|EXTRAORDINARILY RARE ANTIQUE AMERICAN FLAG, WITH A FEDERAL EAGLE SURROUNDED BY 32 STARS, THE ONLY KNOWN EXAMPLE OF ITS KIND; TWO OF THE STARS FAR SMALLER THAN THE REST, LIKELY TO REFLECT WESTERN TERRITORIES; MADE IN THE DECADE BEFORE, OR WITHIN THE PERIOD, WHEN MINNESOTA JOINED THE UNION AS THE 32nd STATE; A ONE-YEAR FLAG, ACCURATE FOR JUST NINE MONTHS, 1858-59
|Frame Size (H x L):
|22.5" x 28.25"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|12.5" x 18"
|32 star American national flags are rare. In part this is because they were only official for one year (1858-59), but it is also a result of the fact that this time frame occurred prior to the American Civil War (1861-65), when use of the Stars & Stripes on land, within in the private sector, fell somewhere between slim and non-existent.
Minnesota joined the Union as the 32nd state on May 11th, 1858. The 32 star flag became official less than two months later, on July 4th, and remained so until July 3rd, 1859. In the meantime, Oregon was admitted as the 33rd state.
According to legislation enacted by Congress on April 4, 1818, stars were to be added on Independence Day each year, following the addition of any incoming states. Commercial flag makers paid little heed to such requirements, however, because it made little in the way of practical sense. On one hand, flag-makers sought reasons to produce new flags, in order that they have something new to sell. They also wanted to be a step ahead of their competitors. At the same time, potential buyers of flags would not want to acquire them with a smaller number of stars than the actual number of states at the time, since the impeding addition of the respective stars was inevitable. For these reasons, and in the spirit of American expansionism—especially popular during the settling of the American West—flag-makers would add stars as soon as a state was in, or in some cases even beforehand, in hopeful anticipation of impending statehood of another Western Territory.
The same would have been true in homemade flags, where, in addition to being practical, legislation surrounding the official date for the addition of stars was probably not common knowledge. Almost no one knows this today, for example, unless they are intimately involved in vexillology. During the 19th century, it may not have even been commonly known, even among professional flag-makers. Many of these were cottage industry sailmakers or producers of tents and awnings, likely unconcerned with decades-old flag legislation.
For the above reasons, production of 32 star flags would have ceased with the addition of Oregon on February 14th, 1859, well before July 4th. This meant that the 32 star count would have only seen use for about 9 months, making it one of the shortest lived flags in early America.
This particular 32 star American national parade flag is printed on plain weave cotton. The stars are arranged in a single wreath of 26, with a slightly larger star in each corner of the blue canton, plus two significantly smaller stars within, beneath the talons of a traditional federal eagle. The majestic bird faces to its proper right, with a federal shield upon its breast, bearing 13 stars over 13 pales, gripping the expected olive branches and arrows.
The two small stars likely represent Western Territories yet to be added. If this is the true, the flag would have presumably have actually been made while Wisconsin was the most recent state to enter the Union (1848-1850). In that light, the stars may reflect California and Minnesota, which became the 31st and 32nd states in 1850 and 1858, or they may represent territories at stake relative to the Missouri Compromise of 1850, or they might represent Kansas and Nebraska, per Stephen Douglas’s forthcoming argument for his famous act of 1854, or some other combination.
Flags with eagles that serve as the primary image in their cantons are rare in general, surviving more in early illustrations than they do “in the cloth.” Among printed parade flags, the total is somewhere in the realm of 14 examples, most of which I have had the great privilege to own at one time or another. The scale of this is flag is nice among them, and the rarity of the star count unparalleled. * Single wreaths are rare in their own right, in flags with more than 13 stars. About half of the parade flags with eagles share this interesting, visual feature.
Note the shape of the stars in the ring, which display exceptional folk qualities. Starfish-like form, these are stretched vertically, in a largely consistent fashion throughout, with their arms so close that they are all but joined.
