|ENTIRELY HAND-SEWN SHIP’S COMMISSION PENNANT OF THE MID-19TH CENTURY, A HOMEMADE, COTTON EXAMPLE WITH 13 STARS ON A CORNFLOWER BLUE FIELD AND EXTREMELY DYNAMIC PRESENTATION
|Frame Size (H x L):
|74.5" tall x 70.5" wide
|Flag Size (H x L):
|12.5" x 388.5" (unfurled)
|Commission pennants are the distinguishing mark of a commissioned U.S. Navy ship. A ship becomes commissioned when the pennant is hoisted. Flown during both times of peace and war, the only time it is not flown is if a flag officer or civilian official is aboard and replaces it with their own flag. Flown at the topmast, this would be the first thing one would see coming over the horizon and identified the vessel as a warship.
Sometimes the owners of private ships mimicked the use of Navy signals. Some seafaring men would have served in the Navy and become privy to various practices in that capacity. Others flew them purely for stylistic reasons, either on a regular basis or while the boat was dressed for special occasion. Hudson River steamers regularly flew pennants of this nature, as evidenced by period photography as well as the paintings of artists such as John and James Bard. Mississippi riverboats likely flew them, as did various yachts, and other private vessels.
This particular commission pennant is a homemade example. Made of cotton and entirely hand-sewn throughout, its 13 stars are arranged in 2 rows of 6, with a single star beyond, centered at the fly end. Note the beautiful shade of cornflower blue, which adds a great deal to its visual qualities. There is a wooden hoist, made of poplar, with a single, drilled hole, to which a rope would be affixed that would let the pennant spin freely. This was tacked to a length of the same blue cotton with large copper tacks, on the reverse, run straight through, with the tips curled over so that they stayed properly in place. I have not before seen copper tacks employed in this function on any sort of flag or banner. The two lengths of fabric were hemmed with three rows of stitching.
Because cotton absorbs water, making it heavier, making it subject to weakness and, potentially, to mold and decay, it was typically not the fabric of choice for flags intended for maritime use. Wool sheds water. Prior to WWII (U.S. involvement 1941-45), most flags intended to be flown outdoors for any extended period were made of wool bunting, which had an open weave that encouraged airflow and further resisted absorption. Since wool bunting wasn’t widely available outside the flag and sail-making industries, however, in spite of its disadvantages, cotton was usually the fabric of choice for homemade flags.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, commission pennants could 100 feet long on the fly. Although rather large among commission pennants that have survived into the 21st century, at approximately 32-feet on the fly, the flag is actually of fairly modest scale among its counterparts.
During the second and third quarters of the 19th century, pennants measuring 35 feet and less seem to have almost universally been manufactured with the 13 star count. Longer pennants would display a count of stars equal to the number of states at the time in which they were made. As the turn-of-the-century approached, and more and more states were added, commission pennants generally became smaller and the star count was commonly reduced to either 13 stars, or a count of just 7, the reason for which remains unknown, even within the Navy itself. During and after WWI (U.S. involvement 1917-1918), the size of these pennants was drastically reduced, as their use changed became a matter of tradition rather than of any importance as signals. From this era forward, two sizes are generally encountered, measuring just 4 and 6 feet on the fly.
This particular pennant was found alongside large 34 and 35 star flags. The construction and fabrics suggest that it was made between the latter 1840’s and the 1860’s. Though lacking any specific history, the fabrics and construction, the scale, and circumstance of its finding suggest that it was somehow related to the flags that accompanied it, and thus dates to the Civil War time frame (1861-65). Despite not having been made of wool, it is possible that the pennant saw Navy use. Perhaps its cotton construction was not a function of it being the proper fabric for use at sea, but rather a matter of need in the face of shortage of necessary materials. Whatever the case may be, the extreme scarcity of 19th century commission pennants, the wonderful blue color, its uncommon configuration of 13 stars, hand-sewn construction, and exceptional overall presentation, make it an extraordinary find.
Mounting: The pennant 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.
For ease of display and visual interest, we folded the textile back-and-forth in a zigzag fashion. The background fabric is 100% cotton twill, black in color, that was washed and treated for color fastness. The black-painted, Italian molding has mahogany-like graining and a very deep profile. To this a flat profile molding, with a finish like old gunmetal, was added as a liner. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas).
Condition: There are minor to moderate tears throughout, but very little in way of fabric loss. There is moderate fading of the red cotton and there is modest soiling in the white cotton. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.
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|Earliest Date of Origin:
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|13 Original Colonies
|1861-1865 Civil War
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