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Collecting Historical American Flags

by Tom Carrier (01/30/09).

By Tom Carrier
WorthPoint Worthologist

EDITOR’S NOTE: Brimfield, Mass., is a small New England town with a population of about 5,000 or so. Settled in 1706, it shows its traditional New England quaintness rather well. It has its large, steepled church, and with the leaves of autumn or the snow of winter, looks the part in any Norman Rockwell painting. And then for one week every spring, fall, and summer, the population doubles with 5,000 antique dealers converging on Brimfield to create the “Antique Capital of the United States.”

I am WorthPoint’s Worthologist for vexillology, or flags. Naturally, I was drawn to the booth of Rae McCarthy of R&R Collectibles from East Hampton, Mass. Her specialty is the American flag as a collectible, so I wondered if the American flag was still in demand.

“At the point of 9/11, we did a show 10 days after and we actually sold out of flags, all in one show. For two years we sold a lot of flags, and it’s kind of dwindled off, but we’re coming back to people… wanting the older flags, and of course those are hard to find,” McCarthy says.

Rae refers to the historic U.S. national flags as being bestsellers and usually that means flags with less than 50 stars, which has been official since only 1960. The 48-star U.S. flag was official from 1912 through 1959, when the 49-star flag became official when Alaska became a state. But that only lasted until Hawaii joined the Union in 1960. Traditionally, when a new state joins the Union, regardless of the date, the new star on the flag is made official on the July 4th following admission.

“A lot of people buy for condition, too. They don’t necessarily think they want wool flags because of their age. They may think they like the blue on that one better,” McCarthy continues. That is also true of other flags that may look better within a home décor.

A wool Vice Commodore flag used by a yacht club is another example of a flag that would work in a nautical décor. It’s small size—about one foot by two feet, with red field and sewn cotton stars and anchor—means it can easily be framed and displayed. A similar sized wool flag of Bermuda, with its silk-screened coat-of-arms and Union Jack on red, I found, also makes for a nice display, too, even without a frame. The values were each less than $100.

A different dealer featured a rather large U.S. national flag that was probably once a U.S. Navy standard wool ship flag. It still showed its halyard, or rope, attached to the heading, but with no markings to determine its origin. It was very large, probably about the standard length of about 10 feet by 16 feet, and in deteriorating condition that it impossible to unfold just to verify the number of stars. However, we can determine its age through the hand stitching of the stars and the hand sewn grommets, which places it near 1850 or so. Its value could be $800 to $1,500, it’s value held down because of its size and generally poor condition. A similar small flag that can be framed and displayed, even in the same condition, could have the same value if not more.

Besides wool, flags were also made from cotton, linen, and even muslin, which was used through the early 20th century.

“Small flags are more in demand. Big flags are hard to display, so we go through a lot of small flags,” McCarthy says of her inventory. Good advice for collectors or patriots.

To watch a video of Tom Carriers’ discussion of flags with Rae McCarthy, click here.

 

Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects, including vexillology, or flags.

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11 Responses to “Collecting Historical American Flags”

  1. susan johnson says:

    our church has a brand new bag of three 49 star flag made by Penny’s that are ready to cut out and sew. Is this bag worth anything. Thank you

  2. Tom Carrier Tom Carrier says:

    Susan:

    Without a photo, I’m just going to take a guess here and say that what you have is a commercially produced, ready to sew, uncut material ready to be used in a home sewing project.

    This one happens to have three 49 star flags that are printed as one piece with then intention of cutting them apart for three separate projects.

    I hope I got that right. However, without dimensions or even a clear photo, I can only guess as to its value.

    As everyone knows, the 48 star flag is the second longest serving US flag from 1912 to 1958. When Alaska was added as a state in 1959, some 49 star flags were produced, but not as many as you might think, because flag manufacturers waited until Hawaii was admitted as a state in 1960 to produce the 50 star flag, which is now the longest serving US flag.

    Having an uncut set of 49 star flags is a great flag collectible. Not only are 49 star flags of relative scarcity, but to have three uncut at one time is even more so.

