|EXTRAORDINARY, HAND-SEWN, 13 STAR AMERICAN NATIONAL FLAG WITH 8-POINTED STARS ON A GLAZED COTTON, CORNFLOWER BLUE CANTON, 12 STRIPES, AND ITS CANTON RESTING ON THE WAR STRIPE, FOUND IN UPSTATE, NEW YORK, PRE-CIVIL WAR, CA 1830-1850; EXHIBITED AT THE MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION FROM JUNE – JULY, 2019
|Frame Size (H x L):
|48.25" x 48.25"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|34.75" x 36"
|Homemade and entirely hand-sewn, 13 star American national flag with 8-pointed stars, 12 stripes, and its canton resting on the war stripe. Made in the Antebellum period of American history, most likely in the latter 1830's - 1850, this dramatic example falls amongst the earliest that one may encounter. Discovered near Lake Ontario, in Upstate New York, in the rural region west of Syracuse, the flag exhibits a host of both visually and academically interesting features. Chief among these are its stars, which have 8-pointed profiles instead of the usual 5.
Most people remain unaware that the legislation that created the stars and stripes, passed by congress on June 14, 1777 (Flag Day) comprised of but one sentence: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” No mention was made of the shape of the stars or the proportions of the flag itself. There was no specification of what this new constellation was supposed to look like or of the desired shades of red and blue. There was likewise no mention of where the canton should be placed with respect to the striped field.
The ramifications of all of the above omissions are readily apparent in this example of pre-Civil War flag making. In addition to the interesting stars, note the cornflower blue color of the glazed cotton chintz fabric onto which they are sewn. This is both indicative of the period in which the flag was made, and, because of its attractive appearance, is of particular interest to both flag collectors and connoisseurs of early American textiles. Note how its contrast with the red of the stripes lends the flag a very different appearance from both later and more common examples.
The shape of the flag is also unusual. Slightly taller than it is long, the tall and narrow proportions are such that when displayed vertically [as shown here], with the canton in the upper left, the result appears to the eye as if it is actually a horizontal flag with vertical stripes.
The truncated profile is not as unexpected as one might imagine. Battle flags carried by infantry were near-to-square, because flags could be more easily carried on foot if they were constructed with these proportions. This profile allowed for the largest possible signal to be displayed without dragging on the ground, while at the same time minimizing wind resistance. While this sort of format can be encountered on pieced-and-sewn flags from the Revolutionary War through WWI, it is likewise present on many of the earliest printed parade flags, which first appeared in the latter 1830's - 1840’s. The reason for this design selection for hand-waved flags is unknown. It may be that such examples were intended to be used as either flags, to be tacked to staffs and displayed in the obvious fashion, or as kerchiefs, to be waved, tied around the neck, or wrapped about the hair of women while attending patriotic events.
Most Americans don’t realize that prior to the Civil War, private citizens seldom displayed the Stars & Stripes in the same way that they do today. With the exception of use on merchant ships, one key use appears to have been for display at political parades and rallies. That is one very likely explanation of the use of this particular flag. Similarly graphic examples, in a myriad of whimsical and dynamic styles, appear in various illustrations of the 1840's, especially those relating to the political factions that supported Whig candidates William Henry Harrison and Henry Clay in 1840 and 1844, respectively. Representations in newspapers and on paper ephemera, ribbons, porcelain objects, and other artifacts, show all sorts of adaptations of the national flag with eagles, verbiage, stars with various numbers of points, and other oddities.
Also notable in the illustrations of flags in the 1850’s and prior is a varied numbers of stripes. Some have the expected 13, but many have both more and less. Many of the square, printed, political campaign flags of Harrison and Clay display the same peculiarities. In one style of Harrison flag, for example, at least 5 different stripe counts are known.
At some points in American history there could be more obvious meaning in a star or stripe count. During the Civil War, stripe counts other than 13 can sometimes be explained by hidden messages that pay homage to the North or the South. A count of 11, for example, might illustrate the number of Confederate States that official voted for secession, with ratification by their respective state legislatures. A count of 7 might denote the original number of states that seceded together in what is known as “the first wave of secession.” In the case of pre-Civil War flags, however, the use of a different number is less clear. A count of 9 might remove the Slave States of Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas from the original 13. Pro and anti-slavery animosities were present long before 1861, but the task of explaining a correlation between an odd stripe count and a related message, if any, at various points throughout the Antebellum is especially problematic.
