13 Star Flags: How to Identify an Authentic 18c One

The familiar 13 star pattern of an 18th century U.S. national flag

The Flag Act of June 14, 1777 states “…that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field…” Nowhere does it say how the stars were to be arranged. That is why there are so many different ‘national’ standards of this period simply because the star pattern wasn’t regulated until about 1912 or so. The thirteen star flag remained official until 1795.

The operative word above is ‘official.’ The flag design changed with the addition of Vermont and Kentucky in 1795, thus changing the star pattern to 15. However, the U.S. Navy continued using the 13 star pattern flag as a small boat ensign until about 1916.

So, the 13 star flag cannot be positively identified by its star pattern alone since there were many different star patterns manufactured. The design itself cannot be considered particularly scarce because it was used routinely by the U.S. Navy for about 120 years after it was no longer an official national flag or used for national commemorations such as the centennial in 1876, and so there are many 13 star flags available.

OK then, how do you know if your 13 flag doesn’t belong to the time of George Washington?

First, it should be made of ‘worsted’ wool, linen, or silk. All of the stitching must have been in a specific hand sewn style. The star pattern in the blue canton would also be an important factor. The thread used was not cotton, but linen or silk of a certain width and manufacture. No metal grommets were ever used.

Because of these special requirements and the fact that the U.S. Navy continued to use the 13 star pattern in its small boat ensigns, there is no shortage of 13 star flags in existence.

So, do authentic 13 star, 18th century U.S. national flags exist anywhere? Unfortunately, not many authentic 13 star flags made it out of the 18th century because they were made mostly for identification by the U.S. Navy. The Army didn’t even start using the national flag until the 19th century. Regular citizens wouldn’t have displayed the national flag in a way we do today.

That’s not to say someone doesn’t have an authentic 18th century 13 star flag somewhere. It just hasn’t come to light yet. What’s in your attic?