    To a collector, the value of the 49 star flag alone is higher than a 50 star flag of similar manufacture. I have silk 49 star flags of about 12 inches by 14 inches or so easily selling for about $20 where a comparable 50 star flag would sell for about $5 to $9.

    Your set of flags is certainly unique. Again, without a proper image to determine condition, dimensions and such, it could have a collector value of $50 to $100.

    This is a good example of what nonprofit groups should be looking for when sifting through donated items, particularly flags. Always look for wool flags (they always have a higher value), unusual star patterns (like the 49 star flag or 48 stars not in the official box pattern), and flags with markings on the hoist (the part attached to the pole). Collectors also like flags that are able to be framed and displayed, rather than larger ones that have to be flown to be seen. There are always exceptions, however.

    Hope this helps.

    Tom Carrier
    Worthologist

  3. Tom Carrier Tom Carrier says:

    Susan:

    Without a photo, I’m just going to take a guess here and say that what you have is a commercially produced, ready to sew, uncut material ready to be used in a home sewing project.

    This one happens to have three 49 star flags that are printed as one piece with then intention of cutting them apart for three separate projects.

    I hope I got that right. However, without dimensions or even a clear photo, I can only guess as to its value.

    As everyone knows, the 48 star flag is the second longest serving US flag from 1912 to 1959. When Alaska was added as a state in 1959, some 49 star flags were produced, but not as many as you might think, because flag manufacturers waited until Hawaii was admitted as a state in 1960 to produce the 50 star flag, which is now the longest serving US flag.

    Having an uncut set of 49 star flags is a great flag collectible. Not only are 49 star flags of relative scarcity, but to have three uncut at one time is even more so.

    To a collector, the value of the 49 star flag alone is higher than a 50 star flag of similar manufacture. I have silk 49 star flags of about 12 inches by 14 inches or so easily selling for about $20 where a comparable 50 star flag would sell for about $5 to $9.

    Your set of flags is certainly unique. Again, without a proper image to determine condition, dimensions and such, it could have a collector value of $50 to $100.

    This is a good example of what nonprofit groups should be looking for when sifting through donated items, particularly flags. Always look for wool flags (they always have a higher value), unusual star patterns (like the 49 star flag or 48 stars not in the official box pattern), and flags with markings on the hoist (the part attached to the pole). Collectors also like flags that are able to be framed and displayed, rather than larger ones that have to be flown to be seen. There are always exceptions, however.

    Hope this helps.

    Tom Carrier
    Worthologist

  4. i have a boxed flag that was sent to the mother of a soldier who was killed in 1944 in italy , i think. the card board box was opened but it dosen’t look like the flag was removed. is there any value or interest in this type of flag?

    • Tom Carrier Tom Carrier says:

      Richard, your flag is no doubt a very well made 3×5 foot cottom flag. For such a flag, dealers have been getting about $50 to $75, maybe a bit more in such excellent condition.

      If there is documentation to the soldier’s mother that accompanied the flag, then the value increases to about $95 to $110.

      Hope this helps.

      Tom Carrier
      Worthologist

  5. Tde says:

    37 star U. S. medallion flag

    I’m not a collector but I found a flag I’m trying to get to people that do collect. I’m selling a 37 star U. S. medallion flag on ebay. The number is 120592849736.

    Please take a look by simply pasting the number into the search section. This flag belongs with a collector or museum and this is my best shot at trying to find the right person/s. I apologize for the intrusion on your web site.

    Thanks, Tom

  6. Jason says:

    Hi – I was cleaning out the mother-in-law’s closet and came across a 13star flag. I realize it’s not an original 13 star, but i’d like to try to identify the time period it was made in. It feels like muslin or linen, the stars are sewn on in what seems like hand stitching (pretty crooked hem stich (3 parallel rows)). Even the red and white stripes appear sewn together. The size is roughly 33″ x 68″ (i’m scared to stretch it given its delicate feel). I have some pictures I’d be happy to send…

    Thanks, Jason

    • Tom Carrier Tom Carrier says:

      Jason:

      Well, you have what in vexillology is called a ‘boat’ flag in use officially from the 1870s to 1916. It was intended to be flown at sea with more visible stars in the canton, the blue field.

