Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
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  17 STARS IN AN OVAL MEDALLION WITH 2 STARS IN THE CENTER, A MID-19TH CENTURY FLAG WITH A RARE STAR COUNT, IN AN EXTRAORDINARY CONFIGURATION, AND IN A DESIRABLE SMALL SCALE AMONG ITS COUNTERPARTS OF THE PERIOD; MADE CA 1850-1865, LIKELY TO COMMEMORATE OHIO AS THE 17TH STATE

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): Approx. 52" x 82"
Flag Size (H x L): 38" x 70.25"
Description....:
American national flag with 17 stars and 13 stripes, made sometime in the period between the 1850’s and the Civil War (1861-65). Constructed of fine merino wool and entirely hand-sewn throughout, the stars are arranged in a pattern seldom encountered in any star count. This consists of a single, oval wreath with two stars in the center. Ovals are unusual to begin with, but the inclusion of just two stars is significantly more rare. One might expect to encounter a single star, or a small grouping of stars. Two, however, is especially odd and the reason for the selection is unknown. I can think of just two other surviving flags that share this trait. One, with 13 stars, dates to the Civil war era or prior and is among the best that I have ever had the privilege to own. This featured an somewhat oval wreath of 11 stars, with 2 large stars in the center. The other is a silk battle flag with a standing oval arrangement of 38 stars in a double wreath, with a star in each corner and 2 stars in the vertically-oriented center. A fourth style is known, with 34 stars arranged in a double, oval wreath with a star in each corner and two in the center, but this only exists in image form, being held by a boy of about 8 or 10 years of age in an early tintype photograph.

Period 17 star flags, made to reflect when Ohio joined the Union as our 17th state in 1803, are all but unknown. This star count was technically never official. The first flag act of 1777 provided for 13 stripes and 13 stars. When Vermont and then Kentucky became the 14th and 15th states in 1791 and 1792, respectively, there were no immediate changes to the national flag. Three years later, in 1795, the second flag act was passed by Congress, raising the count of both stripes and stars to 15. This remained the official specification through the addition of 5 more states until finally, following the addition of Mississippi as 20th state in 1818, the count of stars was raised again to 20. At this time the number of stripes was retuned the original 13, where it remains today almost 200 years later, to reflect the 13 original colonies.

Surviving flags in this early period are exceptionally rare. Despite their unofficial status, a tiny number of surviving examples with greater than 15 stars, yet fewer than 20, do and/or did probably exist. According to both actual, surviving flags and illustrations, the logic of continuing to add a stripe for every star seems to have held forth in the above period, between the 2nd and 3rd Flag Acts (1795-1818).

The only surviving flag with 17 stars, made in the 1803-1812 period, is privately owned. With a compliment of 17 stripes, it was handed down through the family of Captain James Clephan (1768 – 1851) of the British Royal Navy. The flag is reported to have been collected by Clephan as a war trophy following his capture of the American privateer “Blockade” near the Caribbean Island of Saba, during the War of 1812, The ship is recorded as having being taken on October 31st, 1813 (in both American and British sources) by Clephan while in command of the HMS Charybdis.

The only surviving 16 star flag, made in the period when we had 16 states (1796-1803), has long resided at the Hartford National Bank in Stonington Connecticut. The “Stonington Flag,” was reportedly made by the women of the First Congregational Church of Stonington in 1796 and later saw use by local militia in the defense of the bombardment of Stonington by the British in 1814. An 1876 photo of the flag clearly shows 15 stripes and a gap along the sleeve where the 16th stripe existed at one time.

One 18-star, 18-stripe flag is among the holdings of the Louisiana State Museum, reportedly made by Mrs. Ann Mather Hickey and other women of Baton Rouge at the Hope Plantation, for use by Colonel Philip Hicky at the Baton Rouge arsenal in 1812, following Louisiana’s admittance to the Union.

It seems possible that by the time the 19th state was added, in 1816, the logic of returning to 13 stripes was becoming clearer, their count now becoming so narrow as to soon be considered pinstripes. Two or three flags are known with 19 stars, one of which, at least, clearly dates to this period and all of which have 13 stripes.

Even among flags in the official count of 15 stars, surviving examples are practically beyond rare. Even though there are many illustrations, just four or five examples are presently known that bear a complement of 15 stars and 15 stripes, one of which is our nation’s most famous flag, the Star Spangled Banner. There is also a 15-star, 13-stripe example that appears to date to this era.

Beyond this early group of 15-19 star flags, others in these low counts were sometimes produced outside the 1792-1818 period for a host of reasons. These generally have 13 stripes and date between the mid-19th century and the 1st quarter of the 20th.

