Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
Sold Flags


Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): Approx. 48.5" x 80.5"
Flag Size (H x L): 36.25" x 68.25"
American national flag with 15 stars and 13 stripes, made sometime in the period between the 1850’s and the Civil War (1861-65). Constructed of wool bunting and entirely hand-sewn throughout, the stars are arranged in a pattern seldom encountered in any star count. This consists of a square of four stars, surrounded by a single, circular wreath. I can think of just one other example of an antique American flag that shares this interesting trait; an extraordinary, hand-sewn flag with 13 stars, made of silk, with gilt-painted stars, that dates to sometime during the 1st half of the 19th century or possibly prior. Besides these two rare examples, the pattern is presently unknown.

The first flag act of 1777 provided for 13 stripes and 13 stars. When Vermont and then Kentucky became the 14th and 15th states in 1791 and 1792, respectively, there were no immediate changes to the national flag. Three years later, in 1795, the second flag act was passed by Congress, raising both the count of both the stripes and the stars to 15. This remained the official specification through the addition of five more states until finally, following the addition of Mississippi as the 20th state in 1818, the count of stars was raised again to 20. At this time the number of stripes was returned the original 13, where it remains today almost 200 years later, to reflect the 13 original colonies.

Surviving 15 star flags that actually date to the 15 star period are extraordinarily rare. By this I mean flags dating between 1792-1796, when there were exactly 15 states, or in the official 15-star period, between 1795-1818. Approximately five examples are presently known, all of which have a complement of 15 stripes.

Other flags with 15 stars, however, were sometimes produced outside the 1792-1818 period. These generally have 13 stripes. The 15 star count might be appropriate outside the regular time frame of its use for a number of reasons. One of these would have been to glorify Kentucky as the 15th state. This might occur on an anniversary of Kentucky Statehood, for example, such as the 50th anniversary of Kentucky in 1842 or the 75th anniversary in 1867. Conservatively I am selecting these dates as the outermost window of possible origin. Based upon construction, either date is possible, yet based upon my gut instinct, having examined thousands of 19th century flags, I would suggest that this flag probably post-dates the 50th anniversary of Kentucky and pre-dates the 75th.

Some flags in star counts such as this were also made for display for state-associated exhibits. These might occur at events such as World's Fairs, to be hung in the Kentucky pavilion, for example, where industry and heritage of the state were featured. In the case of this particular flag, however, the first major World's Fair occurred in America after this flag was made.

So why was this terrific flag produced? There are three likely possibilities, all of which surround state-related issues and state-directed patriotism during the Civil War. During this tumultuous period, all sorts of emotions appeared in messages conveyed through the sewing of flags. Star counts were liberally modified, as well as stripe counts, to convey certain things.

Kentucky was a Border State, with its population split over the issues of slavery and states’ rights. Men from Kentucky served on both sides of the battle field. While the state attempted to maintain neutrality, the invasion by Confederate troops prompted them to call upon Union forces to drive out the Confederate Army. On November 20th 1861, while in a state of unrest, a sub-group within the state was formed styling itself as a "Convention of the people of Kentucky". With 200 participants representing 65 counties, the unofficial assembly voted in favor of secession. This was enough to convince Jefferson Davis to formally admit Kentucky to the Confederate States of America, as its 13th member state, on December 10th, 1861. Because this vote wasn't ratified by the true state legislature, however, (as had been true of the first 11 Confederate States,) Kentucky is considered a Border State. A different although similar situation occurred in Missouri.

One reason for making a 15 star flag in Kentucky during the Civil War involves the state-associated patriotism, simply commemorating it as the 15th state. A second reason would be to signify the 15 Slave States specifically, of which Kentucky was a part. So if made within Kentucky, such a flag could presumably have dual meaning.

With confusion and disagreement on all manner of issues, state-directed patriotism was severely heightened. In the North, versions of the Stars & Stripes were made that removed the Southern States. In the South, the opposite was sometimes true and Northern States were removed. In both cases, the counts chosen would depend on the loyalties of the flag-maker and the date of manufacture. The Union added states during the war and the Confederacy did as well. There were states that officially seceded and there were Border States. The various additions or subtractions resulted in a wide spectrum of star counts.

15 star flags might also be expected to appear prior to the war itself. In that case such a flag could draw attention to either side of the slavery issue. One flag scholar has suggested that some 16 star flags were being made during the 1850's, to reflect the period when there were 16 non-Slave States (1850-1858). Although no specific flag currently exists that bears documented history of having been made for that purpose, references to such flags being flown by Northerners did appear in Confederate newspapers. Whether the accounts are true or here say is not known, but the reason for making such a flag was certainly logical, perhaps even expected. In addition to the feelings spurred by slavery and states' rights in a more generalized sense, certain congressional legislation and actions of the federal government during this period stirred the emotions of the nation. One was the addition of three states where slavery was not allowed, including California, Minnesota, and Oregon. This upset the balance in Congress in favor of Free States. Also of direct impact were details within the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), and the Dred Scott decision (1857).

Theoretically, in terms of flag-making, the same situation may have occurred just prior to that time, between 1848 and 1850, when there were 15 non-Slave States instead of 16. In that case, a 15 star flag might reflect the Free States.

Because the number of Slave and non-Slave States was equal during this two-year window, the reverse scenario may just as likely occurred, with a 15-star flag instead representing Southern cause. The Southern number was maintained at 15 throughout the 1850's and onward until slavery was abolished.

In terms of construction and appearance, the flag certainly has a pre-war feel. If asked to try and pinpoint its origin more accurately, I would suggest that its most likely date of manufacture would fall during the latter part of the Antebellum, between the late 1840's and early 1861. Hand-sewn throughout, the canton and stripes of the flag are made of wool bunting. The stars are made of cotton and double-appliquéd (sewn to both sides). There is a twill cotton binding along the hoist, in the form of an open sleeve, through which a braided rope was formerly inserted and stitched into place.

Whatever the case may be regarding the reasons behind its making, surviving 15 star flags that date to the 19th century are rare. The fact that so few exist raises interest in them among collectors that wish to own a flag in this star count, irrespective of the precise period of its manufacture. Because the theories behind the use of 15 star flags during the mid-19th century are especially compelling, this adds further interest and value. Such examples fall under the umbrella of what I call "flags with hidden messages," which comprise what I feel is the most intriguing sub-category of 19th century Stars & Stripes.

Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed in 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 black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed molding is Italian. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas). Feel free to contact us for more details.
Collector Level: Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 15
Earliest Date of Origin: 1842
Latest Date of Origin: 1867
State/Affiliation: Kentucky
War Association: 1777-1860 Pre-Civil War
Price: SOLD

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