Collecting Historical American Flags
By Tom Carrier
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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