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  31 STARS IN A GREAT STAR PATTERN, ON AN ANTIQUE AMERICAN FLAG MADE DURING THE PERIOD OF CALIFORNIA STATEHOOD (1850-1858), WITH APPLIQUÉD TEXT ADDED TO CELEBRATE INDEPENDENCE DAY, 1858, THE PRECISE DAY THAT A 32nd STAR WAS OFFICIALLY ADDED FOR MINNESOTA; A MAKE-DO EXAMPLE WITH RIBBON AS STRIPES & EXCEPTIONAL FOLK QUALITIES, CLOSELY RELATED TO FLAGS FOUND IN THE FORMER MAINE HOME OF CPL. JOHN WILLIAM MORIN, WHO FOUGHT WITH THE 20th MAINE REGIMENT UNDER COL. JOSHUA CHAMBERLIN AT GETTYSBURG

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): Approx. 45" x 63.5"
Flag Size (H x L): 35" x 51.5"
Description....:
31 star American national flag, found in Maine, sewn from necessity in the mid-19th century. The stars are made of glazed, blue cotton chintz, and are hand-sewn to one side only. These are arranged in what is known as the “Great Star” or “Great Luminary” pattern, comprised of one large star made out of smaller ones, at times also referred to as the “Great Flower,” especially when the format appears as it does here, with bulbus arms and a just single star in the very center.

The flag was constructed hastily from a length of plain weave, white cotton, possibly a hired man’s bed sheet, with selvedge along the upper and lower edges. The hoist end was rolled over and hemmed to form an open sleeve, through which a wooden staff was once threaded, with the flag subsequently tacked into place at the extreme top and bottom.

This is a one-sided flag, made for short-term, patriotic use. Instead of pieced-and-sewn stripes, the supposition of a traditional, striped field is translated by way of narrow lengths of silk ribbon, salmon in color, set wide apart against the mostly white field. Almost certainly left over from dressmaking, the stripes were appliquéd by way of hand stitching along the top edge and sides only, utilizing a very unusual and distinctive style of sewing that employs two small stitches, followed by a very long one, continually repeated. The stars are stitched in the same exact manner about their perimeters.

Seldom do we know the specific purpose of a homemade flag and are instead left to educated guesswork. That is in part the case here. Though the flag itself was made sometime during the 1850-1850 period, when California was recent state to join the Union, it was modified at the very end of this date window, through the addition of a whimsically appliquéd slogan and text along the upper register that reads: “Liberty & Union,” followed by “July 4 1858.” Most of the characters were clipped from plain weave cotton fabric, which appears to have not been in ready supply, but commandeered from another cloth object that the maker recycled. The ampersand is constructed from a piece of salmon orange / pink fabric, and the numeral “8” was formed with what appears to be a fragment of knit, cotton cord in roughly the same color. The superscript “th” after the numeral “4” was inscribed in colored pencil and underlined 4 times for emphasis. In order to add the text, 2 of the ribbon stripes were eliminated, as evidenced by tiny holes left by the tracks of stitches. All of this was done in the period in which the flag was used, during the Antebellum, in the 5th decade of the 19th century. In addition to the benefits of a terrific patriotic slogan, like this one, and a date to record one of the actual times that the flag was used, less than three years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the entire circumstance is extremely interesting from an academic standpoint, and it only gets better.

Approximately 20 years ago I purchased two flags (subsequently sold) that were created by the same maker, one of these, without doubt, made at precisely the same time. This was made of a length of the same, 35-inch wide, white cotton broadcloth and the same exact ribbon. One of the primary differences was that five other types of salvaged ribbon and fabric were employed to construct the striped field, in what was otherwise the same precise way, with the same distinctive stitching. On that flag, which bore neither dates nor slogans, the most notable feature was an applied, white cotton panel, on which a federal eagle was whimsically hand-painted in black. With a shield upon its breast, the talons held both arrows and an olive branch, with its head facing the latter.

The most remarkable fact tying the two flags together, however, can be seen in the cantons. The flag with the eagle was made from a length of the same, glazed, blue cotton chintz, into which 31 star-shaped holes were cut. The result of this pierced length of fabric, when laid over the white ground, was a linear array of 31 white stars. I always pondered why the maker chose to construct the star field in this fashion, until I saw the Liberty & Union flag, with blue stars sewn to the white ground. These are the exact pieces of cloth clipped from the flag with the eagle. In 33 years of selling and researching antique American flags, this was the most remarkable discovery I have ever made connecting one homemade flag to the manufacture of another, further enhancing the fact that both share the same ribbon—which was a peculiar thing to use in the manufacture of any flag of this scale, homemade or otherwise.

A much larger flag, with 34 stars, was found with the 31 star, eagle-adorned example. This too had a federal eagle, applied in the same manner, on an appliquéd panel situated next to the canton. It is of interest to note that this included some of the same ribbon, present in its 31 star counterpart, added to help join the canton to the red stripe below it. In the 34 star flag, the design of the eagle was adapted to the wartime date that its 34 stars represented (1861-1863), with both of its talons gripping arrows. The canton rested on—or, more accurately, was partially embedded in—a red stripe below it. This feature, when present, has been termed the “blood stripe” or “war stripe” by flag aficionados, with the accompanying myth that it characterized wartime manufacture. Whether or not this was the intent, the combination of the two features, not present on the 31 star flag, constitute one of the most interesting displays of wartime vs. peacetime symbolism that I have ever had the pleasure to witness in two Stars & Stripes made by the same hand during the mid-19th century.

