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  1890-1910 ERA EXAMPLE OF THE “GRAND UNION," THE FIRST NATIONAL FLAG OF AMERICA WHEN STILL A BRITISH COLONY; ONE OF JUST A HANDFUL OF EARLY EXAMPLES THAT SURVIVE IN THIS RARE DESIGN

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): 31" x 46.5"
Flag Size (H x L): 24.25" x 32.5"
Description....:
The “Grand Union” is the most commonly used name for the first American national flag. This was the design that was in use at the opening of the Revolutionary War, between 1775 and 1777, under the First Continental Congress, when America was still a colony of Britain. Like the flags that represented other outposts of the British Empire, this design employs the British Union Flag (a.k.a., Union Jack) in the canton. The field, however, was distinctly different. While other examples featured a solid ground of either red, blue, or white, decorated with a seal, crest, or some other device that identified the respective dominion or territory, in the case of the Grand Union, the field contained 13 stripes, alternating red and white, to signify the 13 colonies.

The Grand Union went by several names. 19th century flag historians seem to have preferred the term “Continental Grand Union”, but this language is not found in 18th century documents or literature. In the period, it was simply referred to as the “Continental” or “Union” flag. Some historians have cited that the first record of its use as a national ensign appears to have been recorded in an illustration of Philadelphia from the Delaware River by George Heap, published by British engraver Gerald van der Gucht in 1754. Vexillologist Peter Ansoff successfully proved that van der Gucht contrived the image of the ships, however, by copying them from an older engraving of his that illustrated ships in Bombay India. One of these vessels flew flag of similar design (that of the East India Company).

The first documented appearance of the Grand Union flag occurred after it was apparently raised by First Lieutenant John Paul Jones over the Continental Navy's first flagship, “Alfred.” This took place in Philadelphia on December 3rd, 1775 and was recorded in letters to Congress. Since it was critical to properly identify ships on the open seas, the initial appearance of the flag on a naval vessel is not unexpected. The need for a distinctly American signal to mark naval vessels was the precise reason why Congress would later adopt the Stars & Stripes via the Flag Act of June 14th, 1777.

Unlike the navy, American ground forces were not authorized to carry the national flag until well into the 19th century (artillery in 1834, infantry 1841, and cavalry 1862). Based on various illustrations, Washington himself may have done so, at least after such a design was selected, and whether or not regiments displayed it, it would nonetheless have been fitting for the command. In his book "Standards and Colors of the American Revolution" (1982, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia), author Edward Richardson states the following:

"When the fighting began in 1775, and militia units from the various colonies joined together in besieging the British garrison at Boston, Continental Congress voted to take all such troops into the services of the United Provinces of North America and appointed Washington as their Commander in Chief. There was no United Colonies flag at the time."

Washington stated in a letter that he raised the “Union flag” for the first time on January 1st, 1776, to honor the newly formed Continental Army at Cambridge, Massachusetts. While some flag historians have argued that this would have instead referred to a British Red Ensign, Richardson states: "The Continental Union [flag] was a natural selection for the Americans in 1775. It did not signify rebellion but rather continued loyalty to the mother country." He continues to say, "It was only after the Declaration of Independence and the bitter fighting of 1776, that the British Grand Union in the canton lost favor." That said, an image of the flag appears on a scrimshaw powder horn dated December 25, 1777, illustrating Fort Schuyler, New York. So assuming that the image is accurate, the Grand Union was still in use six months after it was officially replaced by the Stars & Stripes.

Despite the importance of the Grand Union as the first American flag, few people now recognize the design. It seems clear that it was soon forgotten after the Stars & Stripes emerged and the war gained momentum. Ties to England were eventually severed and reminders of British rule were either swept under the carpet or aggressively defaced. In any event, the Grand Union never became popular to reproduce. 19th century reproductions of it are extremely scarce. I presently know of perhaps just twelve or thirteen copies survive. Of these, two are small, printed cotton flags, made in 1876. Two are of press-dyed wool and the remainder consists of flags made of pieced-and-sewn construction. Most date to the last quarter of the 19th century, though one among them could be earlier.

Made entirely of cotton, the flag that is the subject of this narrative was likely made sometime between roughly 1890 and 1910. The very lightweight, blue, denim shirting employed in the canton I have seen in other flags of this era. Flown extensively and exhibiting significant fabric loss at the fly end, the flag has a wonderful, almost ghostly presence that conveys its age in an endearing and artistically pleasing fashion.

Possibly homemade and entirely treadle-sewn, note how the crude piecework displays the amateur skill of the maker. The flag also exhibits some unusual qualities. One is the absence of the white border around the red cross of St. George, which is included to represent the white ground on the flag of England. This was certainly omitted in error. At the time of the flag’s making, it is likely that there were few references that the average person could quickly access to research the proper design. This would also explain the unusually narrow profile of both crosses.

Another is the presence of an odd, oval-shaped grommet at the bottom of the hoist binding, and the corresponding oval hole at the top illustrates that another of the same type was once affixed. I have never seen this form before and presume that these may not actually be grommets, but rather some alternative piece of hardware that the owner of the flag sought to employ in their stead. The weight of the object explains why the top one is absent and why the lower one barely hangs on.

While the design of the Grand Union may have been less than popular, World's Fairs celebrated both national history and modern accomplishments, with an eye to positive international cooperation and mutual respect. This would probably explain why most of the small handful of known copies were made. One flag, made for the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, the first World's Fair held on American soil, was found sewn into a quilt made from flags and patriotic fabrics purchased at the expo. This is illustrated in two books by American folk art expert Robert Bishop, including "New Discoveries in American Quilts" (1975, Dutton, New York, p. 124) and "All Flags Flying" (1986, Dutton, New York, p. 31). Others have surfaced in the greater Philadelphia region, two of which I was privileged to have acquired and sold.

The most likely events that may have led to the making of this particular flag include the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago), the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, and the 1915-16 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. This was the height of the World's Fair period.

Whatever its origin, this is a wonderful, rare, and especially graphic survivor, and a great addition to any collection of early American flags.

Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed 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 flag has been hand-stitched to 100% silk organza for support. It was then hand-stitched to a background of 100% cotton twill, black in color, that washed to reduce excess dye. An acid-free agent was added to the wash to further set the dye and the fabric was heat-treated for the same purpose. The mount was then placed in a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic. Condition: There is significant fabric loss toward the fly end and along the top and bottom stripes, as a result of extended use, accompanied by moderate water staining and oxidation throughout. There are holes at the top and bottom of the hoist binding and the presence of just one make-shift grommet that may or may not be original and is certainly unusual. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use. The flag’s presentation is nothing short of striking.
Collector Level: Advanced Collectors and the Person with Everything
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count:
Earliest Date of Origin: 1890
Latest Date of Origin: 1910
State/Affiliation: 13 Original Colonies
War Association: 1777-1860 Pre-Civil War
Price: SOLD
 

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