|8-FOOT COMMISSION PENNANT WITH 13 STARS, A UNIQUE EXAMPLE IN MY EXPERIENCE, LIKELY PRODUCED FOR DISPLAY ON A PRIVATE VESSEL, MADE circa 1892-1910
|Frame Size (H x L):
|32.5" x 39"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|4" x 96" (unfurled)
|Commission pennants are the distinguishing mark of a commissioned U.S. Navy ship. Flown at the topmast, the typical American format is a long blue field, usually with a single row of white stars, although sometimes with their total divided into two rows, followed by two long stripes, red-over-white. A ship became commissioned when this pennant was hoisted. Flown during both times of peace and war, the only time the pennant is not flown is if a flag officer or civilian official was aboard and replaced it with their own flag.
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.
Probably made between roughly 1892 and 1910, more likely on the earlier end of this date window, this particular commission pennant is a commercially-produced example. It is unusual one, however, in a scale I have not previously owned.
At 4 inches on the hoist [the maximum point] x 8 feet on the fly, the dimensions do not coincide with specified U.S. Navy regulations of the period, or of any period, for that matter. There had been 9-foot style specified in all regulations since 1854, renewed again in 1912. These had a maximum height that remained consistent at 3 inches. But there was never an 8-foot style.
Because there was a great deal of inconsistency in the exact dimension of U.S. Navy small boat ensigns, one might guess that the same might be true of commission pennants. This is difficult to know with certainty, however, because such pennants were so seldom saved, and so few have been documented that are pre-WWI (U.S. involvement 1917-1918). Too few examples survive, private or otherwise, much less with documented history, so one can’t accurately gauge just how well regulations were followed.
In the 1892-1910 era, the Navy seems to have been making most of its own flags, with much of the production of signed and dated examples occurring at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. This flag was not made at that facility, nor any other U.S. Navy site that I am aware of. But we know that the Navy sometimes procured flags from flag-makers directly, when manufacture was neither convenient nor practical. When this occurred, my best, educated guess is that quartermasters did not find it important enough to quibble over having an 4” x 8’ pennant, versus one that was 3” x 9’, at least not if history is any guide. When something was readily available from the likes of Annin, Horstmann, or some alternative source, and there was ample precedence for not following specs precisely, they probably bought what was available and/or practical. As a rule, when it came to flag use, people did what made sense in the 19th century and prior, often settling for what was present and available.
What can be said is that the construction of this particular flag, while very nice, and typical of wool bunting flags of the time, is that it does not display the hallmarks of Navy-produced flags of the same period. For this reason, the intended purpose of its manufacture, regardless of the eventual function, was almost certainly for private use, on a private yacht, or on a commercial/merchant vessel.
Commissioning pennants were once very important in their role as signals and thus needed to be seen from great distance. During the 18th and 19th centuries, some reached as long as a hundred feet. Sometime around 1910, the function of commission pennants leaned away from identification and more toward ceremony and custom. By WWI (U.S. involvement 1917-18) most ranged between just four and six feet in length. Today the largest examples measure two-and-a-half inches by six feet.
Early on, commission pennants had a number of stars equal to that on the national flag. As more and more states joined the Union, however, it became impractical to use the full complement of stars, especially on smaller examples. During the mid-late 19th century, many substituted 13 stars for the full count, to reflect the original colonies. This mirrored the star count used by the Navy on most of the Stars & Stripes flags that it flew on small craft. "U.S. Navy small boat ensigns," as they are called, most often had 13 stars until 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson wrote an Executive Order that ended that practice in favor of the full star count.
Construction: The canton and stripes of the pennant are made of wool bunting that has been pieced-and-sewn by machine. The stars are made of cotton and are double-appliquéd (applied to both sides) with a zigzag, machine stitch. There is a twill cotton binding along the hoist, with two brass grommets. Some pennants of this type terminate at the fly end in a swallowtail format, while others, such as this example, have a blunt end, like this one, which is original to the flag’s construction.
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 preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.
The background fabric is 100% cotton twill, black in color, that has been washed and treated for colorfastness. Three-dimensional folds were added in the stripes and a shadowbox was created to accommodate the mount. The substantial, black-painted and gilded, with its wide, shaped profile, is Italian. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas). Feel free to contact us for more details.
Condition: There is minor mothing throughout, more significant in the stripes than in the union. There are very tiny holes in some of the cotton stars, and modest to moderate areas of soiling throughout the white wool bunting. there is some separation between the blue wool bunting and the binding, with moderate fabric breakdown and loss. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.
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