|U.S. NAVY COMMISSION PENNANT OF THE CIVIL WAR PERIOD (1861-1865), WITH 13 STARS, ENTIRELY HAND SEWN, AN EXCEPTIONAL SURVIVOR
|Frame Size (H x L):
|67" x 88.75"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|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.
This particular example is entirely hand-sewn and dates to the Civil War (1861-65) period. Early on, commission pennants typically displayed a number of stars equal to that of 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. In my experience, this typically occurred on examples measuring 40 feet or less on the fly. This mirrored the star count used by the Navy on most of its national flags flown on small craft. Prior to 1916, "U.S. Navy small boat ensigns," as they are called, typically displayed 13 stars.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the smallest examples sometimes displayed just 7 stars. It is of interest to note that, according to the U.S. Navy, the reason for the choice of 7 stars was not recorded. I once suspected this the number might logically reference the "7 Seas", before I discovered that this is a mythicized, ancient term, and geographers disagree on the precise meaning. The number may just as likely have represented what seemed like a logical design choice, when the overall length was substantially shortened. Star counts for “Narrow Pennants” remained unspecified during the 19th century.
Ship captains were especially concerned about the ability of foreign ships to recognize the flag on the open seas. On small flags in particular, when viewed at a distance, the use of fewer stars made them easier to view as individual objects. Keeping the count at 13, to reflect the original 13 colonies, maintained patriotic tradition, as well as consistency and better visibility. The same logic was applied to the manufacture of some commissioning pennants, such as this example, which measures approximately 34 feet on the fly and was originally somewhat longer. Among surviving examples, this is rather large. During the 18th and 19th centuries, however, these signals were a very important means of identifying war ships at sea. For this reason, their length often well-exceed this, with some reaching as long as one hundred feet.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the function of commissioning pennants leaned away from identification and more toward ceremony and custom. Even though larger pennants were still listed on naval regulations, by WWI (U.S. involvement 1917-18) all such signals, in my experience, bore 7 stars and the largest measured just two-and-a-half inches by six feet.
Because longer examples appear to have been regularly discarded, they are a rarity. Because they display so beautifully when thoughtfully presented and properly conserved, they can be a dynamic addition to a collection of American flags or Americana in general.
Construction: The pennant is entirely hand-sewn. The stars are made of cotton and double-appliquéd (applied to both sides). The body of the pennant is made of wool bunting that has been carefully pieced from many small lengths of fabric. Such conservative use of fabric is common in flags of this period, but this demonstrates particularly frugality. The Navy made its own flags and so was unconstrained by the standards of commercial flag-makers. Use at sea for long periods necessitated such things as replacement and mending. Captains likewise needed to keep sailors busy and construction at sea is a distinct possibility in this case.
An open sleeve, made of twill cotton, binds the hoist. The name "McEvoy" is written along the hoist with a dip pen. This would have been the name of a former owner. Note that the name was later crossed out, so the pennant probably changed hands during its course of use.
Mounting: The pennant has been hand-stitched to 100% hemp fabric. The mount has been placed in a hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding with a wide convex profile. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic.
Condition: Past the loss at the extreme fly end and a few small tears with associated loss near the hoist in the blue wool, the condition is absolutely exceptional for the period.
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