|RARE BRITISH RED ENSIGN OF THE LATTER 19TH CENTURY, MADE BY HORSTMANN & BROTHERS COMPANY OF PHILADELPHIA FOR DISPLAY AT THE 1876 CENTENNIAL INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITION, ONE OF TWO KNOWN EXAMPLES
|Frame Size (H x L):
|Approx. 38" x 52.5"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|26" x 38.75"
|19th century British flags are especially unusual things in the antiques marketplace. I have seen many incorrectly labeled as such by auction houses and dealers, as well as individuals, who lack the experience necessary to distinguish both hand-sewn and machine-sewn, 20th century examples from their earlier counterparts. Part of the issue lies in the fact that the Brits tended to engage in hand stitching far after it was abandoned in the United States, and even when they did not, they continued to employ wool bunting, wooden toggles, and other design elements that harken to an earlier time, but continued to be utilized in Britain well into the second half of the 20th century. Though they look earlier, many are all-but-new in an antique sense, perhaps qualifying as vintage, if a bit half-heartedly.
In all fairness, it can be difficult to date a Union flag / Union Jack circa 1880, versus 1910 - 1920’s. Because the Union flag and its closely related relatives—red, white, and blue British ensigns—did not require applique work, they were easier to complete entirely by machine, if someone so desired. Unlike American flags, one doesn’t have the luxury of obtaining at least a hint of a possible date, through the number of stars that appear in its canton. These would—at least theoretically—represent the official number of states that existed at the time of manufacture. There is no comparable feature in British Union flags. Because the wool and textile making industry was more advanced in the U.K. than it was stateside, and because there are so many fewer examples of early British flags to compare vs. American flags of the same era, it’s way more difficult to obtain the necessary information to date a British flag accurately. Tradition and high quality tended to be perceived British traits in the textile industry, but one must not presume that these things always prevailed over frugality or the demands presented by the need of large quantities in short order, such as WWI or WWII would have created. So in terms of commercially-made British flags, one doesn’t precisely know when to expect an earlier technique being employed later, or a later one being employed earlier.
The flag that is the subject of this narrative, in the form of the British Red Ensign, is rare for a couple of reasons. One lies in the fact that the flag can be accurately dated to the 19th century. Press-dyed on wool bunting, it was produced by Horstmann & Brothers Company in Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition. This was our nation's first World's Fair, held to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of American independence. Another aspect of rarity is that I have encountered just two flags in this exact style over the past 33 years as an avid buyer of antiques, 25 of those as a heavy buyer of flags specifically.
Held in Philadelphia 's Fairmont Park, the Centennial exposition presented some challenges with regard to flags that previous patriotic events had not. With a duration of approximately 6 months, thousands of flags were needed for the decorating of no less than 225 buildings, constructed specifically for the fair. The largest of these, simply called the “Main Building,” was the largest in the world at the time, enclosing about 21 acres on the interior. Though there were smaller displays elsewhere, it was in the Main Building that Great Britain’s primary exhibit was housed. There certainly would have been British flags displayed there, and even if British-produced, the Horstmann-made examples would likely have been all over the place. All manner of locations had arrays of international flags to highlight the spirit of the World’s Fair event. Flags of approximately this size appear in illustrations throughout the exposition. Even so, almost none appear to have survived the test of time. Founded in 1816, the Horstmann firm is best known for the significant role it played in outfitting Civil War regiments. In 1876, post-war, it was both conveniently located and well-equipped to outfit the massive, six-month-long fair.
Previous to this time, parade flags, made for patriotic display at parades and rallies, were typically printed on cotton or silk. Because such events typically lasted just one day, or a handful of days at the very most, it was not necessary that they be especially durable. Wool sheds water, while cotton absorbs water and silk is not advisable to come in contact with water for any extended period. It is for this reason that most flags that were commercially-made for long-term outdoor use were made of wool bunting, a gauze-like, loosely woven fabric that allowed air to pass through and encourage faster drying. The introduction of printed wool flags, which mostly saw military use prior to 1876, was a viable alternative offered by Horstmann, more suitable for the occasion.
I was fortunate enough to acquire a small group of international flags of this exact type about 20 years ago, that surfaced together in the greater Philadelphia area, and were accompanied by two 38 star American nationals flags (1876-1889), as well as an 1876 copy of the Grand Union, (a colonial design and America's first flag, which originated around 1775, when it was still a British Colony, and was used until at least June of 1777). All save one printed flag in the 39 star count, and one French tricolor, bore the same Horstmann markings and construction as this Red Ensign. In addition to the other identified Red Ensign, the flags present in that initial group included the a British Union flag, plus flags of Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Brazil, Cuba, Honduras (I believe), and Mexico. Since that time, I have obtained all of the examples I have encountered, among them two flags of Hawaii (Monarchy period), one Egyptian example, and another of Norway-Sweeden as a combined state, as well as a larger Grand Union. Beyond the American and British examples, all of the others represent the earliest flags that I can recall ever having encountered in private hands, from any of these nations.