The reason behind the use of 12 stripes on the particular 13 star flag in question here is unclear. The series begins with a white stripe instead of red, which is even more unusual than a different count and visually notable. This rare trait probably explains another atypical feature that occurred in the placement of the blue canton, which rests on a red stripe instead of a white one. Some flag historians refer to this as the “blood stripe” or the “war stripe," suggesting the flag was sometimes altered in this fashion when the nation was at war. If the blood stripe characteristic was only present in wartime flags, and was fairly consistent, the theory would have more merit. In reality, it is seldom encountered. Probably it resulted by accident in more cases than not. The size of the canton was not specified by any of the flag acts, so while it typically falls on the 7th stripe, the maker was free to place it on the 6th, or the 8th, or the 9th, or somewhere where it became even more visually extreme. The canton could also be as long or as short as the maker desired. In this case it is roughly square, seemingly to accommodate the profile of the flag itself.
Whatever the case may be, flags with their canton on the “blood stripe” have developed a mystical aura in the collector community that has made it very desirable no matter what the period. While the Mexican War (1846-48) did occur during the proposed window of origin of this particular flag, the reason behind its canton resting on the war stripe probably has nothing to do with wartime America.
The stars of the flag are made of plain weave cotton, as are the stripes. The stars were hand-sewn to the canton, which is made of cotton chintz. The elements of the flag were constructed by piecing together a rectangular field of red and white stripes, then stitching the blue canton on top of it. The canton is thus only applied to one side, as is the case with many homemade examples (though the canton is typically set into the stripes, rather than overlaid).
This flag can be displayed in one of the two ways, horizontally, with the canton on the right, or vertically, with the canton on the left, which is the proper manner of display per the flag code and modern flag ethics. Display of the American national flag with the canton in the upper left did not enter the American consciousness as the one correct manner of presentation until sometime around the year 1900, and was not formally dictated as such until the flag code was adopted in 1923. In the 19th century (and prior) it was just as common to see the flag displayed with the canton on the right.
The stars are basically arranged in a linear fashion, with a row of 4 at the top, followed by 2 close together, then 2 further apart, then 2 close together, then 3 at the bottom. One might suggest that the 6 stars in the center form a crude ellipse, or one might suggest that there is a "V" formation culminating upward from the bottom, center star, with a star to either side, 2 above, and 4 at the top. I suspect that neither of these formations were intentional, but the resulting layout is appealing and is probably unique among known examples.
Another of the flag's most appealing features to a collector is its small size when compared to other pieced-and-sewn examples. In the 19th century, cloth flags with sewn construction (as opposed to printed) were typically eight feet long or larger. This is because they needed to be recognized from great distance to be effective in their function as signals. A small flag was six feet in length and production of flags smaller than this was extremely limited. Even infantry battle flags were approximately six by six-and-one-half feet, about the size of an average quilt of the same period. Smaller flags exist, but the smaller they are, the more unusual they are, and at approximately 35 x 36 inches, this example is absolutely tiny among its counterparts. This is especially true prior to the Civil War, when the primary function of flags was on forts and ships. 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 are of special interest to collectors.
Flags made prior to the Civil War comprising less than one percent of 19th century flags that have survived into the 21st century. Before this time the Stars & Stripes was simply not used for most of the same purposes we employ it in today. Private individuals did not typically display it in their yards and porches. Parade flags didn't often decorate carriages and horses. Places of business rarely hung flags in their windows. Even the military did not use the flag in a manner that most people might think. Most people would be surprised to learn that the infantry wasn’t authorized to carry the Stars & Stripes until the late 1830’s, and even then did not often exercise the right, because it was neither required nor customary. In early America, the flags of ground troops were often limited to the flag of their own regiment, with a design peculiar to the unit. Private use of the national flag rose swiftly following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, then exploded in 1876.
The combination of all of this flag's marvelous features, in addition to its early date, place it among the most elite within the examples that I have been privileged to handle.
Provenance: This flag was exhibited at the Museum of the American Revolution from June-July, 2019 in an exhibit entitled “A New Constellation.” Curated by Jeff Bridgman, this was the first ever large scale exhibition of 13 star flags at a major museum. One should note that of the 40 flags presented, this was the only one that did not have 5-pointed stars. This is due to the extreme rarity of actual, surviving examples that share this feature.
Mounting: The flag has been mounted and framed within our own conservation lab, 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 is 100% cotton twill, black in color. The black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed molding has a wide, serpentine profile and is Italian. The glazing is U.V. protective plexiglass.
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