“Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” – The Flag Act of 1777
Always start with the stars. Since 1818, while the stripes were set at 13, alternate red and white, the number of stars would change on the admission of a new state. So, if you want to identify the year your flag was manufactured, count the stars, then check it against the list of official U.S. flags above. Unless, you count 13 of them.
IF YOU HAVE A 13 STAR FLAG
Officially, the U.S. flag had 13 stars from 1777 until 1795. During the time of the 13 star flag, though, many patterns of stars were created and since Congress didn’t specify any particular pattern of stars as official, they all were. The problem is, relatively few 13 star flags have been identified as surviving the 18th century. Most of those are military banners and all are in museums, like the Schuyler Flag.
The Schuyler Flag dates to about 1784, is silk and is part of the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This flag shows the eagle in the canton with an arc of 13 stars above, similar to many star pattern variations during the 18th century, including the circle of stars and the familiar 3,2,3,2,3 pattern of stars. The chart above shows the different patterns utilizing 13 stars in the 18th century.
I mention all this, because your flag will probably be similar to some of these designs and you will make the obvious connection that your flag is from the 18th century. Except it isn’t. The U.S. Navy continued using a 13 star flag at sea until about 1918, the centennial of 1876 brought back the spirit of a nation with a resurgence of 13 star flags and international celebrations like the Columbian Expositions brought forth even more 13 star flags. So, how do you tell when your particular flag was made? You first look at the material used and then how it was manufactured.
MATERIALS USED FOR U.S. FLAGS
Through the years, the U.S. flag has been manufactured using a variety of different materials, mostly worsted wool, cotton, linen, muslin and silk, mostly in that order. Of the surviving flags of the 18th century, and there are only a few, most are regimental flags and they are made from silk as was the custom then.
Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, flags were made from worsted wool bunting manufactured, oddly enough, in Great Britain. Yes, it is an ironic twist that all of our earlier Revolutionary War flags were made from British wool. Worsted wool was a lighter wool fabric made from long fibers that was manufactured to be light and thin, but still with considerable strength.
Next, is the manufacture process and the time when innovations change the way flags were created. You won’t be able to understand all the nuances here, but these are the kinds of details that textile experts will be looking for when trying to identify your flag.
INNOVATIONS IN FLAG MANUFACTURE
Use of thread from linen to cotton, 1820s
Until about 1814, the stars on the flags were hand cut from linen and were sewn by hand using a 2 ply linen or silk thread. By the early 1820s, though, cotton became cheaper to use and, being lighter in weight than linen, was used for the stars and the thread thereafter.
Material for the stars and heading, 1820
Throughout the 18th century, the stars and the heading (the part on the hoist end that attachs the flag to a stationery object like a flag pole) were cut from linen. By about 1820, muslin was used for stars and a heavy cotton for the heading, although linen was still used throughout the 19th century for stars, too.
The use of a sewing machine, 1850
The dividing line between hand sewn flags and machine sewn flags was about 1850 with the commercial availability of the mechanized sewing machine using a foot operated treadle. It was now possible to stitch together the stripes and stars in a continuous feed making the stitches more uniform and saving time. The invention of a 3 ply, Z twist thread was used as it was more durable for the use of machines.
Grommets change from hand sewn to metal, 1860s
The grommets, the part of the heading with a hole to connect a halyard (the rope) to a stationery object like a flag pole, changed from completely hand sewn holes to the use of a piece of metal between the fabric and the connecting halyard. Mostly used with official Navy flags, with civilian use much later. A sleeve was also created to house a thick rope with loops to hold the flag to a stationery object.
6 ply cotton thread introduced, 1860s
With the advent of the mechanized sewing machine, the lighter woven silk and cotton stitching thread used for stitching by hand were too soft to be pulled through the eye of the sewing machine. And so, about the 1860s, a 6 ply cotton thread was introduced to help pull it through the machine.
Thread manufacture changes, 1865
Just about 1865, the end of the Civil War, 2 ply thread with an S warp twist became more prevalent in the production of flags. Prior to this innovation, thread was usually a single ply with a Z warp twist. An S twist was yarn that was twisted from left to right , while a yarn that was twisted from right to left / is called a Z twist.
Clamp dyeing, 1870s
In order to produce a cheaper flag, sewing stars and stripes had to be eliminated and so, the United States bunting Company introduced a method to eliminate sewing altogether. Take the canton which is to be dyed blue, place blocks on top in the shape of stars, clamp them down, and dye as normal. The blocks, once pulled off, leave a white star that looks as if it was silk screened. The stripes were done the same way. But, it was still an expensive process and not used often.
Zig zag sewing introduced, 1900
Even with the introduction of the sewing machine into commercial use, it still wasn’t possible to sew stars with any accuracy. Hand sewing was still required. However, with the invention of the zig zag attachment, hand sewing of stars would be finally eliminated.
Use of cotton instead of wool, 1940s
During World War II, the wool bunting normally used for the product of flags was diverted to the manufacture of uniforms for the military. Cotton became the fabric of choice until the advent of a true synthetic material beginning with nylon in 1939 and the 48 star is the one flag that can easily be dated. The wool version was official between 1912 and just before World War II. A cotton 48 star flag was made during the War until 1960 when the addition of Alaska and Hawaii produced the 50 star flag.
Hopefully, the above information will help you to at least begin to understand as to what era your flag belongs based on the material, the manufacture, the use of metal grommets, and the weave of the material.
Those with flags with more than 13 stars can easily use the chart above to date their particular flags.
The information was summarized from a very detailed booklet titled “Thirteen-Star Flags: Keys to Identification,” by the late Grace Rogers Cooper, Curator of Textiles for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology in Washington, DC and originally published in 1973 by the Smithsonian Institution Press. It has long been out of print. While I labored to remain faithful to the original text, any and all errors are mine.