The Evolution of Old Glory–The 15-Star Flag of the United States
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 bring you the story behind the 15-Star Flag of the United States. Enjoy!
The most recognizable 15-star, 15-stripe flag is The Star Spangled Banner that is being preserved in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Notice the one missing star due to souvenirs that were cut over the years.
On January 13, 1794, the Second Flag Act was passed by Congress which read:
An Act making an alteration in the Flag of the United States.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, That from and after the first day of May, Anno Domini, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-five, the flag of the United States, be fifteen stripes alternate red and white. That the Union be fifteen stars, white in a blue field.
The reason for this updated Flag Act was the admission of both Vermont and Kentucky as the 14th and 15th state, respectively, into the Union. The national flag of 15-stars and 15-stripes would remain official from 1795 until 1818.
Vermont was admitted as the 14th state after having been a sovereign nation from 1777 until its admission to the United States on March 4, 1791. It was known first as the Republic of New Connecticut for its first six months, then as the Vermont Republic thereafter.
There was no provision to add a 14th star to the flag of the United States at the time, so finding a 14-star flag is extremely rare, if at all. It would have had to have been made for personal use only since the government did not recognize a 14-star flag for its official use. However, for Vermont’s centennial in 1891, numerous 14-star flags were made of wool bunting, but it’s certain that the stripes would have been machine sewn, while the stars may or may not have been (the zig zag machine was available for commercial use about this time).
Kentucky entered the Union on June 1, 1792 as the 15th state. Formed from three western Appalachian counties of Virginia, Kentucky had petitioned for inclusion into the Union since at least 1784. It prevailed only when the new Constitution of the United States was adopted.
That’s why the second Flag Act was adopted in 1794– to recognize the two new states of Vermont and Kentucky. The new flag would have 15 stars and 15 stripes possibly in anticipation that there wouldn’t be any additional states added anytime soon. And again, the second Flag Act did not specify how the stars were to be arranged, how many points on the stars, or provide any meaning to the colors.
Altogether there are relatively few 15-star, 15-stripe flags in existence. The most recognizable 15-star, 15-stripe flag is The Star Spangled Banner that is being preserved in the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. This is the flag made famous by Francis Scott Key with his poem “Defence of Fort McHenry,” written while watching the British bombard the defenses of Fort McHenry near Baltimore on September 14, 1814. This poem, of course, became the national anthem of the United States in 1931. Others that might exist have been handmade for personal use.
What the Experts Look For
Date: The larger Star Spangled Banner dates to 1813; the smaller flag dates to about 1817.
Size: The larger Star Spangled Banner was 42’ x 30’ when it was hand-stitched by Mary Pickersgill and her daughter, Caroline, in 1813. Today, it is only 34 feet long with one missing star after souvenirs were cut over the years. An additional 15-star, 15-stripe flag is in the collection of the Division of Military History at the Smithsonian Institution and is considerably smaller, only 7.3’ x 7’. Both, though, have similar characteristics.
Examples of hand stitched stars. At no time was any one standard star pattern consistently followed by flag makers.
Star Pattern: There are 15 stars for each of the flags, in 5 rows of 3 stars each that are offset from the previous row. The stars of the larger flag are cotton (linen stars predominated before 1810); the stars of the smaller flag are made of cotton muslin. At no time was any one standard star pattern consistently followed by flag makers. Some stars may even have had six points instead of five and some patterns show stars that are tilted away from each other.
Stripes: Each of the 8 red stripes and 7 white stripes were of single-ply wool bunting sewn by hand with cotton thread.
It’s curious to note that just because the Second Flag Act called for 15 stripes doesn’t necessarily translate into what flag makers manufactured. A Navy report in 1817 found that the Navy Yard and even Congress flew flags of at least 9 stripes and as many as 18. One flag maker gave you a choice of 15 or 17 stripes or even a 17 star flag.
Example of single-ply worsted wool bunting used for both the stripes and the blue union for each of the flags.
Fabric: Single-ply worsted wool bunting for both the stripes and the blue union for each of the flags.
Sewing Thread: The larger flag was sewn with linen; the smaller with 3-ply cotton thread and 2-ply linen elsewhere.
Stitching: Both flags were hand-stitched.
Heading: The larger Star Spangled Banner no longer has the heading; the heading of the smaller flag is made of linen.
The smaller flag has hand-stitched eyelets that serve to attach the flag to a halyard.
Grommets: Neither flag would have metal grommets since they wouldn’t be introduced until about the 1850s. However, a hand-stitched grommet to hold the flag to the halyard (rope) is possible during this period. The larger flag has no heading and so has no grommets. It might have instead have had a heavy “duck” linen (like canvas) sleeve where the hemp rope would have passed through. The smaller flag has hand-stitched eyelets that serve to attach the flag to a halyard.
Neither flag has any noticeable manufacturing marks or identification. The Star Spangled Banner is noted for its roughly cut fly end where cuttings were made for souvenirs in the 19th century. The addition of an incomplete “A” is said to have been stitched for the Armistead family that owned the flag until it was given to the Smithsonian Institution.
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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