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  BEAUTIFULLY GRAPHIC AND HIGHLY UNORDINARY 13 STAR FLAG IN THE BETSY ROSS PATTERN, A MADE OF FINE SILK WITH SILK FRINGE AND TIES, IN A TINY SIZE AMONG ITS COUNTERPARTS CA 1895-1926

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): 38" x 49"
Flag Size (H x L): 26.25" x 37"
Description....:
13 star American national flag, made in the period between approximately 1895 and the 1920’s. The stars are arranged in the circular wreath pattern most often associated with Betsy Ross. Flags in this design are widely admired, due to the longstanding popularity of the Betsy Ross myth. While many Americans were taught in grammar school that this was what our first flag looked like, there is unfortunately no way to prove the claim. No colonial examples have survived with this pattern of stars. In fact, I have encountered just a couple of examples of Betsy Ross pattern flags which I feel pre-date the 1890's.

The stars of the flag are made of silk and are double-appliquéd (applied to both sides) with a zigzag machine stitch. The canton and stripes of the flag are made of plain weave silk and have been joined with machine stitching. Four silk ties were machine-stitched at regular intervals along the hoist.

Why 13 Stars? 13 star flags have been continuously produced throughout our nation’s history for purposes both patriotic and utilitarian. This was the original number of stars on the American flag, representing the 13 colonies, so it was appropriate for any flag made in conjunction with celebrations or notions of American independence. 13 star flags were displayed at patriotic events, such as Lafayette’s final visit in 1825-26, the nation’s centennial anniversary in 1876, and celebrations of Independence Day. They were used by presidential candidates when campaigning for office and were carried by soldiers during the Mexican and Civil Wars to draw a parallel between the current and previous struggles for freedom.

13 star flags were flown by American ships both private and federal. The U.S. Navy used 13 stars on the ensigns made for small boats, because they wished the stars to be easily discerned at a distance. As the number of stars grew with the addition of new states, two circumstances occurred. One, it became more and more difficult to fit stars on a small flag and two, it became more difficult to view them from afar as individual objects.

The same logic was adopted in the private marketplace. For all practical purposes, commercial flag-makers simply didn't produce flags with pieced-and-sewn construction that were 3-4 feet in length that bore the full star count until well into the 20th century. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between among surviving examples.

Beginning around 1890, flag-makers began to produce small flags for the first time in large quantities. Applying the same logic as the U.S. Navy, they chose the 13 star count rather than the full complement of stars for sake of ease and visibility. Most of these were produced in sizes of 2 x 3 or 2.5 x 4 feet. At just shy of 3 x 5 feet, this example, while still small among its pieced-and-sewn counterparts, is notably larger than most of those in the 13 star count.

There are several possibilities behind the intended use of this particular example. It may have been made in conjunction with a display at the Betsy Ross House, or possibly to be sold there as a souvenir. It may have been made for some other historic site, though due to the excellent preservation of its colors, long-term use over a period of years is unlikely. Indoor use at one of the world's fairs is a more likely possibility. Such events often had a duration of 6 months or less.

Another alternative is that the flag was made for parade use by a patriotic organization, such as the Society of the Cincinnati or the Daughters of the American Revolution, or perhaps for theatrical use. Patriotic theater productions were especially popular in the WWI era (U.S. involvement 1917-18), which was also a time of colonial revival in American architecture and interior furnishings. The ties along the hoist suggest that it was made to be hand-carried. World's fairs in America often included historical shows and displays of all kinds and no less than 32 of varying importance and scale took place between the 1895 and the mid-1920's. In 1926, Philadelphia hosted the Sesquicentennial International Exposition, held in conjunction with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of American independence. I would suggest that this marks the latest likely date within the possible window of this flag's production. In addition to decoration throughout the fair itself, businesses throughout the city would likely have decorated with flags. The most notable display took place at Wanamaker's department store. John Wanamaker ordered hundreds of elaborate silk flags from a French maker, many of which were hung inside the main store's inner courtyard (with some in at least one other location). I have had the privilege to handle some of the Wanamaker flags while on consignment from vexillologist Whitney Smith to my ex-business partner, and then again at a sale following Smith's death. John Wanamaker was actually the primary thrust behind the planning and execution of the 1926 fair. At the time he was the only surviving member of the finance committee of the 1876 Centennial International Exposition, our nation's very first world's fair, which was of massive scale and held to celebrate America's 100th anniversary.

Any flag that has previously been official, remains so according to the flag acts, so 13 star flags were and still are official today. Because there was no official star pattern for the 13 star flag set forth in the flag act of June 14th, 1777, the design was left up to the liberties of the maker. Among 13 star flags that date between the 18th and the early 20th century, the number of known designs is rather staggering. Since there was no official star pattern until 1912, anything was possible. I estimate the number of known 13 star configurations to fall somewhere between 80 and 100, possibly more.

