled meeting between Betsy and George Washington, in which there is a flag with a circular wreath. Shortly afterwards, in 1898, Betsy’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter began to make flags in the East Wing of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, selling them to tourists while disseminating the family folk tale. In that same year, Weisgerber and a “group of concerned citizens” sought to preserve Betsy’s former Philadelphia residence at 239 Arch Street, where she lived at the time the flag would have been sewed. Weisgerber moved his family into the house and immediately opened to the public the room in which Betsy was said to have worked her magic. Ten-cent memberships were sold to fund renovations and donors received a small calendar, to which a cotton 13 star Betsy Ross pattern parade flag was affixed. The effects of these events caused the Ross legend to stick and the story, with the corresponding flag design, has appeared ever since in more places than one could ever hope to count.
Construction: The canton and stripes of the flag are made of wool bunting that has been pieced with machine stitching. The stars are made of cotton and double-appliquéd (applied to both sides) with a zigzag machine stitch. There is a twill cotton binding along the hoist with two brass grommets.
Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed in our own textile 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. Feel free to contact us for more details.
The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color. The black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed molding is Italian. The glazing is U.V. protective Plexiglas.
Condition: There is minor mothing throughout, accompanied by a modest degree adjacent to the hoist binding. There is moderate foxing and staining along the hoist binding and minor of the same in the stars. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age.