|31 STARS ON AN EXTRAORDINARY ANTIQUE AMERICAN FLAG WITH A RANDOM CONSTELLATION, IN VARIOUS SHAPES AND SIZES, CLUSTERED ABOUT AN ENORMOUS CENTER STAR, WITH A COMPLIMENT OF 10 STRIPES; A MASTERPIECE OF EARLY AMERICAN FLAG-MAKING, CALIFORNIA STATEHOOD, 1850-1858
|Frame Size (H x L):
|Approx. 76.5" x 113"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|64.5" x 101
|31 star American national flag, made in the period between 1850 and 1858, when California was the most recent state to join the Union. One of the most graphically compelling examples of the 19th century that one will encounter in the world of antique flags, the constellation presented consists of an especially whimsical array of stars, in drastically varying sizes, clustered, as if by gravitational pull, about a center star of comparatively enormous scale.
Made of cotton, the stars were applied, in various manners, by at least two different hands. With some appliquéd via hand-stitching, and others by treadle, the edges of approximately half of these were formally turned under, while the remainder were not. Most likely this was sewn by a mother and child, or perhaps multiple children, who did not possess the skills of the parent. Appliqué work is generally far more difficult than piecework, so the disparity present here is both readily understandable and something I encounter quite frequently with homemade flags. It also appears as if someone hoped to complete the construction with treadle stitching, but soon found it to be more cumbersome than they had, at first, hoped, proceeding to finish most of the work by hand. This is something I have witnessed many times, especially in the Civil War era (1861-1865) and after. Pre-war the circumstance is far less frequent. While Singer mass-marketed the sewing machine in 1855, and there were numerous competitive firms and inventors, very few flags made pre-war exhibit treadle or crank-handle driven stitching, especially in the stars.
Note that there are just 10 stripes, instead of the expected 13. These start on red and end on white. The fact that there is selvage along the lower edge of the 5th white stripe provides fairly reliable evidence that this is the original stripe count, and that none were likely removed. The scale of the flag also supports this theory, as do other aspects of the flag’s construction. The reason behind the selection of 10 stripes, however, is unknown. For some reason there is a lot of variation in the number of stripes in flags produced during the mid-19th century, between the 1840’s and the Civil War. This is the case in both homemade and commercially-made examples. At times, the symbolism behind the number is potentially explainable, and at other times, it remains a mystery. In homemade flags, the reason may simply reflect a lack of available fabric. That is probably the case here, where a factor of haste may also of contributed to the eccentricities of the design, as well as its construction. Note how the canton does not rest directly on a stripe, but rather half-way down the 3rd white stripe, with a narrow length of white bunting pieced in below. It may be that there was some sort of disconnect in the planning, or that the canton was rotated unexpectedly when the two were joined. Whatever the case may be, this is part of the flag’s homemade charm.
The canton and the stripes of the flag are made of wool bunting. The two lengths of fabric used in the canton were joined by hand-stitching, then reinforced by a single line of treadle stitching. Many of the seams in the stripes were joined by some combination of both hand and treadle stitching. The canton was joined to the field with treadle stitching, and by the same method the hoist end was rolled over and bound about a length of braided hemp rope.
One notable peculiarity in the fabric can be seen in the lower of the two lengths of blue wool bunting, which is 24 inches in width. While I have heard that 24-inch looms existing for the manufacture of bunting (unsubstantiated within this neglected field of academic study), I have almost never encounter panels greater than 18 inches. This is one of the earliest pieces of blue wool bunting, if not, in fact, the earliest piece, that I have ever seen in this scale. Most of the supply employed in American flag manufacture was sourced in England, but some is said to have been produced in Germany. It is reasonable to assume that the looms in these two locations were of different manufacture, and therefore possibly different sizes, which may explain the anomaly.
California became the 31st state on September 9th, 1850, ushered in on the heels of the 1849 Gold Rush. The 31 star flag became official the following year, on July 4th, 1851 and remained so until July 3rd, 1858, following the May 11th, 1858 addition of Minnesota as the 32nd state.
Flags made prior to the Civil War are extremely rare, comprising less than one percent of 19th century flags that exist in the 21st century. Prior to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, 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. Private use of the national flag rose swiftly during the patriotism that accompanied the Civil War, then exploded in 1876 during the centennial of American independence.
Even the military did not use the flag in a manner that most people might think. The primary purpose before the Civil War was to mark ships on the open seas. While the flag was used to mark some garrisons, the flags of ground troops were often limited to the flag of their own regiment, with a design peculiar unto itself, and perhaps a standard that featured the numeric designation on a painted or embroidered streamer, on a solid buff yellow or blue ground. Most people are surprised to learn that ground forces were not authorized to carry the Stars & Stripes until it was assigned to artillery regiments in 1834. Infantry was afforded the privilege in 1841, just prior to the Mexican War (1846-1848), while cavalry regiments were not authorized until the second year of the Civil War, in 1862.
The only regular non-military use of the flag between 1840 and 1861 was for political campaigning. The most likely reason for the use of this particular flag would be for display at a political rally, either in 1852, when Whig candidate for the White House, Franklin Pierce, successfully ran against Democrat General Winfield Scott, and the nation was simultaneously celebrating its 75th birthday, or else in 1856, when James Buchannan of Pennsylvania overtook both former President Millard Fillmore of New York, third-party candidate for the Know-Nothings, and John Fremont of California, the first nominee for the newly formed, Republican Party and its anti-slavery ticket.
In summary, a combination of the flag's bold graphics, early date, and unusual features, result in one of the most interesting examples of the 19th century.
Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert staff. The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color, that has been washed and treated for colorfastness. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples. Feel free to contact us for more details.
Condition: There is moderate soiling in the striped field in limited areas, accompanied by minor to modest of the same elsewhere. There is minor to moderate of the same in the stars. There is some minor bleeding of the red dye in limited areas. There is minor mothing in the canton and minor to modest mothing in the stripes. Fabrics of similar coloration were placed behind the flags for masking purposes, during the mounting process. There is fabric breakdown, with moderate to significant loss, in the wool bunting, where it wraps around the hemp rope. This occurred from obvious use. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use. The great rarity of flags in this star count well warrants its state of preservation.
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|Earliest Date of Origin:
|Latest Date of Origin:
|1777-1860 Pre-Civil War
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