Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
Sold Flags


Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): Approx.59.5" x 146"
Flag Size (H x L): 49.5" x 136"
American national flags that date to the American Federal period and prior, representing the first 50 years of America, hold a special place among antique Stars & Stripes. This is not only the earliest, but the rarest material known to exist. In one sense this seems to go without saying. The earliest objects within any particular genre are generally the rarest. But knowledge of what survives from this period in flags specifically is key to a clearer understanding of just how scarce it is.

First allow me to set the stage. The First Flag Act, passed by Congress on June 14th, 1777, provided for a flag bearing 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--at least not officially. Three years later, in 1795, the Second Flag Act was passed, raising the count of both stripes and stars to 15.

Because official specifications were generally unheeded until the 20th century, some flag-makers would have likely begun to add a 14th and then a 15th star to the flag between 1791 and 1795, on or after the respective dates on which the states were added. No one appears to have cared what was official and most aspects of flag design were generally left up to the maker. These circumstances persisted not only into the 19th century, but onward into the beginning of the 20th.

In 1796, Tennessee was admitted, followed by Ohio in 1803, Louisiana in 1812, Indiana in 1816, and Mississippi in 1817. Both surviving illustrations of the flag and actual copies of it demonstrate that the effect of the 2nd Flag Act was mute, with flag-makers adding stars on their own, as well as stripes, during the intermittent years.

In 1818, the 3rd Flag Act was passed. This raised the star count to 20 and returned the number of stripes to the original 13, where it remains today almost 200 years later to reflect the 13 original colonies. It also decreed that from that time onward, changes to the flag would be by Executive Order of the President of the United States, and that stars would thereafter be added on the 4th of July for whatever states had entered over the preceding "flag year."

Over the 40-year time span, from 1777 to 1818, very few flags seem to have been produced. Further, hardly any that were have survived to the present day.

While there is much dispute and uncertainty about surviving 13 star flags that pre-date the Second Flag Act (1795), most experts would agree that there are just one or two surviving examples at worst, and but a small handful at best. Even after more states were added, the same basic scarcity is present. Among the unofficial counts, no 14 star examples appear to be extant that date to 1791-92. The only surviving 16 star flag, made in the period when we had 16 states, 1796-1803, has long resided at the Hartford National Bank in Stonington Connecticut. There are just two 17 star examples of the 1803-1812 period, one privately owned (accompanied by a fragment of another), and one in the collection of the Chicago History Museum. There are one or two 18 star flags that reportedly date to the 1812-1816 time frame, one of which is among the holdings of the Louisiana State Museum. One 19 star flag survives from the 1816-1818 era (later updated to a count of 25 stars).

Even among 15 star flags, accurate from 1792-1795, and official from 1795-1818, surviving examples are beyond rare. Though there are many in illustrations, just five or six examples are presently known, one of which is our nation’s most famous flag, the Star Spangled Banner, in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. A second 15-star flag is among the Smithsonian's holdings; one is at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA; one at Fort Niagara, New York; one is in a private collection, and one is at the National Maritime Museum in the United Kingdom.

The 20 star flag became official for one year (July 4th, 1818 - July 3rd, 1819). At least three flags in this star count are extant that were produced between 1817 (Mississippi statehood)-1819. Two of these are in private collections, while the third is in the possession of the Mississippi State Capitol.

Even if my count was off just slightly, recognizing a slight margin of possible error, the point should be relatively clear. Between the creation of the Stars & Stripes, in 1777, and the passing of the Third Flag Act, in 1818, there are somewhere around 20-25 examples of our national flag that I am aware to have survived into the 21st century. Most of these are in institutionalized.

Circumstances changed very little after Illinois joined the Union as the 21st state on December 3rd, 1818. As before, production of 21 star flags would have been expected right away, ignoring official protocol. The 21 star flag did became official on July 4th, 1819, but due to the December 14th, 1819 addition of Alabama, production of 21 star flags would have lasted for just one year.

On July 4th, 1820, the 22nd star was officially added for Alabama, as well as a 23rd for Maine, which gained statehood on the preceding March 15th. The 23 star flag remained official for one year, but not a single 23 star flag is known that actually dates between 1820-1821. Missouri gained statehood on August 10th, 1821, but despite the fact that it wasn't followed by another state until 15 years later, in 1836 (Alabama), 24 star flags are exceptionally rare as well. While I have not done an extensive inventory, I can think of about four 1821-1836 period examples, plus a couple of others that may or may not date to that era and I have yet to examine. Whatever the case may be, the number of surviving flags is certainly fewer than 10.

With a bit of history out of the way, focus can be given to the 21 star flag that is the intended subject of this narrative. Entirely hand-sewn, the canton and stripes of this particular flag are made of wool bunting. The fabric employed is of the crudely woven variety that one encounters in this earliest of periods in American flag-making, with the sort of homespun characteristics that make it wonderful to behold. Note in particular the attractive shade of Prussian blue, which adds a great deal to the visual presentation.

