|13 STAR ANTIQUE AMERICAN FLAG IN THE BETSY ROSS PATTERN, ONE OF JUST THREE EXAMPLES THAT I HAVE ENCOUNTERED THAT PRE-DATE THE 1890’s; AN EXTRAORDINARY FIND, CIVIL WAR PERIOD (1861-1865) OR JUST AFTER, EXTREMELY LARGE AMONG ITS COUNTERPARTS OF ALL PERIODS IN THIS DESIGN
|Frame Size (H x L):||78" x 115.5"|
|Flag Size (H x L):||66" x 103.25"|
|Exceptional, early, American national flag, with 13 stars arranged in the circular wreath pattern most often attributed to Betsy Ross. Since there was no official configuration for the stars of the American flag until 1912, when our nation received its 47th and 48th states, the design, before that time, was left to the whims of the maker. This led to an almost unimaginable spectrum of star arrangements on the American flag during the 18th and 19th centuries. Even within the 13 star count, alone, there are at least 80 known patterns—more than the average person would even think possible.
13 star flags have been made throughout American history, from at least June 14th, 1777, when the first Flag Act was passed by Congress, until the present. They have been continuously produced for reasons both patriotic and utilitarian. Because this was the original number of stars on the American flag, representing the 13 colonies, it was appropriate for any device made in conjunction with celebrations or notions of American independence. 13 star flags were thus displayed at patriotic events, including, but certainly not limited to, such occasions as Lafayette’s final visit, in 1825-26, the nation’s centennial in 1876, and longstanding celebrations of Independence Day. From at least 1840 onward, 13 star flags were produced for presidential campaigns, drawing a parallel between the past and present struggles for freedom, and were carried by soldiers, during the Mexican and Civil Wars, for the same purpose. Throughout history, and even today, they are boldly displayed at every presidential inauguration.
13 star flags were flown by American ships both private and federal. The U.S. Navy used 13 stars on the ensigns made for small boats, because they wished the stars to be more easily discernable at a distance. Private ships often copied Navy practice, and when commercial flag makers first began to produce flags with pieced-and-sewn construction, in small sizes, in large quantity, they frequently employed the 13 star count.
Flags in the Betsy Ross design are widely admired, due to the longstanding popularity of the Ross family myth. While many Americans learned in grammar school that Betsy Ross made and designed our first flag, and that the stars appeared in a circular fashion, there is, unfortunately, no way to prove the claim. No colonial examples have survived with this pattern of stars. In fact, while arranging the stars in a single circle seems quite logical, among the various choices that might come to mind, early American flags with this star pattern are curiously absent. One of the interesting misconceptions about 13 star flags is that the Betsy Ross pattern, even if not the original design, must have been common in early America. Logic would suggest this, given the frequency with which it appears in modern times, but this isn’t actually the case. In fact, the pattern is seldom encountered anywhere until much later. In more than 30 years of buying and selling early Americana, and over 20 years of extensive focus on the American flag specifically, through aggressively buying, researching, evaluating, restoring, and curating exhibitions, I have thus far encountered just three examples of Betsy Ross pattern flags that I can confidently date prior to the 1890's.
No one knows what the first flag looked like. While there is no precise reason that the Betsy Ross design could not have been the first, one of the best arguments against it, is illustrated by the simple fact that so many 13 star flags exist without it. If the Ross configuration was the original, it stands to reason that the pattern would have been reproduced with at least some degree of frequency.
Research conducted by the National Museum of American History notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the very first American flag for General George Washington, in the company of George Ross and Robert Morris, entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 centennial. The tale was immensely popular among an American public eager for stories about the Revolution and its heroes. The first documentation of it appeared shortly beforehand, in 1870, in a paper written by Betsy’s grandson, William Canby, for the Pennsylvania Historical Society. At the time, Canby made no mention of how the flag was designed, save for the fact that it had 5-pointed stars, per his grandmother’s suggestion. Because no earlier documentation supports the story, most flag scholars feel it was a grand hoax, fabricated by Canby for his own interests. Nothing survives in the collective writings of the three men, for example, nor in records of their words and deeds, which are fairly extensive. As with most things, reality is perhaps somewhere in the middle ground, with some of the details based on fact and some on fiction, made up, misinterpreted, or imagined from family accounts.
