The Stars Tell Its Age: Collecting the 27 Flags of the United States

This 27-inch by 46-inch wool 13-star U.S. national flag, with a canton pattern of 4-5-4 and hand-sewn cotton stars sold for $10,925 at Cowan’s Auction House in 2008. There are very few original 13-star flags left in existence, and this one is not dated.

There are about 200 official countries in the world, each with its own national flag design. But few national flags can tell their story at a glance better than that of the United States of America. Pick up any U.S. flag and the number of stars will tell you how old the flag is.

The reason? While the red and white stripes have remained the most dominant feature since its adoption in 1777, it’s the number of stars in the flag that keeps changing. Every time a new state is admitted, a new star is added and so a new national flag is adopted. That means through its current design of 50 stars adopted in 1960, the flag of the United States has undergone a total of 27 official changes, more so than any other national flag.

And, of course, with change comes collectability, right? But which are more collectible? The easy answer is all of them are, but some more than others.

This is an 1876 American Centennial 13-star flag with 13 stripes, is connected to Company H, 71st Regiment, New York Volunteers.

It is roughly 12 inches by 24 inches and is marked: “Co. H. 71st Regt. NY Vols.” It sold online for $1,285.

13-Star Flag, 1776-1795: Let’s tackle the big question first: if you had one, how much is an original 13-star U.S. flag worth? Official from 1776 until 1795, a total of 18 years, it would seem there would be quite a few in existence. Except there aren’t. Citizens didn’t generally fly or even own the national flag until the Civil War. Only the military or the national government ever displayed one and only for identification. The U.S. flag only became more noticeable during the Centennial in 1876, which is why no original 13-star flag has been known to have survived the 18th century, not even in the Smithsonian. So it isn’t likely yours is of this period, either. [For more information, read: 13-Star Flags: How to Identify an Authentic 18th-Century One]

Now for the good news. If you do have a large 13-star flag, it is more likely to be a U.S. Navy boat flag. The U.S. Navy used the 13-star design as identification for flags flown from its smaller boats and launches while in national waters from about the 1870s, with the 36-star flag, until 1916, with the 48-star flag. The value of a Navy boat flag design, according to WorthPoint, can be anywhere from $70 to $1,600, depending on the era, the size and the placement of the stars.

Helpful Tip: If many of the stars are not pointed “up,” the value is at the higher end.

If it is smaller, you would have a parade flag—the ones on sticks—made of muslin or cotton created to celebrate the U.S. Centennial—the100th anniversary of the United States—in 1876. Their value at auction has consistently been from $20 to $100, depending on size and condition.

The 33 stars U.S. flag are set in a “Great Star” or “Great Luminary” configuration on printed glazed muslin. Oregon, the 33rd state, was admitted in 1859 and flags of this type were in use through the early years of the Civil War. This flag measures roughly 16 by 22 inches. It sold for $3,450 in 2005 at Cowan’s Auction House.

15- to 33-Star Flags, 1795-1861: The only time the U.S. flag had more than 13 stripes was the period from 1795 until 1818 when there were a total of 15 stars and 15 stripes. Except for the Star Spangled Banner flag on display in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., only a very few original 15-stripe flags survived.

Flags of this period, though, have two important distinctions for collectors; they are all mostly hand-sewn and are extremely rare to collect. Any flag of this period would be mostly military or made especially for government use. That means they were usually larger than five feet long, made of worsted wool and attached with ropes known as halyards. At times there will be some identification on the heading (where the rope is attached) to specify the size for government inventory, along with the manufacturer, but not consistently. The stars will be hand sewn, but the stripes will be machine-sewn, starting in the 1840s with the 26-star flag.

The value, then, for this set of flags is determined by many things; type of material, how it was constructed, how the stars are arranged, size and condition, mostly in that order, but are generally very rare to collect in any form. Auction values would begin at a few thousand dollars easily.

This 34-star American national flag features large stars that are single appliquéd on a navy blue canton. They are arranged in five rows of six, with an odd column of four stars to the left, at the hoist end. The cotton stars are hand-sewn and single-appliquéd. It sold for $ 2,500 in an online auction.

34- to 37-Star Flags, 1861-1877: With the sewing machine more commercially available about the mid-1840s, during the time of the 26-star flag, we now see machine-sewn stripes, but the stars would still be hand-sewn until about 1890 (with the 44-star flag). This set of flags are more generally available by auction, but still are classified as scarce and still mostly associated with the Civil War.

Mostly, though, the Centennial held in 1876 brought the U.S. flag to the attention of citizens and business for the first time. Many 13-star flag designs were reproduced during this celebration, especially as hand-held parade flags, so they are generally more plentiful than the full-size official flag and can be collected for less than $50 or so.

Metal grommets (steel, then brass) would be first used during this period instead of sewing around a hole or using ropes to attach the flag to a stationery object such as a flag pole. The star patterns are as distinctive and as varied as they will ever be during this period, with stars in a circle or in a star pattern.

This 44-start flag has an odd star pattern that features five rows of eight stars and a final row of four stars.

It dates from 1890 and measures roughly 4 by 5 feet. It sold in an online auction for $635 in 2009.

38- to 44-Star Flags, 1877-1896: This set of flags have become more available, and therefore more easily collectible, as manufacturers realize that citizens and businesses were flying or displaying the U.S. flag more often. Still, collectors can do well if they can find the most unusual star patterns, such as a circle, a star, “dancing” stars or any variations as to size and material.

Flags in good condition and displayable (about the 12- by 18-inch size and smaller) are somewhat easier to find and will have an auction value from about $200 to $1,000, depending on star pattern, material and condition. Try to get the parade flag in muslin, silk or wool if you can. Those are most collectible and displayable.

Flag has 48 white printed stars on powder blue type field. Red and white stripes are of multi piece construction. The red stripes look to be cotton was the white stripes could be a type of wool. It measures 54 by 36 inches and comes from the estate a NCO who served with the 1st Infantry Division throughout the Second World War. It sold on eBay for $200 in 2007.

45- to 50-Star Flags, 1896-1960: The 46-star flag of 1908 was the first flag to be totally sewn by machine, as the zigzag machine came into commercial use about 1890. Before that, the stripes were sewn by machine—starting about 1850 or so—but the stars were still hand sewn. These flags were also becoming more common with auction values to less than $100 for any of the flags in good condition.

The larger 48-star flag, in use from 1912 to 1959—the second longest serving flag after the 50-star—was originally manufactured in wool bunting. By the 1940s, wool bunting was needed for military uniforms and so manufacturers switched mostly to cotton. The value difference, then, between the same size wool 48-star and a cotton 48-star is about one-third higher for the wool flag, or about $35 to $60, depending on condition and size. As the longest-serving flag, no 50 star is considered vintage, with extra value tied only to a special event.

Collecting the 27 official designs of the flag of the United States, then, depends on recognizing the right kind of material used at different times, how they were manufactured, the different star patterns, the official sizes and even understanding what type of thread was used for each period. For collectors, though, there is a lot of collectibility for the unofficial flags of the United States; the ones where the stars didn’t exactly match the number of official states. [Read: The Unofficial Flags of the United States]

One last note: Until 1912, the star pattern of the flag had no official design. As a manufacturer or a seamstress, you could create any pattern of stars you wanted, or even change the number of points on the star from five to six or even eight. So, as you collect the flags of the United States, find the most unusual star pattern and you well very well have a real American historical collectible.

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

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