Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
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  13 LARGE AND STRIKINGLY VISUAL STARS ON A U.S. NAVY SMALL BOAT ENSIGN, ENTIRELY HAND-SEWN, CA 1884-87

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): 55" x 75.75"
Flag Size (H x L): 42.5" x 63"
Description....:
13 star American national flag of the type flown by the U.S. Navy. 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. During the period in which this flag was made, the scale of these signals varied between 2.37 feet on the hoist x 4.5 on the fly, and 3.52 feet on the hoist x 6.67 on the fly. This flag would have originally held to the latter measurements and was thus in the largest size dictated by the U.S. Navy regulations of 1882-1890.

This example was probably made sometime in the very brief window between 1884 and 1887. The Navy generally produced their own flags during the 19th century. Because these objects were hand-made, there was a good deal of irregularity and variation, but inconsistencies diminished over the course of time. Brass grommets replaced hand-sewn grommets on these flags sometime in or around 1870. Some sources indicate the mid-1880's, but having owned more of these flags than most persons throughout history, I have had the distinct advantage of being able to examine a great number of them and gain superior information. Numbered and stamp-dated grommets replaced plain, un-dated grommets sometime around 1884 and this patent date appears on the grommets used on small boat ensigns thereafter, through 1915. The practice of using 13 stars on small boat flags ended in 1916, by way of an Executive Order signed by President Woodrow Wilson, but I have never seen a flag dated in that particular year. The latest date on an actual flag that I have observed is 1915.

In 1888 the navy started to date its flags with a black-inked stencil. Dating seems to have been consistent through 1915. On rarest of occasion I have seen a flag with the tell-tale 1884 patent grommets but no stenciled date on the hoist. That is the case with this particular flag.

The large scale of this flag is even more unusual among surviving examples. Given the measurement of the flag on the hoist, the 1884 patented grommets, and the lack of dating or location of manufacture (specified Navy yard) on the binding, its manufacture can be quite accurately dated within a period of just 3 years.

The number of grommets on the hoist, five in this case, is something I have not seen before on a U.S. Navy small boat ensign made during the 19th century. Typically there are just two or three at the very most. The scale of the grommets themselves is larger as well.

The stars of this example are arranged in rows of 3-2-3-2-3, which is the most often seen pattern in 13 star flags following the Civil War. In most cases the design can also be viewed as a diamond of stars with a star in each corner, or as a combination of the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George, which some experts feel was the design of the very first American flag and serves as a link between this star pattern and the British Union Jack.

But the best part of the flag's physical characteristics can be found in the specific size and position of its stars. It was during this period when the scale of the stars was substantially increased. Given the larger size of this flag compared to its smaller counterparts, the size of its stars were increased commensurately. The stars are hand-sewn, double-appliquéd (applied to both sides), notably pointy and keenly attractive. Positioned so the top, middle, and bottom rows of 3 have all points up, separated by rows of 2 stars with points down, their resulting appearance is even more striking.

  Why 13 Stars?
As the number of stars grew with the addition of new states, it became more and more difficult to fit their full complement on a small flag. The stars would, by necessity, have to become smaller, which made it more and more difficult to view them from a distance as individual objects. The fear was that too many of them close together would become as one white mass and distort the ability to identify American ships on the open seas. Keeping the count low 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. This was, of course, the original number of stars on the first American national flag, by way of the First Flag Act of 1777, and equal to the number of original colonies that became states. Any American flag that has previously been official, remains so according to the flag acts, so it remains perfectly acceptable to fly 13 star flags today by way of congressional law.

Although the official use of 13 star flags by the U.S. Navy theoretically ended in 1916, old military traditions die hard and according to at least one expert, Wilson’s order did not completely dispel the presence of 13 star flags on U.S. Navy craft.

Despite being large among its counterparts of the mid-1880's, the flag's relatively small size when compared to others made during the 19th century adds considerable appeal. In modern times, this flag might be considered large by the casual observer. Prior to the 1890’s, however, it is when compared to its many counterparts with sewn construction. Printed parade flags (sometimes called hand-wavers) were generally three feet long or smaller, but flags with sewn construction were generally eight feet long and larger. This is because flags needed to be seen from a distance to be effective in their purpose as signals, while today their use is more often decorative and the general display of patriotism. The average 19th century sewn flag can be cumbersome to frame and display in an indoor setting. This is why many collectors prefer printed parade flags and smaller sewn flags, like this one.

13 star flags have been used throughout our nation’s history for a variety of purposes. Some private ships flew 13 star flags during the same period as the Navy, and the use of yachting ensigns with a wreath of 13 stars surrounding an anchor, which began in 1848, still persists today. Among other uses, 13 star flags were carried by soldiers during the Mexican and Civil Wars and displayed at various patriotic events, including Lafayette’s final visit to the U.S. in 1825-26, the celebration of the nation's centennial of independence in 1876, and the sesquicentennial in 1926.

Construction: The stars are made of cotton, hand-sewn and double-appliquéd. The stripes and stars are made of wool bunting, joined by treadle-stitching. There is a coarse linen binding along the hoist with five brass grommets.

Mounting: The flag has been hand-stitched to 100% silk organza on every seam and throughout the star field. The flag was then hand-stitched to a background of 100% cotton, black in color, which was washed to remove 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.
Collector Level: Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 13
Earliest Date of Origin: 1884
Latest Date of Origin: 1887
State/Affiliation: 13 Original Colonies
War Association: 1866-1890 Indian Wars
Price: SOLD
E-mail: Inquire
 

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