The stars are made of cotton, hand-sewn and single-appliquéd. This means that they were applied to one side of the canton, then the blue fabric was cut from behind each star, folded over, and under-hemmed, so that one star could be viewed on both sides of the flag. I always find single-appliquéd stars more interesting, not only because they are evidence of a more difficult level of seam-work and stitching, but also because they are more visually intriguing. Both the sewing itself and stretching of the fabrics over time results in stars that have irregular shapes and interesting presentation, which is certainly the case here. This is why flags with single-appliquéd stars often appeal to connoisseurs of early American textiles. The two visible rows of hand-stitching emphasize their hand-sewn construction and their starfish-like profiles have substantial folk qualities. While some flag enthusiasts have pointed to this as a means of conserving fabric, not having to cut and sew another star to the other side, others suggest that the real purpose was to make the flag lighter in weight. I believe it to have been a byproduct of both objectives.

The stars are arranged in a configuration that is extremely rare across all star counts, and about as profound in its appearance as anything known. This consists of a wide oval that hugs the confines of the canton, accompanied by one star in the very center. More of a lozenge, really, due to its wildly exaggerated length when compared to its height, a small list of surviving flags of the same general era share a similar pattern. One is the aforementioned 15 star example at the Natural Heritage Museum, and another is the 20 star example at the Mississippi State Capital. Since a total of three constitutes greater than fifteen percent of the surviving examples with 15 - 21 stars, this may represent one of the most favored arrangements of the Federal period. Flags dating after this period include a 25 star example from the Connelly Collection, sold at Sotheby's in 2002, and a small list of 13 star examples of the mid-19th century.

Sadly, I have not had the opportunity to photograph every ship painting that I have encountered with American flag imagery, but I have witnessed similar star patterns illustrated on flags with some of the earliest star counts.

Extended ovals can be seen in a few post-1850 flags, but only those with multiple wreaths and nothing so extreme as this one. There are also post-1850 flags in the full star count with single wreaths, but only with additional flanking stars in the corners, beyond the wreath. None have a configuration that resembles the crude presentation of 21 stars on the flag in question here. All of the above examples are especially rare in their own right.

This 21 star flag is one of three I have been privileged to own that date to the period when we had 21 states. Each has had a different yet dynamic star configuration. All demonstrate the great folk qualities often present in early flags. I know of just one other example, likewise privately owned. I have yet to identify any within museum collections.

The hoist binding of the flag is made of linen and there are two hand-sewn, whip-stitched grommets, one each at the top and bottom. While the flag bears the elongated appearance of nautical use, the binding is more indicative of flags flown on land. The most likely intended purpose was for display on a government building.

Flags made prior to the Civil War are extremely scarce in general, comprising less than one percent of 19th century flags that exist in the 21st century. Prior to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the Stars & Stripes was simply not used for most of the same purposes we employ it in today. Private individuals did not typically display the flag in their yards and on their porches. Parade flags didn't often fly from carriages and horses. Places of business rarely hung flags in their windows. Private use of the national flag rose swiftly during the patriotism that accompanied the Civil War, then exploded in 1876.

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 1830’s, and even then did not often exercise the right, because it was neither required nor customary. The primary purpose before the Mexican War (1846-48) was to mark ships on the open seas. While the flag was used to mark garrisons and government buildings, the flags of ground troops were often limited to regimental banners.

In summary, one of the best, earliest, and most visually interesting flags that I have ever had the privilege to own. Examples of this early period are truly national treasures and suitable for the most advanced private collections.

Additional Notes on Construction: The canton of the flag is pieced in three linear sections. One of these represents a full width of the available wool bunting. The other two form the more narrow section below it. The odd placement of the seam between the two pieces of the canton is effectively repeated below it, perhaps because portions of the stripes were made first, but they were not long enough. I have seen this unusual manner of piecework in another, earlier flag, which seemed to have been made from parts of other flags, though much more extreme. It may have been commonplace to re-purpose wool bunting until it could no longer be used. While we might simply retire a flag today, the same level of waste would not have been tolerated in 1820's America. Perfectly good stripes from one flag might have been regularly trimmed and sewn into another, perhaps even by the same maker again and again. This sort of task would, be necessity, lead to the sort of piecework that is present here.

Mounting: The banner was mounted within 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.

Condition: Although the flag shows clear signs of extended use, it survives in a remarkable state of preservation for its age. There are holes and related fabric loss in limited areas, the most significant of which are in the upper, hoist-end corner of the canton, and at the fly end of the 3rd, 8th, 10th, 12th, and 13th stripes, as well as in the flag;s center, at and just above the 10th stripe, and at the hoist end in the 12th stripe. There are two early patches to holes with associated loss in the canton, below and toward the hoist end from the center star. There is another patch in the last stripe, near the center, and nother in the 4th red stripe, near the fly end. There is minor fraying along the outer edge of the hoist binding and along the top and bottom edges of the flag. There is some soiling, slightly more significant laterally through the flag's center. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use. The extreme rarity of this example easily warrants the minor issues present here, especially in light of its size, wool construction, and age.
Collector Level: Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 21
Earliest Date of Origin: 1818
Latest Date of Origin: 1820
State/Affiliation: Illinois
War Association: 1777-1860 Pre-Civil War
Price: SOLD

Views: 482