The 17 star flag in question here likely dates to the time frame between the 1850’s and the Civil War. Entirely hand-sewn, the stars are made of cotton and are double-appliquéd (applied to both sides). The canton and stripes are made of merino wool. According to early advertising, some commercial flag-makers did offer merino wool flags, but surviving examples in this fabric are scarce. This was high-end, clothing grade fabric, costly and attractive, but probably seldom chosen by those ordering flags. It may, however, have been occasionally purchased at dry goods stores by the makers of homemade flags, who would not have typically had access to wool bunting. Unlike other wool fabrics, wool bunting wasn’t employed in the manufacture of clothing or other household necessities. It was exclusively used for flags and banners and was the fabric of choice for flag-makers for long-term, outdoor use, especially those with maritime function.

A linen sleeve binds the hoist, through which a braided hemp rope was inserted, looped at the top and bottom, and stitched, firmly into place. In this instance I suspect the flag to have been constructed by an expert commercial maker.

The numerical sequence “A-2069.1” is inscribed along the bottom of the sleeve on the obverse. This is an old museum or private collection reference number, though the source is unknown and the flag has no known specific history.

Some low star counts made “out of period” have several possible associations. Flags with 16 stars, for example, might be found that glorify Tennessee as the 16th state. In addition, this count was also employed by the U.S. Navy during the mid-19th century on some of its small boat ensigns (flags flown on small craft, or as a secondary flag on a larger vessel). The Navy was reformed in 1798, all of its ships having been sold following the Revolutionary War in order to pay debts of France. So the selection of 16 stars by the Navy could reflect an important anniversary.

The use of 15 stars could theoretically reflect the 15 Slave States, or, in other words, all of the official Confederate States plus the 4 Border States that existed from 1861-1863. So in addition to the possibility of glorifying Kentucky as the 15th state, a 15 star flag might alternatively, or simultaneously, represent the South. In addition to these two possibilities, the US Navy is also suspected to have chosen this count for some of its small boat ensigns for reasons heretofore unexplained. 15 was the official star count in 1798 and, like 16 stars, could easily be placed on a flag in simple rows of equal length, i.e. 4-4-4-4 or 5-5-5. Using a smaller number of stars made them easier to discern at a distance as individual objects on a small flag. The Navy mostly used 13 stars for this task, but is known or believed to have used 12, 15, 16, 20, and possibly 24 stars for the same reason, all of which laid out nicely in regimented, militaristic formats.

The most likely reason behind the making of this particular 17 star flag is to somehow glorify Ohio’s addition as the 17th state on March 1st, 1803. Given both the construction and the selection of fine fabrics, as well as a lack of evidence of extensive long-term use, one key possibility is that it was specifically made for the 50-year anniversary of Ohio statehood in 1853. A flag such as this may have been flown in an important place to commemorate the event, or perhaps even brought out annually to be flown on that day.

An alternative theory of some merit is that it was instead sewn for some patriotic event or purpose associated with Ohio’s involvement in the Civil War.

Display at the Ohio House at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia (our nation’s first World’s Fair, held to celebrate 100 years of American independence) is another possibility. While the rope hoist is more typical for use at sea, the lustrous and costly fabric suggests use on land for either an upscale client or ceremonial function. Plus the fabrics, construction, and general feel of the flag, judging from my experience with thousands of more easily datable examples, are suggestive of an earlier date.

The small scale of the flag is another desirable trait. For most of the 19th century, those with pieced-and-sewn construction were generally eight feet long or 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. A six-foot example is small among flags of those that pre-date 1890, and they smaller they are, the rarer they are. At approximately 3 x 5 feet, this one falls within the ideal size range for most collectors and one-time buyers alike. Because 19th century pieced-and-sewn flags can be cumbersome to frame and display, many flag enthusiasts prefer small examples, like this one.

In summary, the use of 17 stars on any early American flag is extremely rare. Outside of the single, aforementioned, period example captured in 1813, this is the earliest example of a 17 star flag that I have ever encountered and easily the best of any later period that I am aware to survive.

Collectors wishing to own a 17 star example of any period have almost no choices beyond a modern reproduction. This not only fulfills that important void, but is a fantastic flag in all respects beyond its 17 stars or its meaning. The rare stand beautiful star pattern, the hand-sewn construction and mid-19th century date, attractive fabrics, and its small scale among pieced-and-sewn examples of this era are all tremendous features. Together these result in a flag of solid masterpiece level quality.

Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed in our own conservation department, which is led by masters degree trained staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples; more than anyone worldwide. Feel free to contact us for more details.

The black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed molding is Italian. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas).

Condition: There are several modest losses with period darning repairs in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 12th and 13th stripes. There is a scattering of minor holes in the striped field. There is a small patch at the fly end of the last stripe. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use. The overall condition and colors are excellent for the period. The extreme rarity of the flag would warrant almost any state of preservation.
Collector Level: Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 17
Earliest Date of Origin: 1853
Latest Date of Origin: 1865
State/Affiliation: Ohio
War Association: 1777-1860 Pre-Civil War
Price: SOLD
E-mail: Inquire
 

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