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  7 STAR, ENTIRELY HAND-SEWN, U.S. NAVY COMMISSION PENNANT OF THE CIVIL WAR ERA, THE SMALLEST, MID-19TH CENTURY EXAMPLE I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED, AND THE ONLY PRE-1900 EXAMPLE THAT I KNOW OF IN THIS STAR COUNT, circa 1861-1865

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): Approx. 16" x 89"
Flag Size (H x L): 7" x 80"
Description....:
Commission pennants are the distinguishing mark of a commissioned U.S. Navy ship. Flown at the masthead, 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 is aboard and replaces it with their own flag.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, these signals were a very important means of identifying the disposition of a ship. As a rule they were very long. Though regulations of the latter 19th century specified the longest at 70 feet, some reached as 100 feet or more. This was the first thing one would see coming over the horizon, and identified it as a warship.

Though in use from the 18th century onward, commission pennants first appear in the U.S. Navy regulations of 1864. Termed “narrow pennants,” eight different sizes were specified in that year, but count of stars remained unspecified until 1912.

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, 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 was typically employed 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.

At just 7” on the hoist x 8’ 2” on the fly, the pennant that is the focus of this narrative is tiny among known, 19th century examples. Entirely hand-sewn, it dates to the Civil War period (1861-1865) and represents the smallest that I have ever encountered. Though sizes of just 6 and 9 feet appear on 1864 regulations, this is the only example I have seen that falls within that spectrum. Shortened a bit at some point, as a means of repair, I expect the original size to have met the 9’ specification.

Note that the number of stars is just 7 in total. Though I have not otherwise seen this star count in a Civil War period example, it does happen to be the star count that would become iconic on U.S. Navy commission pennants of the 20th century. Following the Spanish-American War (1898), the function of commissioning pennants leaned away from identification, toward ceremony and custom. Even though pennants as large as 70 feet were still listed on the naval regulations of 1912, once the U.S. entered the First World War, in 1917, all commission pennants seem to have been reduced to the 7 star count, with a dramatic corresponding decrease in size. Hereafter, the largest were no greater than 2.5 inches x 6 feet.

It is of interest to note that, according to the U.S. Navy itself, 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, employed on the smallest examples.

Because commission pennants are not well understood outside the Navy, early examples, even if saved initially, were likely to have been at some point discarded. Descendants may have often assumed that they were just part of a flag, maybe a fragment of some sort, kept for repairs. Whatever the case may be, 19th century examples are a rarity. Because they display so beautifully when thoughtfully presented, and properly conserved, they can be a dynamic addition to any collection of American flags, or Americana in general.

The blue union, as well as the red and white stripes, are all made of wool bunting. The stars are made of plain weave cotton and are double-appliquéd (applied to both sides). These are rough cut, with the edges unturned. The somewhat crude stitching suggests that it was likely made at sea, or, at the very least, re-made by a sailor from a larger pennant. The longevity of flags in regular use at sea is very short. Even today, with modern fabrics and construction, such use dictates an expected lifespan of no more than six months.

There is a linen or hemp binding along the hoist, into which a small length of wood was inserted and stitched into place, with a single, tiny, whip-stitched eyelet. Use of a rigid bar within the hoist, like the one present here, was fairly common in commission pennants of the 19th century.

All-in-all a fantastic example, in a manageable scale, with beautiful graphics.

Mounting: The flag will be 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.

This will be a 3-dimensional, folded mount, to reduce scale and increase visual impact.

Fabrics and molding to be determined. The glazing will be U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas).

Condition: There is some golden brown oxidation, as well as water staining, in the white cotton stars. There is minor to modest mothing throughout, with associated loss, and there are some splits in the fabric from extended use. There are a couple of areas of moderate loss in the white stripe. Loss at the fly end from wind shear resulted in a repair, that appears to have been accomplished by simply re-attaching some of the original, red wool bunting. The original length was probably 108” (now approximately 100”). This is not only appropriate, but completely expected in a pennant that was most certainly flown. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.
Collector Level: Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 07
Earliest Date of Origin: 1861
Latest Date of Origin: 1865
State/Affiliation:
War Association: 1861-1865 Civil War
Price: SOLD
 

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