The Red Ensign was the flag flown by the British Royal Navy until the year 1800. While the precise date of the origin of the pattern is unknown, the earliest official version, with the Cross of St. George only, was adopted by the English Royal Navy in 1625. Surviving receipts illustrate that this signal was being produce and paid for by the British government as early as 1620.
The Scotts had their own version, with the Cross of St. Andrew, and the two were merged into one flag in 1707, by way of the Acts of Union that joined the two nations. In 1800, further Acts of Union were passed that joined Britain and Ireland. At this time, St. Patrick's Cross was added and the final format was adopted.
Among other engagements, the Red Ensign served as the flag of the British military during the French & Indian War (1754-59), the American Revolution (1775-83) , the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), and the War of 1812 (1812-1815). Within the Acts of Union of 1800 was a provision that thereafter made changes to the flag subject to the pleasure of the King. On January 1st, 1801, King George III designated the Red Ensign as the principal flag of the Royal Navy, to be worn by ships of the Red Squadron, as well as by warships not assigned to any squadron. At the same time, the Blue Ensign (same flag but with a blue field instead of red) and the White Ensign (same flag but with a white field, divided vertically and horizontally by a red cross) became the official standards of the Blue and White Squadrons, respectively.
In 1854, the Merchant Shipping Act was passed. This specified that the Red Ensign was the appropriate flag for a British merchantman (echoed in successive British shipping legislation during the last quarter of the 19th century and still applicable in the 1990’s). In 1864, an effort was made to reduce confusion brought about by the use of three different flags for one navy. At this time the Red Ensign fell from naval use, to become the principle civil flag, to be flown by British merchant ships and Merchant Marine vessels. The White Ensign replaced it as the official standard of the Royal Navy, and the Blue Ensign was assigned to non-navy ships in public service.
In terms of things such as a World’s Fair, where a design needed to be selected to represent the nation, hanging along other national flags, the Red Ensign generally prevailed.
It is of interest to note that because the Stars & Stripes wasn’t adopted until June 14th, 1777, and because it was neither authorized or commonly carried by American ground forces until the 1830’s and after, the colonial army actually displayed various versions of the Red Ensign during the Revolutionary War, particularly during the war’s opening years. It also appeared in public displays and protests, sometimes with verbiage emblazoned on the red field that denounced the crown. At other times its use probably stemmed from a reluctance to depart with British ties. Use of a similar flag, known as the Grand Union or Continental Colors, appears to have occurred between roughly 1775 and 1777. Like the Red Ensign, the Grand Union displayed the British Union design as the canton. This was paired with a field of 13 red and white stripes to reflect the American colonies. This is thought of as the first American national flag and was similar to that of other British Colonies, most of which flew a Red or Blue Ensign with a device set towards the fly end of the field to identify the subservient nation.
Construction: The canton and field of the flag are press-dyed on wool bunting. The fly end was bound with two rows of treadle stitching. A twill-woven, cotton header binds the hoist, in the form of an open sleeve, applied with treadle stitching. Along this, on the obverse, near the top, is a black inked stencil that reads: "Great Britain." followed by "2 X 3 ft." to indicate size. Lengths of cotton cord were pierced through the binding at the top and bottom, in order that it may be affixed to a staff. Although the Horstmann name is not present on this example, the flag is readily identifiable in all respects, from the exact fonts employed in the markings, to the material and size. Horstmann was inconsistent with markings. Considering that almost no makers marked flags during the 19th century, it is fortunate to have any sort of identifiable maker’s mark on a flag of this period.
Some Notes on the Press-Dying Process:
First patented in 1849, the press-dying process was thought to be a novel idea that would improve flag-making efficiency. In reality, the result must have been less efficient than sewing. To achieve white stars, for example, on an American flag, metal plates in the shape of stars had to be clamped to either side of a length of woolen fabric, in the desired configuration, so they were back-to-back. These may have been lightly brushed beforehand with a solution that would resist dye, or perhaps with a thin coat of wax. The stars were clamped together tightly, the bunting was dyed blue, and the areas where the metal stars were positioned would be left white. For flags with press-dyed stripes and other devices, the same task was repeated with different clamps. A form of resist-dyeing, this method often resulted in crude characteristics, such as stripes with irregular lines, in various widths, and stars with inconsistent shapes, in slightly varying sizes. It is likely that this resulted in some lost product and wasted time, from flags that had bleeding or misprint issues and were of too poor quality to sell. This may perhaps explain why it never became a popular method of flag production. Wool was tough to dye. Even today, only about 1% of wool fabric is printed, because it generally needs to be washed afterward and wool cannot easily be treated with water.
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 has been hand-stitched to 100% silk organza for support. It was then hand-sewn to a background of 100% cotton twill, black in color, that was washed and treated to remove excess dye. The mount was then placed in a black-painted and hand-gilded, contemporary Italian molding. The glazing is U.V. protective Plexiglas.
Condition: There is extremely minor mothing throughout, accompanied by several occurrences of modest to moderate mothing in the red field. The most significant of these are located in the top half of the flag. Early fabric of similar coloration was placed behind these areas for masking purposes. There is minor soiling on the hoist binding. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.
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