|33 STARS, LATER UPDATED TO 35, WITH A RARE AND INTERESTING DIAMOND CONFIGURATION, ACCOMPANIED BY HAND-WRITTEN NOTES THAT RECORD IT AS HAVING BEEN FLOWN IN CELEBRATION OF WARTIME VICTORIES, AS WELL AS TO MOURN THE DEATH OF THREE PRESIDENTS, MADE BY MRS. JOHN DUNN OF MILES GROVE, PENNSYLVANIA (ERIE COUNTY) , IN 1861
|Frame Size (H x L):||Approx. 67" x 109"|
|Flag Size (H x L):||56" x 98"|
|Diamond-shaped star configurations are some of the most rare and interesting that exist on early Stars & Stripes, comprising less than one in one thousand flags that were made during the 19th century. This is one reason why this extraordinary 33 star pattern, later updated to 35 stars, is so important among surviving examples. Of equal importance is the existence of two hand-written notes, penned by members of the Dunn Family. The flag was found in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in the Northwest corner of the state, near Erie. The earlier of the two notes reads as follows:
“This flag was made in 1861 by Mrs. John Dunn. It was flung to the breeze for our Union Victories and lowered at half mast at the death of our martyred presidents, Lincoln & Garfield.”
To which further verbiage was later amended:
“Draped for Pres. McKinley, assassinated at Pan-American, Sept. 6, 1901.”
A later note adds to the flag’s history. It reads:
“This flag was hung on the same pole, in the same place, and floated over the our house on November 11th, 1918 to add to the Celebration of “Peace Victory,” of the World War.” [signed] Helen F. Dunn.
The presence of these two documents adds important specific history to an outstanding Civil War flag. The 1861 date is consistent with the information that can be gleaned from the configuration of stars. The original design would have consisted of the 5 by 5 square, turned on the diagonal in the center to create a diamond, plus two stars outside this pattern, lined up on the opposing diagonal and thus flanking in each corner.
Note how this pattern creates a distinct saltire that runs from corner-to-corner of the canton, with a single star in the very center. While this element can express Southern Sympathies in some Civil War era flags, its presence here, in the early part of 1861, at a time when the star count was officially 33, is merely coincidental. The Southern Cross, as it would come to be known, remained basically unknown until later that year.
Use of a saltire at such an early date in the war would either reflect the simple artistic preferences of the maker for a design that was visually interesting, or one that reflected something about the maker, perhaps with respect to his/her national heritage. Dunn is an Irish name and, in this instance, might very well replicate the Cross of St. Patrick, in use from 1783 to 1801 to display Ireland's legislative independence from Britain, and included on the British Union Flag (a.k.a., Union Jack) from 1801 onward to represent Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, conjoined with the similar emblems of Britain, Wales, and Scotland.
The name Helen F. Dunn of Miles Grove, Pennsylvania (b. 02/18/1841, d. 03/21/1935, interred at Erie Cemetery), appears in the "Journal of the Fifth National Convention of the Women's Relief Corps, Auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic, St. Louis, Missouri, Sept. 28, 29, 30, and Oct. 1, 1887" (George Spaulding & Co., Printers, San Francisco), p. 28. Dunn is recorded as a delegate to the convention, with her place of residence listed. The Grand Army of the Republic, or G.A.R., was the primary association for Union, Civil War veterans. As a member of the women's auxiliary to the organization, Dunn would have been exactly the sort of patriotic individual that was likely to sew a homemade flag during the war.
Helen's direct relationship to the war is unknown. A man by the name of John G. Drum enlisted with the 83rd Pennsylvania infantry on August 26th, 1861, noting his residence as Erie County. Mustering into Company E, he would be wounded at Gaines' Mill, Virginia, on June 27th, 1862, and died of the resulting wounds as a POW on August 12th at Richmond. Helen would have been 20 years old at the time of his enlistment and this may have been Helen's husband. If so, the marriage may have taken place in haste, before he mustered out. If this was the case, that might explain why I have been unable to locate record of the marriage. It would also explain why I was unable to trace anything with regards to the couple following the war.
Although her intent within the design is unrecorded, many flags of this period were made with embedded symbolism, employed to subtly or sometimes not-so-subtly, to display various things. Since there was no official configuration of stars until 1912, the makers of flags took all manner of liberties, both to send messages and create beautiful imagery. Sometimes stars were removed to reflect only those states that the maker felt were loyal to the Union, and sometimes the reverse of that was done in the South, where the Stars & Stripes was altered to Confederate purpose. The number of stripes might likewise be changed for political meaning, and verbiage or images were occasionally added within the striped field and/or the canton.
