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  13 HAND-SEWN STARS ON AN ANTIQUE AMERICAN FLAG OF THE 1876 ERA, PROBABLY A U.S. NAVY SMALL BOAT ENSIGN

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): Approx. 53" x 75.5"
Flag Size (H x L): 39.75" x 62.5"
Description....:
13 star American national flag of the type flown by the U.S. Navy in the 1870-1880's period. Because the Navy's flags of this era were made in the same fashion as many of those produced for private use in cottage industry settings, it can be difficult to ascertain the intended purpose of a 13 star flag of this period with 100% certainty. Some, for example, were produced to glorify the original 13 colonies during the 1876 centennial of American independence. The star pattern of this particular flag, however, as well as its construction and basic dimensions, suggest that it was among the most common of the Navy's small boat ensigns, as they were termed, which varied between 2.9 feet x 5.5 feet and 3.2 x 6 feet. 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 height of the flag conforms very closely to the 3.2 foot specs of a number 13 ensign, as dictated in the 1870-1882 regulations, less an inch or so of shrinkage. The length was shortened during its course of use, which was the proper means of repairing expected wear in order to extend the flag's term of service. This is evidenced by the irregularity of the profile at the fly end and the hand-stitching of its hem.

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. Note how the stars on this example vary in position on their vertical axis, which lends a nice measure of folk quality to the design. Also note the attractive shade of the blue wool bunting, which lends to its visual presentation.

The stars of the flag are made of cotton, hand-sewn and double-appliquéd (applied to both sides). These are arranged in rows of 3-2-3-2-3, which begins to appear on U.S. Navy flags at the tail end of the Civil War. 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 3-2-3-2-3 pattern can also be interpreted as a combination of the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George, which some feel could have been the design of the very first American flag and may identify a link between this star configuration and the British Union Jack. The pattern 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, who is credited with having played the most significant role in the original design of the American national flag. Hopkinson's original drawings for the design of the flag have not survived and his other depictions of 13 star arrangements for other devices are inconsistent.

The stripes and canton of the flag are made of wool bunting that has been joined with treadle stitching. Because wool bunting was generally only available in a width of eighteen inches, the canton is pieced from two lengths of fabric. Several of the stripes were also pieced, as a way of utilizing all available material. There is a sailcloth canvas binding along the hoist with 2 brass grommets, along which a name is penciled. This appears to read “J.S. Bare,” but is difficult to discern. This would represent the name of a former owner and it was common to mark flags in this fashion during this period to indicate ownership.

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.

13 star flags have been used throughout our nation’s history for a variety of other purposes. They were hoisted at patriotic events, including Lafayette’s visit in 1825-26, the celebration of the nation's centennial in 1876, and the sesquicentennial in 1926. They were displayed during the Civil War, to reference past struggles for American liberty and victory over oppression, and were used by 19th century politicians in political campaigning for the same reason. 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 a fouled anchor, which allowed pleasure boats to bypass customs between 1848 and 1980, persists today without an official purpose.

The flag's relatively small size when compared to its counterparts of this period adds considerable appeal. In modern times, this flag might be considered large by the casual observer. Prior to the 1890’s, however, it is small 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. Only as time passed did their use become more decorative and for the general display of patriotism. Because the average 19th century sewn flag can be cumbersome to frame and display in an indoor setting, collectors prefer smaller flags that are more manageable in scale.

Mounting: The flag has been hand-stitched to 100% silk organza on every seam and throughout the star field. It 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.

Condition: There is very minor mothing throughout, and minor soiling. The fly end was shortened during its course of use as a proper means of repair and expanding its lifespan. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.
Collector Level: Intermediate-Level Collectors and Special Gifts
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 13
Earliest Date of Origin: 1870
Latest Date of Origin: 1880
State/Affiliation: 13 Original Colonies
War Association: 1866-1890 Indian Wars
Price: SOLD
E-mail: Inquire
 

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