One of the interesting misconceptions about 13 star flags is that the Betsy Ross pattern, even if not the original design, must have been common in early America. Logic would suggest this, given the frequency with which it appears in modern times, but this isn’t actually the case. In fact, the pattern is seldom encountered anywhere until much later. Exceptions include a 1779-1780 painting of George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, by Charles Willson Peale, that depicts in the background a flag that appears to have a circular wreath of stars, but no stripes. This is one of the few appearances of a circular pattern in a work period to the Revolutionary War, yet it wasn’t the national flag and Peale may have used some artist’s liberty in its inclusion. While known to be especially detailed and keen on accuracy, he made at least four copies of the painting prior to 1782, one of which shows the Battle of Trenton in lieu of Princeton (the original), so he obviously wasn’t opposed to alterations. Trumbull, included a flag with what may be a circular pattern in a 1787 painting of the Battle of Yorktown but the flag is waving and it is not known if the intended design is circular or oval.

Francis Hopkinson, credited designer of the Stars & Stripes, actually rendered a circular pattern of 13 eight-pointed stars, presented like the rowels of a spur, on a piece of 1778 Philadelphia currency. This did not show a flag and was not part of one. He included a similar rendering, surrounding a liberty cap, on a 1778 draft for the seal of the U.S. Board of War, but there is a flag affixed to the liberty pole on which the cap rests, and the flag, which displays only stars, arranges them in a 4-3-4-2 lineal pattern.

The only surviving 18th-century illustration of a 13 star, Stars & Stripes with a circular wreath and no center star, appears in a sketch by William Barton, which served as his 2nd draft for the Great Seal of the United States, presented to the 3rd Committee designated to select it. Though it does not survive, Barton’s first draft is also said to have included such a flag. The final draft was not rendered by Barton, but by Congressional Secretary Charles Thompson, who included no flags, but did include an arrangement of 13 stars above the head of a federal eagle, placed in a random pattern. It is of interest to note that Francis Hopkinson produced some of the initial drafts of the seal, which also included 13 stars in a random scatter (fig. 4).

One of the best arguments against the Betsy Ross pattern having appeared on the original flag is illustrated by the fact that so many 13 star flags exist without it. If the Ross design was the original, it stands to reason that the pattern would have been reproduced with at least some degree of frequency. Most people are surprised to learn, however, that one will rarely encounter an American flag with the Betsy Ross pattern that was, with any degree of certainty, made before the 1890s. In fact, I have owned just one that I have claimed to pre-date the last decade of the 19th century.

Research conducted by the National Museum of American History notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the very first American flag for General George Washington, in the company of George Ross and Robert Morris, entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 centennial. The tale was immensely popular among an American public eager for stories about the Revolution and its heroes. The first documentation of it appeared shortly beforehand, in 1870, in a paper written by Betsy’s grandson, William Canby, for the Pennsylvania Historical Society. At the time, Canby made no mention of how the flag was designed, save for the fact that it had 5-pointed stars, per his grandmother’s suggestion. Because no earlier documentation supports the story, most flag scholars feel it was a grand hoax, fabricated by Canby for his own interests. Nothing survives in the collective writings of the three men, for example, nor in records of their words and deeds, which are fairly extensive. As with most things, reality is perhaps somewhere in the middle ground, with some of the details based on fact and some on fiction, made up, misinterpreted, or imagined from family accounts.

The first time that a star configuration gets attached to the Ross story appears to have occurred during the last decade of the 19th century. In 1892, Charles Weisgerber painted a nine-by-twelve-foot rendition of the fabled meeting between Betsy and George Washington, in which there is a flag with a circular wreath. Shortly afterwards, in 1898, Betsy’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter began to make flags in the East Wing of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, selling them to tourists while disseminating the family folk tale. In that same year, Weisgerber and a “group of concerned citizens” sought to preserve Betsy’s former Philadelphia residence at 239 Arch Street, where she lived at the time the flag would have been sewed. Weisgerber moved his family into the house and immediately opened to the public the room in which Betsy was said to have worked her magic. Ten-cent memberships were sold to fund renovations and donors received a small calendar, to which a cotton 13 star Betsy Ross pattern parade flag was affixed. The effects of these events caused the Ross legend to stick and the story, with the corresponding flag design, has appeared ever since in more places than one could ever hope to count.

Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed in our own textile conservation department, which is led by expert 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 black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed molding is Italian. The glazing is U.V. protective Plexiglas.

Condition: There is very minor bleaching in the canton. The body of the flag is otherwise excellent. There is significant breakdown of the silk ties, which appear by all means to have been constructed of weighted fabric. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age.
Collector Level: Advanced Collectors and the Person with Everything
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 13
Earliest Date of Origin: 1895
Latest Date of Origin: 1926
State/Affiliation: 13 Original Colonies
War Association:
Price: SOLD
 

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