The two flags with eagles were discovered in a trunk in the eaves of a house that had not been occupied in many years. This had once belonged to Corporal John William Morin, who served under Colonel Joshua Chamberlin in the famous 20th Maine regiment. Morin, a member of Company F from 1862-1863, fought at Gettysburg in the Battle of Little Round Top, where Chamberlain and his unit earned everlasting fame. Morin transferred to the Signal Corps later that year. At some point the Morin house was broken into and most of his war-related objects were stolen, but the trunk containing the flags was missed by the thieves, who thankfully overlooked its partially hidden location.

It stands to reason that the 31 star, Liberty & Union flag, that is the subject of this narrative, at some point became separated from the 31 star eagle flag. The former came out of a long-time private collection, outside New England. Though its specific history of use had been lost to time, I did ask the collector if he, at the very least, knew anything about where the Liberty & Union flag had been found. The only thing he knew was that it “had come out of Maine,” a fact I was thrilled to learn.

California joined the Union as the 31st state on September 9th, 1850, immediately following the Gold Rush. The 31 star flag became official on July 4th, 1851 and remained so until the exact date present on this particular flag, of July 4th, 1858, when a star was added for Minnesota, which had entered as the 32nd state on May 11th of that year. After the Third Flag Act, passed by the United States Congress in 1818, stars were to be officially added on the Independence Day that followed a state’s addition. This does not, however, appear to have been common knowledge. Instead, what typically happened was that flags changed when the state was actually added, if not sometimes beforehand, in hopeful anticipation of Westward Expansion. Both of these circumstances are seen with regularity from 1864 onward, but prior to that year things are a bit less predictable. Whatever the case may be, 31 star examples are extremely rare among surviving American national flags of the 19th century. Those made prior to the Civil War are rare in general, comprising less than one percent of 19th century flags that have survived into the 21st century. This is partly because, prior to the Confederate attack on Ft. Sumter, our flag was simply not used for most of the same purposes that it is today. Private individuals did not typically display it in their yards or on their porches. Parade flags did not often fly from carriages and horses. Places of business rarely hung flags in their windows. Private use of the Stars & Stripes rose swiftly during the patriotism that surrounded the Civil War, then exploded at the time of the 1876 centennial of American independence.

Even the military did not use the flag in a manner that most people might think. The primary purpose before the Civil War was to mark ships on the open seas. While flags were used to mark garrisons, those of ground troops were often limited to the flag of their own regiment, with a design peculiar unto itself, and perhaps a standard that featured the numeric designation on a painted or embroidered streamer, on a solid buff yellow or blue ground. Most people are surprised to learn that ground forces were not authorized to carry the Stars & Stripes until it was assigned to artillery regiments in 1834. Infantry was afforded the privilege in 1841, just prior to the Mexican War (1846-1848), while cavalry regiments were not issued their iconic, swallowtail, Stars & Stripes format guidons until the second year of the Civil War, in 1862, and even then were not formally authorized to carry the national flag until long afterward, in the 1890’s.

Brief History of the Great Star Pattern:
The Great Star configuration appears to have come about shortly after the War of 1812, when Congressman Peter Wendover of New York requested that Captain Samuel Reid, a War of 1812 naval hero, create a new design that would become the third official format for the Stars & Stripes. A recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Reid became harbor master of New York following the war. During his lifetime, he created many innovations in signal use, including a system that could actually send messages from New York to New Orleans by sea in just two hours.

Use as a Naval signal had been the primary reason for the initial creation of an American national flag in 1777, but since there was no official star design, the appearance of our flag varied greatly. Reid’s primary concern centered on both consistency and ease of recognition. His hope was that as more and more states joined the Union, and more and more stars were added to the flag, that it remain easily identifiable on the open seas. In 1818, Reid suggested to Congress that the number of stripes return permanently to 13, (reduced from 15,) and that the stars be grouped into the shape of one large star.

Reid’s proposal would have kept the star constellation in roughly the same format, in a pattern that could be quickly identified through a spyglass, as the number of states grew. His concept for the stripes was ultimately accepted, but his advice on the star pattern was rejected by President James Monroe, due to the increased cost of arranging the stars in what would become known as the “Great Star”, “Great Flower”, or “Great Luminary” pattern. Monroe probably didn’t wish to impose this cost on either the government or civilians, so he suggested a simple pattern of justified rows. Never-the-less, no official design was designated, though the Great Star was produced by anyone willing to make it. Its rarity today, along with its beauty, has driven the desirability of American flags on which it is present.

Don’t be fooled by the seemingly backwards orientation. In the 19th century, the same flag ethics that exist today did not apply. In fact, display of the American national flag with the canton in the upper left did not enter the American consciousness as the one correct manner of presentation until sometime around the year 1900, and was not formally dictated as such until the adoption of the flag code in 1923. Prior to this time it was just as common to see the flag displayed with the canton in the upper the right.

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 flag was flat-lined to a supportive fabric first, for support. It was then hand-stitched to a background of 100% cotton twill, black in color, that was washed and treated for colorfastness. The mount was placed in a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas).

Condition: In addition to the removing of two stripes and the addition of the slogan and text, in the period, as described above, there is minor to modest foxing and water staining throughout, more significant toward the fly end. There are minor to modest holes along both the sleeve and the fly end, where the flag was once tacked both to a wooden staff and apparently to a fixed surface, such as a wall. The overall state is beautiful and shows its age gracefully.
Collector Level: Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 31
Earliest Date of Origin: 1858
Latest Date of Origin: 1858
State/Affiliation: California
War Association: 1777-1860 Pre-Civil War
Price: SOLD
 

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