|44 STARS CONFIGURED INTO THE LETTERS “U.S.”, PATENTED IN 1890 BY W.R. WASHBURN, ONE OF ONLY FOUR KNOWN SURVIVING EXAMPLES & ONE OF THE VERY BEST DESIGNS KNOWN TO EXIST ACROSS EARLY AMERICAN FLAGS OF ALL PERIODS
|Frame Size (H x L):
|Flag Size (H x L):
|74" x 120"
|Extremely rare 44 star American national flag with its stars arranged to spell “U.S.”. This is one of only four presently known examples in this unique and graphically imposing style. I have been privileged to handle three of these four, all of which are in the same basic scale, measuring approximately six by ten feet.
A patent for this design was issued to William R. Washburn of Plymouth, Massachusetts on August 12th, 1890. The patent date is stenciled in black along the reverse of the hoist binding. The year leading up to this date was an extremely interesting and very unusual with regard to the admission of states into the Union and the changing of the flag. In 1889 there were officially 38 stars, this number having reflected the addition of Colorado in 1876, with the 38th star officially added on Independence Day, 1877. Per the Flag Act of 1818, a star was to be officially added on July 4th for all states that had joined the Union over the preceding year.
Prior to the addition of the 48th star, in 1912, and an Executive Order of President Taft that followed, no one seems to have cared what was official, not even the United States military. Either because the information wasn’t common knowledge, or because it seemed impractical or insensible, neither commercial flag makers, nor the makers of homemade flags, seem to have paid any heed whatsoever to official star counts. As soon as a state was in, the respective star was added in almost all instances. In fact, by 1889, it had become extremely common to add stars before a state was even in, in hopeful anticipation of its arrival. Some flag makers had already been producing 39 star flags at that time, anticipating the addition of the Dakota Territory, which then divided before entry. In fact, many flag-makers had done this back in 1876, anticipating both the Dakota Territory and Colorado, though only the latter came.
This logic of putting the cart before the horse probably made the most sense for commercial flag makers, who were enjoying Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny, which gave them a reason to add stars and sell a new flag. With the Civil War (1861-65), the 1876 Centennial of American Independence, the death of two presidents (Lincoln in 1865 and Garfield in 1881), and the emergence of World’s Fairs, this was a very patriotic period. New states had been pouring in regularly, with a buying public now predominated by Civil War veterans and their families.
In a week-and-a-half period, in November of 1889, four new states joined the Union: North & South Dakota, Montana, and Washington State. For the next 7-8 months, many flag-makers produced 42 star flags to reflect the new total. On July 3rd, 1890, just one day before the 42 star flag would have become official, Idaho was accepted as the 43rd state. For this reason, the 43 star flag became official the following day. Because 43 star flags are incredibly rare, while 42 star flags are incredibly common, it is clear that the inclusion of Idaho—at least by itself—was not anticipated. Although the 43 star flag would remain official for one year, it was almost entirely overlooked by flag makers, because Wyoming joined the union just six days afterwards, on July 10th, and everyone seems to have known it was coming. American flag production thus jumped from those with 38 and 39 stars, to 42, then 44.*
Washburn’s patent is not only interesting because the star design is so fantastic, but for the simple fact that it attaches a particular design to the American flag in the first place. Prior to Taft’s Executive Order of 1912, which took effect in 1913, there was no official configuration. This aspect was completely left to the artistic preferences of the maker. The same was true of the flag’s proportions, the particular shades of red and blue, the number of points of the stars themselves, and the placement of the canton (the blue union) against the striped field.
The use of just 42 stars on Washburn’s drawing reflects the number of states in the Union when it was sent to the patent office by his attorney, Charles F. Perkins. All 4 of the actual surviving examples of the Washburn flags have 44 stars. It does not appear that he ever updated the patent, though perhaps there was no need to do that, since the growth of the nation was fairly certain and the need to add stars was implied.
The 44th star, for Wyoming, was officially added on July 4th, 1891 and the 44 star flag was generally used until the admission of Utah on January 4th, 1896. It was officially replaced by the 45 star flag on July 4th of that year.
It is of interest to note that Washburn’s drawing assigned the name of a state to each star. The distribution begins with the State of Maine in the upper left of the letter “U,” followed by the rest of New England and New York, New Jersey, then to the Mid-Atlantic States, skipping Pennsylvania, which, for no apparent reason, instead appears in the tail of the letter “S.” The progression then jumps to West Virginia and moves through the Southern States, skipping Arkansas and Mississippi, which also appear in the “S”. Although the reason behind the order remains unknown—if there, in fact, there was one—Texas is represented by the period after the “U,” and California by the one that follows “S,” perhaps to illustrate the two largest states as somehow punctuating the rest.
Only four commercially-produced designs, including Washburn’s, are known to exist among early flags in which the stars are configured into letters or numeric characters. The earliest of these includes both 35 and 36 star variants of the same style, on which the stars are arranged to spell the word "FREE." Another bears 38 stars arranged to form the date "1776" [followed by 43 more stars below to form “1876”]. The last bears 48 stars arranged to spell "U.S.A."
The 44 star "U.S." variety is the largest of all the known styles. The bold impact of the star pattern places it firmly among the best of all known examples of any kind, in any star count. While none of the flags in this format has yet been documented in any text, a reference to the exact pattern appears on a printed paper souvenir that was produced for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, better known as the Chicago World’s Fair. It may be that the design was produced by Washburn specifically with the fair in mind. [A printed image of one of these souvenirs is included with the flag.]
The stars of the flag are made of heavy grade, felted wool, which is highly unusual. I have seen this fabric employed on 20th century examples, on rare occasion, but never in a 19th century flag. The stars are double-appliquéd (applied to both sides) with treadle stitching. The canton and stripes made of wool bunting that has been pieced and joined with treadle stitching. There is a wide canvas binding along the hoist, in the form of an open sleeve, through braided hemp rope, looped at the top and bottom, was threaded and stitched firmly into place.
All-in-all, one of the most rare and spectacular antique American flags that exists.
* 40 star flags are somewhat regularly encountered, do not exist in nearly the same quantity as 38, 39, 42, and 44 star flags. 41 and 43 star flags are extraordinarily rare.
Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert trained staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.
The flag has been hand-stitched to 100% silk organza for support throughout. It was then hand-stitched to a background of black wool with a twill weave that was washed and treated for color-fastness. The mount was placed on a substantial, custom-made, aluminum framework.
Condition: There is a tiny amount of mothing, but the overall condition is extraordinary.
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|Earliest Date of Origin:
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|1866-1890 Indian Wars
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