Jeff Bridgman Antique Flags
Sold Flags


Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): 39.75" x 61"
Flag Size (H x L): 28" x 49"
13 star American national flag of the type used by the U.S. Navy on small boats in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. The Navy produced signals in several locations, including Brooklyn, New York, Mare Island, California, Boston, and Cavite in the Philippine Islands. With but a few exceptions, such flags went unmarked until the 1880's and after. It was at this same time that the size of the stars increased significantly and this change in scale made a significant contribution to the flags’ visual presentation.

Made in the customary fashion of the time, and with its stars configured in a 3-2-3-2-3 arrangement, this example is unsigned as to the location of its making, but it is marked with a black inked stencil that reads "U.S. E. No. 8." The flag is entirely hand-sewn throughout. This is indicative of most Navy flags made in the brief period from approximately 1882-1899. During these years, Naval regulations dictated only 3 official sizes of small boat flags, one of which was designated as 2.37 x 4.5 feet. This was the smallest of the 3 specified varieties. At approximately 28 x 49 inches, the flag's measurements properly coincide with the prescribed scale of a No. 8 ensign on the hoist measurement, but not on the fly. This is because the flag was turned back and hemmed to repair losses from wind shear along the fly end.

Note how the stars in the 1st, 3rd, and 5th rows are oriented with one-point-up (right-side-up in modern terminology), while those in the 2nd and 4th rows are oriented with two-points-up (upside-down). This orientation seems to have been employed on small boat flags made in the period between 1882 and 1889, changing to all-points-up following the 1889 change of regulations. It can also be encountered afterwards, however, particularly during the first decade of the 20th century.

The canton and stripes of the flag are made of wool bunting. The stars are made of cotton and are double-appliquéd (applied to both sides). There is a coarse linen sleeve along the hoist with three brass grommets. Each is stamped on the reverse with the following text: “Pat’d Aug. 26, 1884. No.1.” The presence of patent-dated grommets is a relatively consistent feature in the U.S. Navy flags of this period, but is virtually nonexistent across all other flags that I have examined. Although the Navy continued to use grommets with this patent date well into the 20th century, they do provide an earliest possible date for the manufacture of the flag, narrowing the window to the five-year time span between 1884-1889.

The names of Lyman, Thornton, and Grimm [possbly Grimme] were inscribed along the reverse side of the header with a dip pen. There may be an ampersand between Lyman and Thornton, or it may be some other mark. Between these two names and Grimm is a vertical symbol, similar to an elongated "S" or an "F," and very similar to the "S" often seen in early Pennsylvania German documents. Whether or not this has any meaning is not known. Whatever the case may be, names on a flag of this nature are typically that of a former owner or owners, and it was typical to mark flags in this fashion during the 19th and early 20th century. Sometimes a person might encounter two names, usually written in different hands, if ownership changed, but it is very unusual to see three names together like this, seemingly in the same hand. Research into these three names turned up very little information. Veterans Administration pension records of 1907-1912 include a payment card for a Lyman Thornton in 1912, but it is unclear as to which branch of the service this individual was associated with or where he lived. Civil War records list three men having served in that war who shared this name, including one who enlisted at the age of 32 in Pontiac, Michigan in March of 1865, one who enlisted at the age of 18 in Ischua, New York in 1862, and the other, from Madison, Wisconsin, age unknown, who enlisted in 1862. All of these men served in Infantry units and none seem likely candidates for a Navy flag, though all seem worthy of further research, especially in terms of familial descendants.

One of the flag's most appealing features is its small size when compared to others made for extended outdoor use during the 19th century. Printed parade flags (sometimes called hand-wavers) were made for short-term use and were generally three feet long or smaller, but flags with sewn construction were generally 8 feet long and larger. This is because most flags needed to be seen from a great distance to be effective in their purpose as signals. Even flags made for decorative use were often very large by modern standards. Because the average pieced-and-sewn flag of this era is difficult to frame and display in an indoor setting, small flags like this one, especially with military attribution, are of special interest to collectors.

An unusual and very important feature of this particular flag is its entirely hand-sewn construction. Flags of this period are almost never entirely hand-sewn. The sewing machine was mass-marketed by Singer in 1855. Even among flags of the Civil War period (1861-65), I estimate that sixty-five to seventy percent of stripes were joined by treadle machine. By 1890, the fraction would fall closer to ninety-eight percent.

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.

The U.S. Navy used 13 stars on its small-scale flags for precisely this reason, but 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.

The star pattern used by the Navy on its 13 star small boat flags of the mid-1860's and prior typically displayed staggered lineal rows of 4-5-4. The transition to rows of 3-2-3-2-3 is not known with certainty. Some say it continued in this fashion until the 1870's, and some say the transition came in the latter part of the Civil War, perhaps 1863 or 1864. I am a fan of the latter theory, though there is evidence to support that some use of the 4-5-4 continued after the fact. Military traditions tend to die hard, even if there are regulations to the contrary.

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.

In addition to their use on small Navy boats, 13 star flags have been flown throughout our nation’s history for a variety of 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. Commercial flag-makers mirrored U.S. Navy practice on small scale flags beginning around 1890 and some private ships flew 13 star flags during the earlier periods. 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.

Although the official use of 13 star flags by the U.S. Navy theoretically ended in 1916, following an Executive Order of President Woodrow Wilson, as previously suggested, 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.

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. Feel free to contact us for more details.

The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color. The mount was placed in a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding. The glazing is U.V. protective plexiglass.

Condition: There are minor holes throughout, particularly in the 6 stripes below the canton. There is minor bleeding of the red stripes into the white and moderate fading of both these and the blue canton. There is minor soiling in the stars. The upper two grommets were hammered flat and there is moderate fabric breakdown surrounding them. The fly end was turned back and re-hemmed during its course of use, as a proper means of repair. The overall loss in length is approximately 5 inches. 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: 1884
Latest Date of Origin: 1889
State/Affiliation: 13 Original Colonies
War Association: 1866-1890 Indian Wars
Price: SOLD

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