The two stars that were added later are rather conspicuous, flanking each side of the outstretched arm in the upper, hoist-end side of the diamond. These are not applied any differently than the rest, or with different fabric. This is probably because the transition from 33 to 35 stars occurred within less than 3 years. The fact that they look so similar would thus be a simple matter of the original maker adding them by the same method, with the same fabric, soon after the original manufacture. Given the care with which this flag was used, saved, and its history carefully recorded, the addition seems logical, especially during wartime.
Note how the inclusion of the 34th and 35th stars lends a modernistic sensibility to the design, providing a degree of movement that makes it difficult for one’s eye to fully rest on the pattern. Also note how the stars point in various directions on their vertical axis, which adds further visual interest.
Of even greater impact are the color and texture of the fabrics. The canton is a beautiful shade of indigo, nearly a Prussian blue. The shade of the red in the stripes is similar to the rich orange found in Navaho rugs of the 1880's -1900 period, with persimmon overtones. This is actually an iridescent fabric, made from a cotton and wool blend, woven with natural colored fibers on the warp and red on the weft. The combination results in the unusual hue and lustrous finish. The blue is likewise a wool and cotton blend with rich texture.
These particular fabrics are not common among the Civil War period flags I have handled, which supports a date of origin as being early 1861 or prior, as well as an original count of 33 stars. Oregon joined the Union as the 33rd state on February 14th (Valentine's Day), 1859 and the 33 star flag became official on July 4th of that year. Kansas came as a Free State on January 9th, 1861. Generally the makers of flags added stars immediately when the state was added, if not before in hopeful anticipation. So when the Civil War broke out in April of 1861, even the federal government abandoned the 33 star count in favor of 34. The state was already in and proper update of the flag was inevitable. Prior to Independence Day, anyone may have elected to stick to the official star count, but few did.
After the war broke out, suppliers of textiles worked fervently to meet the demands of wartime manufacture. This led to greater consistency in flag-making in both home and cottage industry settings. Homemade flags were typically made of cotton, often with a merino wool canton, while commercially-made flags were usually made of wool bunting or silk, the former with cotton stars and the latter applied with gilt paints. Flags made prior to the war are more likely to survive in the 33 star count and are more likely to be constructed from fabrics that are unusual to see in wartime flags.
Both the white stars and the stripes of the flag are made of plain weave cotton. The stars are double-appliquéd (applied to both sides) with a combination of hand and treadle stitching. Some are hand-sewn on one side and treadle-sewn on the other, while one, at least, is hand-sewn on three of its points, though treadle-sewn on the remaining two, as if the maker could not decide what was easier. The sewing machine had only been mass-marketed since 1855, just a few years prior, so it is easy to see why any good seamstress might be eager to use a machine to sew the straight seams necessary for the stripes, yet hesitant to try to appliqué a star while pumping the treadle, turning the edges of the fabric under, and turning the canton, all at the same time. Due to the inherent difficulty, stars would generally be sewn by hand until the 1890's, when electric machines were introduced.
The stripes of the flag are pieced and sewn treadle stitching, as is the blue binding that runs along the top, bottom, and fly ends. The binding of the hoist end, which surrounds a braided hemp rope, was done by hand, as was the application of white wool herringbone weave tape along the fly end that was added on top of the blue for strength during repairs.
West Virginia was admitted into the Union as the 35th state on June 20th, 1863, a few days before the battle of Gettysburg. The 35th star was officially added on July 4th, and the flag was used during the closing years of the war. Production would have generally ceased one year later, however, in 1864, with the addition of the 36th state.
Across flags of the Civil War, those with diamond configurations are among the most rare. Fewer than 10 examples exist in variations of this design, most of which I have had the privilege to have owned. This alone pushes it solidly into what I have termed the Masterpiece level, but when this sort of rarity and beauty are combined with the wartime date, a known maker, and such an inspiring, hand-written record of use, the flag can be counted among the best that exist from the 19th century.
Mounting: The flag has not yet been mounted.
Condition: Loss at the fly end of the top two stripes was repaired by hand with cotton fabric, probably in the 1890-1901 period, maybe when it was flown to mourn McKinley’s assassination. We removed the patches and used an iridescent silk to underlay the loss in the top red stripe during the mounting process. Because there are only very minor nicks, holes and repairs elsewhere, the flag survives in a tremendous state of preservation for the period and it was obviously well cared for. There is only minor foxing and staining.
|Collector Level:||Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings|
|Flag Type:||Sewn flag|
|Earliest Date of Origin:||1861|
|Latest Date of Origin:||1861|
|War Association:||1861-1865 Civil War|
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