|38 STARS IN A NOTCHED, CROSSHATCH PATTERN ON AN ANTIQUE AMERICAN FLAG MADE BY THE U.S. BUNTING COMPANY IN LOWELL, MASSACHUSETTS, 1876-1889, COLORADO STATEHOOD; EX-WHITNEY SMITH COLLECTION (THE MAN WHO COINED THE TERM VEXILLOLOGY)
|Frame Size (H x L):
|Approx. 47.5" x 71.5"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|35.25" x 59"
|38 star American national flag, press-dyed on wool bunting. The stars are configured in what is known as a "notched" pattern, in which 4 spaces were left open in anticipation that more Western Territories would soon be added.
The flag is made of three panels of fabric that have been pieced and joined by treadle-stitching. Both the hoist and fly ends are bound with treadle stitching and there is a canvas sailcloth header, in the form of an open sleeve. Along this, on the obverse, the following text was stenciled in black: “Patented April 26. 1870. 5 - FT."
The flag was made by the U.S. Bunting Co., in Lowell, Massachusetts and may have been intended for nautical use. Versions of this stencil are seen on other known U.S. Bunting Co. examples, some of which include the words "American Ensign." The 1870 patent date relates to the use of the clamp-dying process for flag production. The U.S. Navy was in the habit of using 13 star flags on its small boats during the second half of the 19th century, not flags with the full star count, like this one, but there were probably exceptions to that rule. The U.S. Bunting Company was owned in part by Civil War General Benjamin Butler, who had a great deal of both political and military clout and is known to have sought and obtained Naval contracts.
Some of these flags with resist-dyed cantons may also have made for foreign ships that sailed into American ports, hence the inclusion of the word “American” on the sleeve, which would have been obvious to any U.S. resident. Thought not unknown, such identification is generally excluded on American flags. This in no way precludes American use. This flag was found in the States and almost certainly flown here. To an American purchaser, the "American Ensign" and size designation simply allowed for quick identification when the flag was folded and placed among others of various sorts and, potentially, various nationalities.
This particular star configuration is a rare one among known U.S. Bunting Co. examples, most of which display only 2 notches, typically with both placed along the hoist end, or with one at either end of the center row. Here there are two at either end, which results in a much more interesting crosshatch configuration.
The size of the flag is rather important. Because most printed parade flags of the time measured just 3 feet and less, while pieced-and-sewn examples were often 8 feet long and larger, not many flags were produced in a 5 foot scale. Large enough to make a significant statement, but not too large—this scale is often considered ideal for display over a mantle, behind a desk, over a bed or a hearth.
Colorado became the 38th state on August 1st, 1876. This was the year of our nation’s 100-year anniversary of independence. Per the Third Flag Act of 1818, stars were not officially added until the 4th of July following a state's addition. For this reason, 37 was the official star count for the American flag in 1876. Flag-making was a competitive venture, however, and few flag-makers would have been continuing to produce 37 star flags when their competitors were making 38’s. It is for this reason that 38 and 13 stars (to represent the original 13 colonies) are more often seen at the Centennial International Exposition, the six-month long World’s Fair held in Philadelphia in honor of the event. Some flag-makers would have been adding a star for the 38th state even before it entered the Union, in the early part of 1876 or even prior. In fact, many makers of parade flags were actually producing 39 star flags, in hopeful anticipation of the addition of two more Western Territories instead of one. But the 39th state would not join the Union for another 13 years, when the Dakota Territory entered as two states (numbers 39 and 40) on the same day, November 2nd, 1889.
Provenance: The flag was formerly in the collection of Whitney Smith (b. 1940, d. 2016), the leading expert in flags at one time, and who coined the term Vexillology, thus giving a name to the study of flags, in the late 1950's. I acquired it at a sale of his collection following his death.
The name "Mrs. Reed" is penned at the lower end of the hoist binding, alongside "38" and a star to indicate their count. This was either inscribed by a former owner, or else by Whitney Smith, possibly to reference the donation of the flag to his collection. If the latter is true, it would have occurred early on in his collecting, as I do not think he would have written on the hoist later on in his lifetime. When I was at his home to assist with the consignment of flags for sale, many years ago, we wore white gloves. Nothing further is known about the marking.
Due to the interesting star configuration. the Whitney Smith provenance, the small size, the fact that the maker of the flag is identified, and the Colorado and Massachusetts relationships, this is an wonderful example of the period.
Some Notes on the Press-Dying Process:
First patented in 1849, the press-dying process was thought to be a novel idea that would improve flag-making efficiency. In this case, for example, it could potentially alleviate the chore of hand-appliquéing 76 stars (38 on each side). In reality, however, the result must have been less efficient than sewing. To achieve white stars, for example, metal plates in the shape of stars had to be clamped to either side of a length of woolen fabric, in the desired configuration, so they were back-to-back. These may have been lightly brushed beforehand with a solution that would resist dye, or perhaps with a thin coat of wax. The stars were clamped together tightly, the bunting was dyed blue, and the areas where the metal stars were positioned would be left white. For flags with press-dyed stripes, the same task was repeated with different clamps.
A form of resist-dyeing, this method often resulted in crude characteristics, such as stripes with irregular lines, in various widths, and stars with inconsistent shapes, in slightly varying sizes. It is likely that this resulted in some lost product and wasted time, from flags that had bleeding or misprint issues and were of too poor quality to sell. This may perhaps explain why it never became a become a popular method of flag production.
Wool was preferred because it sheds water, making it the fabric of choice for all maritime flags and, in fact, most flags produced by professional flag-makers for long-term outdoor use. The inclusion of cotton would have made the fabric easier to dye and may have, in fact, precluded the need for clamp dying (another name for the process). Whatever the case may be, printing on wool is costly and difficult. Even today, only about 1% of wool fabric is printed*, because it generally needs to be washed afterward and wool cannot easily be treated with water.
In regard to wool flags, press-dying was primarily used during the Centennial-era by the U.S. Bunting Company of Lowell, Massachusetts, which began making press-dyed flags for the U.S. military in 1869, and by Horstmann Brothers of Philadelphia. The U.S. Bunting Co. was one of the first flag-makers to successfully produce high quality wool bunting fabric in the States, and while its owners worked diligently to master the press-dyeing process, it seems quite obvious today that it was actually more costly than expected, because it never become a popular method of flag production. This inexact art of reverse-dyeing would often add crude characteristics, such as stripes with irregular lines, in various widths, and stars with inconsistent shapes, in slightly varying sizes. It is likely that this resulted in lost product and wasted time, from flags that had bleeding or misprint issues and were of too poor quality to sell. But within those flags that survived, today’s collectors today find the irregularities interesting, not only because they demonstrates early production methods, but also because they lends the sort of folk qualities that make early flags more interesting to look at.
* Chen, W., Wang, G., & Bai, Y., “Best for Wool Fabric Printing…,” (Textile Asia, 2002, v.33 (12)), pp. 37-39.
Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert trained 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 is Italian. The glazing is U.V. protective plexiglass. Feel free to contact us for more details.
Condition: There is a moderate hole between the 10th and 11th stripes, near the fly end, and a more modest hole below and to one side of it, in the 11th stripe. There is a modest hole in the upper, hoist-end corner of the canton, and at the fly end of the 12th stripe, and there is a modest area of loss along the bottom stripe, also towards the fly end. There are more minor occurrences elsewhere in limited areas. There is modest staining below the canton, in the white stripe, near the center, and a modest stain in the 10th stripe, also below the canton. There is very minor soiling elsewhere. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.
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| Sewn flag
|Earliest Date of Origin:
|Latest Date of Origin:
|1866-1890 Indian Wars