For many years, 32 star parade flags were simply unknown in the collector community. None were documented in any text on the subject of early American flags or flag collecting. Today there are just two, of which this is one. After a diligent search of campaign flags, which often bear star counts that slightly pre-date the year of the presidential election that corresponds to printed text and images, I identified a 6 x 8-inch, 1860, Stephen Douglas flag, printed on cotton, with 32 stars in a double wreath pattern, among the holdings of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection [mis-identified as a 34 star flag].
Even among pieced-and-sewn examples of flags in the 32 star count, that are period to when Minnesota was the most recent state to be added (1858-59), I am aware of about 10 known examples.
One other known variety of 32 star flag, with printed stars and woven stripes, was produced on a wool and cotton blended fabric. The stars, arranged in 4 rows of 8, were taken from a continuous bolt, with columns of 4 stars repeating, a section of which was then stitched to the woven field of 13 red and white stripes. Additional stars could be clipped as desired, with the idea that they could simply be basted and appliqued to the canton, in order to create other star counts (besides those divisible by 4). While this very rare variety may have been made within the 32-star period (1858-59), a larger version exists in great quantity, by contrast. All of the larger examples have two stars added, for a total count of 34. It is possible that all of the smaller, 32 star examples were supposed to get two additional stars, yet no one bothered to complete the task. This may have happened in the face of need, as the 34 star flag was flown for the majority of the Civil War. Unlike printed cotton and printed silk parade flags, flags of the 1840’s, 50’s, and 60’s, printed on wool bunting and/or blended wool and cotton fabrics, seem to have been made expressly for military use. Only about 4 to 6 known examples of the 32 star versions survive in this design
This means, in total, there are somewhere in the realm of 18 flags with 32 stars, including printed, printed & woven, and sewn examples combined. I have had the privileged to own about half of these.
Flags made prior to the Civil War (1861-1865) are extremely scarce, comprising less than one percent of 19th century flags that have survived into the 21st century. Prior to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, 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. The only consistent private use prior to 1861 seems to have accompanied political campaigning.
Even the military did not use the national flag in a manner that most people might think. Most people are surprised to learn that the infantry wasn’t authorized to carry the Stars & Stripes until well into the 19th century, and even then did not often exercise the right, because it was neither required nor customary. The foremost purpose before the Mexican War (1846-48) was to identify ships on the open seas. While the flag was used to mark garrisons and government buildings, the flags of ground forces were limited to the those of their own regiment and a perhaps a federal standard (a blue or buff yellow flag bearing the arms of the United States). Artillery units were the first to be afforded the privilege in 1834. Infantry followed in 1841, but cavalry not until 1862.
In summary, this is one of only two identified 32 star parade flags, which survives as the only known example in this style, with the extremely scarce presence of an eagle in the canton as its primary feature, one of the rarest star counts in American history, a highly unusual, single-wreath medallion, two very unusual, small stars in the design, and exceptional folk qualities. This would be an exceptional addition to any collection.
Provenance: Exhibited from June 12th – September 6th, 2021 at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, in an exhibit entitled “Flags & Founding Documents.” The flag portion of this, curated by Jeff Bridgman, featured 43 flags that span American history as we progressed from 13 to 50 stars, with a particular focus on not only flags that display the anticipated and/or actual addition of states, but the subtraction of both Union and Slave States during the Antebellum and the Civil War periods.
* An 1867 variant bears 14 stars, but with 2 partially covered, and with others presumably hidden by the device.
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 presentation of flags and have preserved thousands of examples.
The gilded, American molding, with its rippled profile, dates to the period between 1830 and 1850. The background fabric is 100% cotton twill, black in color, that has been washed and treated for colorfastness. The glazing is U.V. protective glass. Feel free to contact us for more details.
Condition: There is significant wear from obvious, extended use. There is modest to significant fading in the red stripes and modest to moderate fading in the canton. There is modest to moderate soiling throughout. There are various, minor to modest tears and losses, most of which are located in the striped field. Many of my clients prefer early flags to display their age and history of use. The flag presents beautifully and the extreme rarity well warrants its state of preservation.
|Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
| Parade flag
|Earliest Date of Origin:
|Latest Date of Origin:
|1777-1860 Pre-Civil War