Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
Sold Flags


Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): 67.25" x 41"
Flag Size (H x L): 56.25" x 29.5"
13 star American national flag of the type used by the U.S. Navy on small boats around the turn-of-the-century. These flags were flown at the stern, from a gaff, or from the yard-arm on a larger vessel, or as the primary flag on a skiff or other small craft that carried sailors back and forth to shore.

The U.S. Navy flew 13 star flags, not only in the Revolutionary and early Federal periods, following the First Flag Act of 1777, but throughout much or all of the 19th century, particularly the second half. As the total number of states increased, and subsequently the number of stars on our nations flag, the Navy often maintained the lower count on smaller flags, to insure that the stars, themselves, would be easier to discern at a distance.

Flag experts disagree about precisely when the Navy began to employ this practice, on what they referred to as “small boat ensigns.” Some feel that the use of 13 star flags never stopped, which seems to be supported by depictions of ships in period artwork. Less consistent prior to the Civil War, and more so afterwards, the tradition continued until 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson wrote an Executive Order that ended the Navy’s use of 13 stars, in favor of small flags in the full star count. According to flag expert Grace Rogers Cooper, of the Smithsonian, old traditions die hard, and Wilson’s order did not completely dispel the presence of 13 star flags on U.S. Navy craft. While I don’t doubt this to be the case, over the years I have, thus far, personally discovered just one exception.

The flag that is the subject of this narrative is signed along the hoist, on the reverse, by way of a black stencil that reads: “U.S. Ensign No. 8 Navy Yard New York July 1898 O.P. 617.” This mark identified manufacture at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During the period in which this flag was made, the size of U.S. Navy small boat ensigns varied between 2.37 x 4.5 feet and 3.52 x 6.67 feet. This particular example reflects the smallest variety described in the regulations of 1882, which remained in effect until 1899.

The Spanish-American War took place in 1898. Spain sank the American Battleship, the U.S.S. Maine, on February 15th of that year. War broke out on April 21st, was declared four days later, and ended on August 13th. The Treaty of Paris made it official, signed four months later, on December 10th.

As a rule, the Navy made its own flags at various locations. In addition to New York, principal seats of manufacture included Mare Island, California, Cavite, in the Philippine Islands, the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, and Newport News, Virginia. With but a few exceptions, such flags went unmarked until the 1880's and after, and some were not marked at all. The earliest count I have ever encountered on a stencil from the Brooklyn Navy Yard is 1884. This appears on a flag I lent to the Museum of the American Revolution in 2019, for an exhibit of 13 star flags entitled “A New Constellation.”

The canton and stripes of this 1898 example are made of wool bunting, that has been pieced and joined with a lineal machine stitch. The rectangular patches at the top and bottom of the hoist are called gussets, These were included for support and are original to the flag’s construction. The cotton stars are double-appliquéd (applied to both sides) with a zigzag machine stitch. There is a blended, hemp and flax binding along the hoist, with 3 patent-dated brass grommets, each of which reads: “Pat’d Aug. 26, 1884, No. 0”. The presence of this dating is a very nice feature. Grommets on other types of flags are never so specifically marked.

Note how the stars are exceptionally large, relative to the size of the canton, when compared to most other flags throughout American history. Also note how these were positioned so that all are oriented with one point up, throughout the pattern. Orientation of the stars on Navy-produced, small boat ensigns varied. Some flag historians report that the stars had no consistent orientation in the early periods, then were oriented such that the first row of stars was points up, followed by the next with all points down, alternating by row throughout, in another period, followed by another where all were oriented upward. There were specifications for star orientation in the closing decades of their use, but with the privilege to example a large same set over the years, I have discovered numerous inconsistencies. As with many objects in antiques, inconsistency is sometimes more of a rule than an exception.

In most cases the 3-2-3-2-3 design can also be viewed as a diamond of stars, with a star in each corner and a star in the very center. It is of interest to note that the pattern can also be interpreted as a combination of the cross of St. Andrew and the cross of St. George, which some feel could have been the configuration on the very first American flag, possibly representing a link between this star pattern and the British Union Jack. The arrangement is often attributed--albeit erroneously, in my opinion--to New Jersey Senator Francis Hopkinson, a member of the Second Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Hopkinson is credited with having played the most significant role of any person in the design of the American flag, but his original drawings have not survived. Further, while he is known to have depicted arrangements of 13 stars on other objects, such as various seals and colonial currencies, his renderings on other devices are inconsistent. Three of the his known renderings illustrate a random scattering, with no particular pattern. None show a 3-2-3-2-3.

In addition to their use on U.S. Navy ships, some private ships flew 13 star examples throughout the 19th century. Beginning around 1890, commercial makers began to produce small flags for the first time in significant quantity. When they did, they chose the 13 star count, mirroring Navy practice. This continued into at least the first two decades of the 20th century. The use of yachting ensigns with a wreath of 13 stars, surrounding a fouled anchor, allowed pleasure boats to bypass customs between 1848-1980. Though they no longer serve this function, their use persists widely today in the boating community, without an official purpose.

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 background fabric is 100% cotton twill, black in color, that was washed and treated for color-fastness. The mount was placed in a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding. The glazing is U.V. protective plexiglass. Feel free to contact us for more details.

Condition: There are a few tiny holes in limited areas, accompanied by modest, lineal tears, with minor, associated loss, beneath the canton, spanning the 11th-13 stripes. A small amount of period wool was placed behind this area in the last stripe, where the affected area was the most significant. There is minor to moderate staining in the 4th, 5th, and 6th white stripes, below the canton and just beyond it, and there is modest oxidation in the stars. There are tiny tack holes along the binding, where the flag was once either tacked to either a wooden staff, or perhaps a wall. The colors are exceptional and the overall condition is excellent for a wool flag of the period.
Collector Level: Advanced Collectors and the Person with Everything
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 33
Earliest Date of Origin: 1898
Latest Date of Origin: 1898
State/Affiliation: New York
War Association: 1898 Spanish American War
Price: SOLD

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