Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
Sold Flags


Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): 54.25" x 69.25"
Flag Size (H x L): 41.25" x 56.5"

This entirely hand-sewn and very rare American flag with 16-Stars is a U.S. Navy small boat ensign, made in the period between the 1850's and the beginning of the Civil War. A number of star counts that were lower than what was official were employed by the Navy for use on small craft during the 19th century. Those with 13 stars are most common, but other counts were used as well, particularly 16 and 20 stars. The reason for the use of 20 stars is unknown, but it is logical to assume that it may have simply been a matter of convenience, since 20 stars fit nicely into 4 rows or 5 rows. The 16 star flag may have been a product of similar logic.

The ability discern individual stars on the American flag at a distance was of concern to ship captains. Keeping the count low on small scale flags allowed for better visibility. Flag experts disagree about the precisely when the Navy began to revert to 13 stars and other low counts for this practice. Some feel that the use of 13 star flags never stopped, which seems to be supported by depictions of ships in period artwork.

It has been theorized by some flag historians that there was a more important reason behind the selection of 16 stars. When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the nation’s warships were sold to pay down federal debt. With the sale of the ships, the Continental Navy and Marines ceased to exist. In 1798, President John Adams signed a bill that officially reestablished the United States Department of the Navy and the United States Marine Corps. Since this took place during the period when we had 16 states (1796-1803), there are some who suggest that the use of the 16-star flag may have paid homage to the founding of these two important cornerstones of the American military.

Both 20-star flags and 16-star flags are seen in ship’s paintings, particular during and before the American Civil War (1861-65). 20-star examples are extremely scarce, but they do come to the marketplace occasionally. Surviving examples with 16 stars are seen with even less frequency. I have encountered fewer than 10 examples.

Late flag expert Howard Madaus, one of the most notable experts in the field of antique flags, made the following statement:

"The U.S. Navy distinctive "boat flags", wherein the number of stars in the canton was reduced to make them more visible (i.e., larger) seems to have been adopted in the middle of the 1850's. (One of the "boat flag" size flags that [Admiral] Perry carried into Japan in 1853 bears the full complement of 31 stars, while the earliest marked boat flag I have seen from the Boston Navy Yard--and so marked--is dated 1857.) From at least 1857 through 1861, U.S. Navy "boat flags" bore 16 stars, set in 4 rows of 4 stars each. Although some have speculated that the number of stars was chosen to reflect the rebirth of the U.S. Navy in 1798 (when 16 states formed the Union), I suspect that the reason for the 16 stars was merely a matter of practicality."

The practice of using 13 stars theoretically ended in 1916, following an executive order from then-President Woodrow Wilson. Old military traditions die hard, however, and according to the late flag expert Grace Rogers Cooper of the Smithsonian, Wilson’s order did not completely dispel the presence of 13 star flags on U.S. Navy craft.

Tennessee became the 16th state in 1796. It is interesting to note that while there were 16 states for a period of roughly 8 years, the 16-star count was never official. The star count was increased from 13 to 15 in 1795, by way of the Second Flag Act, and then from 15 to 20 in 1818, by way of the Third Flag Act. Only one 16 star flag is known to exist. It has a compliment of 16 stripes and is in the collection of the Stonington Historical Society in Stonington, Connecticut. For this reason, collectors desiring to own an early flag with 16 stars have few options outside the small known group of mid-19th century Naval ensigns.

This particular flag was for many years among the holdings of a Tennessee collector.

Mounting: The flag has been hand-stitched to 100% natural fabrics on every seam and throughout the star field for both support and masking purposes. It was then sewn to a background of 100% cotton twill, black in color, which has been washed to reduce excess dye. An acid-free agent was added to the wash to further set the dye and the fabric was heat-treated for the same purpose. The mount was then placed in a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic.

Condition: There are minor losses throughout, accompanied by moderate loss in the 2nd, 3rd, 12th and 13th stripes. There is minor foxing and staining throughout, accompanied by a modest area with scattered, darker stains between the 12th and 13th stripes, near the hoist end. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.
Collector Level: Advanced Collectors and the Person with Everything
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 16
Earliest Date of Origin: 1850
Latest Date of Origin: 1861
State/Affiliation: Tennessee
War Association: 1861-1865 Civil War
Price: SOLD
E-mail: Inquire

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