The Evolution of Old Glory–How Much Do You Know?

Tom Carrier, our resident vexillologist, has worked tirelessly on the history behind the creation of each version of the American flag as our country grew and states were added. We are thrilled to share his discoveries over the next few weeks. The design of the flag has been officially modified 26 times since 1777. This week we begin with the story behind our first flag, the 13 Star Flag of the United States.  Enjoy!

Early 19th century 13 star wool “boat” flag.

Overview 

Even with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, one would think that a national flag would have been already considered.  But declaring independence was treasonous, and the minds of the delegates seemed more focused on the act itself rather than the ceremonial aspects of what they had done. 

For that reason, a national flag wasn’t even discussed until a year later when it was understood that naval vessels, by maritime custom, flew the national flag whenever entering a foreign port.  Except, the new United States of America didn’t legally have one.  What we now know as the Grand Union flag was a de facto national flag only because it was already extant at the time of Independence, even if it wasn’t legally adopted.  It was even saluted by the Dutch from the island of St. Eustatius in the West Indies in November 1776. 

To solve the problem of a national flag, the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress on June 14, 1777 passed a quick resolution between two other ordinary pieces of business that said “Resolved, 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, representing a new constellation.” That’s it.  This is the complete language of the Flag Act of 1777.  There are no specifics on how the stars were to be arranged, what the stars were to look like, or any special meaning attached to the colors.  It was meant as a naval ensign, not necessarily a national flag.

Unfortunately, in all the museums in the world, every private collection, or any listing of early American national flags, there have been no early 18th century, 13-star national flags that survived the period of the American Revolution. 

Of the several 13-star flags that do seem to fit the 18th century period; the Guilford Battle Flag, Flag of Cowpens, the Bennington Battle Flag and a Navy Ensign of 1780 in the Germantown Historical Society, only the Guilford Battle Flag was made no earlier than 1795-1800 and because it was incomplete, was most likely a 15-star flag, not a Revolution-era flag of 13 stars.  All the others are of 19th century construction, according to textile experts. 

So,  let’s say a 13-star flag is discovered.  What is it really? 

From as early as the 1850s (possibly even as late as 1862), until it was discontinued in 1916 by presidential order, the Navy flew a 13-star “boat flag,” known officially as the naval ensign.  The flag was used on smaller tenders, launches and gigs, so it was only about 1.5 feet up to 3.5 feet at the hoist.  They were all made of wool bunting with machine sewn stripes and machine sewn cotton stars beginning about 1900.  Later flags will have a Navy number from 9 to 12 along the heading (cloth that is held against the pole) to distinguish its size from larger to smaller (earlier ones may not).   Each will have metal grommets (in the heading where it is hooked to the halyard [rope])which is the biggest giveaway that the flag is not 18th century, since metal grommets were manufactured for flags only by the 1850s. 

In short, the 13-star flag is not particularly rare, except from the 18th century.  Early 19th century national celebrations, parades, and political rallies all used some version of the 13-star design.  In a high patriotic fervor, the Centennial of the United States in 1876 popularized the 13-star design in many fanciful formats from the “Betsy Ross” circle to six-pointed versions.  Their manufacture will, however,  show their 19th century character.

What the Experts Look For

For an authentic Revolution-era flag of 13-stars, the manufacture tells the story.

Date:  The 13-star flag of the United States would have been made from 1777 until 1795 when the Second Flag Act went into effect creating the 15-star, 15 stripe flag to accommodate the new states of Vermont and Kentucky.

Size:  We don’t know the exact sizes that the original Revolutionary-era 13-star flags would have been. No known examples exist.

Examples of linen stars. The stars themselves would most likely be made of linen and hand-stitched, since cotton wasn’t made commercially available in the United States until about after 1810.

Star Pattern:  The Flag Act of 1777 does not specify how the stars are arranged or even how many points on the stars.  It just says that they be white on a blue field.  The most common design is the five-pointed star (the first ever used on a national flag, by the way) set in rows of 3, 2, 3, 2, 3 as designed by Congressman Francis Hopkinson (not Betsy Ross, as has been imagined) which was later used as the Navy boat flag design.  But there are other combinations that are depicted in paintings and flags sheets of the period, so an authentic flag could conceivably have stars with more than 5 points and be arranged in any fashion.  The stars themselves would most likely be made of linen and hand-stitched, since cotton wasn’t made commercially available in the United States until about after 1810. 

Wool bunting early 19th century.  Each of the 7 stripes of red and 6 stripes of white would be of single-ply worsted wool bunting.

Stripes:  Each of the 7 stripes of red and 6 stripes of white would be of single-ply worsted wool bunting. 

Fabric:  All national flags of the United States in all their designs were made of a woolen bunting up through the Second World War.  Early flags of the British and early American flags most likely would have been made of worsted wool whose manufacture allowed for a higher quality, lighter weight construction that helped flags to unfurl more easily in wind.

Sewing Thread:  The thread used to create the flag would most likely be spun as a 2-ply linen since cotton thread and wouldn’t be used until about 1820. 

Example of flat fell seam. All stitching would have been made by hand with flat-fell seams.

Stitching:  All stitching would have been made by hand with flat-fell seams.  The first mechanical commercial sewing machine wouldn’t be introduced until the 1850s.

The flag was attached to the halyard (rope) by a rather thick piece of heavy woven material known as the heading.

Heading:  Since flags were made mostly for naval use (the Army didn’t use one until 1834), the flag was attached to the halyard (rope) by a rather thick piece of heavy woven material known as the heading probably made of “duck” linen, more akin to canvas.  More likely a sleeve of the bunting material would be sewn with a flat-fell seam for the halyard to slip through and attached with a loop of hemp rope.

Grommets:  There were no metal attachments that clipped onto the halyard, known as grommets, until the 1850s.  These early flags were hoisted by attaching the flag directly to the rope through a handmade sleeve or hemmed with a leather loop.

Marks/Identification

There would not be any special marks or identifications for any official national flags that we know of.  However, the Navy boat flag from the 1850s until 1916 may have stamped on the heading its size as 9, 10, 11, or 12. 


Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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