Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
Antique Flags > American Flags


Web ID: 13j-1536
Available: In Stock
Frame Size (H x L): Approx. 42.5" x 53"
Flag Size (H x L): 30.5" x 41"
Boleslaw and Marie D'Otrange Mastai were the first major collectors of early flags to produce a well-illustrated text in modern times. Published in 1973, "The Stars & The Stripes: The History of the American Flag as Art & History from the Birth of the Republic to the Present" (Knopf, New York), would become the landmark reference for a growing population of flag enthusiasts.

The Mastais owned numerous 13 star flags, several of which they claimed to date to the 18th century. Most of these, however, were probably made at various points throughout the early to mid-19th century. Curiously, the flag that is perhaps the most likely candidate for 18th century origin was not even featured in the section among those that the Mastais felt were their oldest. Instead it makes an appearance in the chapter devoted to something known as the "Great Star" pattern, meaning those flags where the stars are configured into one big star.

Illustrated on page 101, the flag in question here displays a number of key elements that suggest it falls among the earliest examples. The stripes, made of wool bunting, utilize a homespun variety of this fabric consistently encountered in the earliest of periods in American flag-making.

The canton of the flag is made of Prussian blue, gabardine wool that is probably a uniform grade fabric. There is a plain weave cotton binding along the hoist with two hand-sewn, whip-stitched grommets. The sewing throughout is entirely by hand.

The stars of the flag 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. The two visible rows of hand-stitching emphasize their hand-sewn construction. This is one reason why single-appliquéd stars appeal to connoisseurs of early American textiles. While some flag enthusiasts have pointed to this as a means of conserving fabric, not having to cut and sew another star to the opposite 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 unique to this flag. Of the tiny handful of examples with pieced-and-sewn construction that display 13 stars in a variant of the "Great Star" pattern, most utilize a 6-pointed profile, similar to the Star of David. This is what appears on the Great Seal of the United States (most readily viewed on the reverse of the $1 bill).

The flag that is the topic of this narrative has a 5-pointed version of the Great Star arrangement. This is comprised of a circular wreath of 8 stars, with a complement of 5 satellites, placed at equal intervals around the circumference. While I have encountered an illustration of the design in the 1893 catalogue of a commercial flag-maker, I have yet to encounter another actual flag in this style.

In their book, the Mastais make a sound case for the appropriateness of the Great Star pattern, explaining that it was not only one of the earliest concepts of a 13 star arrangement, in general, but may have been the design intended, though unspecified, in the First Flag Act. In doing so they not only point to the selection of the 6-pointed Great Star for the final draft of the Great Seal, presented to and accepted by Congress on June 20th, 1872, but also to its secondary use in the same year on a seal used by the President of Congress, Thomas Mifflin. In fact, what scholars seems to have thus far not pointed out, is that it is, in absence of the survival of any kind of drawing by Francis Hopkinson to accompany the First Flag Act of June 14th, 1777, the 6-pointed Great Star on the Great Seal represents the earliest design of anything with 13 stars that was actually accepted by Congress.

The Mastais also describe both the appeal, principle, and spirit of the Great Star as "perhaps closest of all to a visualization of the difficult goal set forth in the flag resolution: 13 stars…representing a new constellation." "Admittedly," they explain, "heavenly constellations do not group themselves in Great Star formations, but the principle of union was assuredly better symbolized.. than by such a self-contained design than by a grid of independent rows, or ranks."

The red-inked, Mastai stamp appears in 3 places, including both sides of the hoist binding and within one of the stars on the obverse. On the reverse, the stamp is accompanied by the notation "No. 119," inscribed in ball point pen, which reflects their normal method of cataloging. While some might consider the use of such invasive markings as detrimental to the object and defacement of the flag, the importance of the Mastai collection has caused these features to become what I consider to be an important part of the flag's modern history.

The flag was extensively flown and many repairs are present. In some cases, fabric from the fly end appears to have been utilized in the hasty mending of losses. Small pieces of red wool (clothing grade) were used to patch and reinforce the last stripe, adjacent to the hoist. Two lengths of blue-green woolen fabric, woven with different colored fibers on the warp and weft, were applied to the obverse side of the canton as a means of repair. All repairs appear to have been made during the general period in which this flag was constructed.

To be conservative, I would date the origin this textile between the year 1800 and 1825. This places it among the earliest flags known to have survived into the 21st century. Given the limitations of current knowledge, I strongly hesitate to suggest that any example of the Stars & Stripes pre-dates 1800. What I can say, however, is that this flag warrants further research.

History of of the Great Star Pattern:
Among flag collectors, the Great Star configuration is the most coveted of all 19th century geometric patterns. Although conceptualized as early as 1782 and depicted in that year on the first die cut of the newly adopted Great Seal of the United States, the popularity of arranging the stars in the form of one big star seems to have spread shortly after the War of 1812, when Congressman Peter Wendover of New York, requested that Captain Samuel Reid, a War of 1812 naval hero, be charged with the creation of a new design that would become the third official format of the Stars & Stripes. A recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Reid became harbor master of New York following the war. During his lifetime, he created many innovations in signal use, including a system that could actually send messages from New York to New Orleans by sea in just two hours.

Use as a Naval signal had been the primary reason for the initial creation of an American national flag in 1777, but since there was no official star design, the appearance of our flag varied greatly. Reid and Wendover’s primary concerns centered on both consistency and ease of recognition. Their hope was that as more and more states joined the Union, and more and more stars were thus added to the flag, that it would remain easy to identify its design on the open seas. In 1818, Reid suggested to Congress that the number of stripes permanently return to 13, (their count having been increased to 15 in 1795 with the Second Flag Act, which added two more stars for the newest States of Vermont and Kentucky,) and that the stars be grouped into the shape of one large star.

Reid’s proposal would have kept the star constellation in roughly the same format, in a pattern that could be quickly identified through at a distance as the number of states grew. His concept for the stripes was ultimately accepted, but his advice on the star pattern was rejected by President James Monroe, due to the increased cost of arranging the stars in what would become known as the “Great Star”, “Great Flower”, or “Great Luminary” pattern. Monroe probably didn’t wish to impose this cost on either the government or civilians, so he suggested a simple pattern of justified rows. Never-the-less, the Great Star was produced by anyone willing to make it and its rarity today, along with its beauty, has driven the desirability of American flags with this configuration.
Collector Level: Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 13
Earliest Date of Origin: 1800
Latest Date of Origin: 1825
State/Affiliation: 13 Original Colonies
War Association: 1777-1860 Pre-Civil War
Price: Please call (717) 676-0545 or (717) 502-1281

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