      According to an article by one of our most prominent vexillologists, Dave Martucci, there are several different variations of stars to account for. That should tell us the period where your flag belongs. Also, the heading, the part that has the grommets or where the flag is hung from the halyard, or rope, might also have a number stenciled on it. That would be the identification number issued by the US Navy. That will also help.

      What I’m suggesting, then, is that a photo is in order here. Take a clear closeup of the stitching along the stripes and one of the stars and any wording on the heading and the grommets or holes used to attach the flag to the pole.

      In any case, you seem to have a late 19th century US Naval 13 star boat flag or jack. A very nice historic item. The value will be determined by the star pattern, the fabric, the manufacture and, oh yes, maybe even the condition.

      Thanks for contacting WorthPoint.

      Tom Carrier
      Worthologist

    • Tom Carrier Tom Carrier says:

      Jason:

      After reviewing the photos you sent me offline, you’re flag design is from the 1900 to 1916 time period of the US Navy boat flag period, the last version before the Navy returned to the US jack. None of your version is hand sewn, it is all machine sewn.

      After spending some time searching the WorthPoint auction archives I found that you’re version of the boat flag has sold at auction from between $250 to $400 since 2008. The Navy markings give your flag a little extra value.

      Hope this helps.

      Tom Carrier
      Worthologist

  7. Richard Marquette says:

    Tom; I would like to email you some photos of 39 star “Medallion”, 9′ 11″ X 6′ 1″ US flag with handsewn stars and balance treadlemachine sewn. Center star is 8 1/4″ and others 5 1/2″. I need to find out what I could sell it for.

    • Tom Carrier Tom Carrier says:

      Richard:

      Thanks for sending along the photos of your wonderful, 39 star US national flag. The medallion pattern is beautiful and rather rare.

      Looking at it, I had two immediately conflicting thoughts: one, it is in wonderful shape with a very coveted star pattern and very collectible; two, it’s sheer size will be a tough sell.

      Let’s take the second part first. Collectors enjoy proudly showing off their collections. Flags are no different. If it can’t be easily displayed, the value can drop sometimes significantly even if it is a unique item. I’m afraid that may be the case here.

      To be sure, I contacted my friend and prominent vexillologist Nick Artimovich about your flag. His collection rivals that of many museum collections and has consulted with the US State Department, the Smithsonian, the White House, and others. Here is an excerpt of his post to me:

      “This is most likely a Centennial flag, made in 1875 or 1876 in anticipation of two states joining the current 37. However only Colorado was admitted in August of 1876.

      The only dated 39 star flags are from 1875/1876. When Dakota Territory was ready for statehood in 1889 it was well known that it would result in numerous new states so it is very unlikely that you would see 39s from that era.

      I have hand and machine sewn cotton flags of very similar appearance that were made in the 1860′s to 1880′s, so a Centennial attribution would be appropriate for this flag. Large sewn 39-s are uncommon, but small printed ones are readily available.

      The flag’s value is enhanced by the beautiful star pattern and excellent condition, but reduced by the large size. I would expect it to sell at auction in the ballpark of $1000 to $2000 and be priced by an antique or Americana dealer at two to three times that range.”

      And so, Richard, any auction house would love to feature your flag in its next Americana catalog, but will probably be put off by its size. Contact Heritage Auctions, Nate D Sanders or other houses that specialize in Americana to be sure.

      If that fails, it’s excellent condition suggests that perhaps only a well trained and experienced staff would be able to care for it in a way you and I could not. I was able to sell, not donate, a very early military flag of the president to the Smithsonian Institution in 1985 that was so large it had to be photographed hanging from outside the building. If auction houses are unable to feature your flag, perhaps a larger organization such as the Smithsonian might have an interest either as a donation or certainly at the lower end of the market value.

      All in all, an excellent discovery nonetheless. Thank you for taking the time to contact WorthPoint.com. It was great fun to see your flag and to spend time with it, even electronically.

      All the best

      Tom Carrier
      Worthologist

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