The first time that a star configuration gets attached to the Ross story appears to have occurred during the last decade of the 19th century. In 1892, Charles Weisgerber painted a nine-by-twelve-foot rendition of the fabled meeting between Betsy and George Washington, in which there is a flag with a circular wreath. Shortly afterwards, in 1898, Betsy’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter began to make flags in the East Wing of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, selling them to tourists while disseminating the family folk tale. In that same year, Weisgerber and a “group of concerned citizens” sought to preserve Betsy’s former Philadelphia residence at 239 Arch Street, where she lived at the time the flag would have been sewed. Weisgerber moved his family into the house and immediately opened to the public the room in which Betsy was said to have worked her magic. Ten-cent memberships were sold to fund renovations and donors received a small calendar, to which a cotton 13 star Betsy Ross pattern parade flag was affixed. The effects of these events caused the Ross legend to stick and the story, with the corresponding flag design, has appeared ever since in more places than one could ever hope to count.
The stars of this particular flag are made of cotton, hand-sewn, and double-appliquéd (applied to both sides). The canton and stripes of the flag are made of wool bunting that has been pieced and joined with treadle stitching. There is a sailcloth canvas binding along the hoist, with two brass grommets, one each at the extreme top and bottom. Along this, on the obverse, near the bottom, are two, unusual characters, embroidered with brown thread. These may be letter “I’s,” possibly forming a the Roman Numeral “II.” They are followed by an inscription, in blue ink, that appears to read “A. N. Smith.” The first character is stylized, and may alternatively be a “D,” “H,” or perhaps a “J.” Note how the binding is extended beyond the top and bottom-most points. Though quite unusual, this is sometimes encountered in early examples. The folding of the wool bunting back onto itself, with the binding stitched so that part of the fold is exposed, tends to be an early characteristic. Common in Civil war flags, it is sometimes seen after, though significantly less seldom. The combination of the fabrics, the stitching, the embroidery and writing, the style of the hoist and the manner of its application, in conjunction with the canton and stripes, all point to a flag of the 1860’s or the early 1870’s at the latest. More likely it was made toward the earlier part of that window, between 1861 and 1867.
I acquired and sold another pre-Civil War example of a Betsy Ross pattern flag in 2010. The third is in a private collection.
13 star flags are typically smaller than their counterparts of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is true of both sewn and printed examples. Because sewn flags became smaller over time, and the Betsy Ross pattern didn’t typically appear until the 20th century, most flags in the Betsy Ross configuration are small in flag terms. Early and/or vintage examples measuring 7 feet or more are rare. At approximately 5.5’ x 8.5’, this is easily the largest I have encountered that pre-dates 1950.
All-in-all, a tremendous addition to any collection of 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 mount was placed in a black-painted and hand-gilded, Italian molding, with a beautifully shaped profile. The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color, that has been washed and treated for colorfastness. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas).
Condition: There is a moderate, vertical tear along the top edge of the canton, extending down into the star in roughly the 1:00 position (when viewed on the obverse). Fabric of similar coloration was placed behind this during the mounting process. There is a darning repair to an area with modest loss toward the end of the 2nd white stripe. There are minor tears and minor mothing elsewhere throughout, accompanied by minor to modest losses in the last red stripe. There is a modest, bleached area near the center of the last red stripe. There is moderate soiling throughout the binding and the stars, accompanied by minor to modest soiling in the striped field, in limited areas. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use. The flag presents beautifully. Its exceptional rarity would warrant practically any condition.
|Collector Level:||Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings|
|Flag Type:||Sewn flag|
|Earliest Date of Origin:||1861|
|Latest Date of Origin:||1876|
|State/Affiliation:||13 Original Colonies|
|War Association:||1861-1865 Civil War|
|Price:||Please call (717) 676-0545 or (717) 502-1281|