The Evolution of Old Glory–The 21-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 21-Star Flag of the United States.  Enjoy!


With the admission of Illinois on December 3, 1818, the stars on the flag changed officially from 20 to 21 on July 4th, 1919. 


After American independence in 1778, Illinois County was created as a part of Virginia consisting of the area west of the Appalachian Mountains.  By 1783, Virginia ceded the county to the United States where it became part of the Northwest Territory.  It became the Illinois Territory in 1809 with the idea of becoming a new state in the Union.  But first, the northern border had to be settled north along Lake Michigan. On December 3, 1818, Illinois Territory became the 21st state in the Union. 

The Flag Act of 1818 was adopted on April 4th of that year and it says:

An Act to establish 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 fourth day of July next, the flag of the United States be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be twenty stars, white in a blue field.

And be it further enacted, That on the admission of every new state into the Union, one star be added to the union of the flag; and that such addition shall take effect of the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission.

With the admission of Illinois on December 3, 1818, the stars on the flag changed officially from 20 to 21 on July 4th, 1919 and would remain official until the following Independence Day. 

There are several star patterns that have been associated with the 21-star flag.  One shows the five-pointed stars arranged in a 5,4,6,6 pattern and in a 5,6,5,5 pattern, according to Flags of the World website.  In fact, you can see the former version at the Capitol during both inaugurals of President Barack Obama to represent Illinois where he served as US Senator.  Neither were official designs and there have been no examples found that date to the 1819-1820 time frame when the 21-star flag was official.

Since star patterns were not regulated until 1912, you may find other unique 21-star designs.  Flag manufacturers created fanciful versions throughout the 19th century, particularly during the Centennial of 1876.  However, manufacture will easily tell you whether you have a unique flag of the 1819-1820 period; every stitch must be hand sewn, for example.

An example of stars sewn by two different hands.

Just about all the national flags manufactured during the early 19th century to about the Civil War period were intended for government or military use.  What you might find are hand sewn, irregular patterned flags that were made at home from any available cloth remnants to include wool, linen, cotton, silk, even hemp.  Rather than create an entire new flag when a star was added, a family would “update” the canton by adding additional stars from the previous pattern.  Therefore, you might notice stars that are of different material, not particularly following any prescribed pattern, with different threads and slightly different shapes.  

What Experts Look For

The “Grand Luminary” 21-star pattern.

There is one pattern known as the “Great Luminary” design that was intended to become the official pattern during the debate of the Flag Act of 1818, but was never officially adopted.  This pattern shows 21 five-pointed stars arranged to form a larger star in the blue canton.  Only one example of this design has been found extant.  Since we have but this one flag, the manufacture of this flag is the one we will focus on here.

Date:  1819-1820

Size:   76.5” (fly) width; 89” (hoist) length

Star Pattern:  21 3” five-pointed cotton stars arranged in the “Great Luminary” design (all the stars formed into one larger star) each appliqued and whip stitched onto the blue cotton canton on both obverse and reverse using 3/2 ply cotton thread

Stripes: 7 white cotton stripes and 6 cotton red stripes which is the reverse as to what is usually sewn onto the national flag (The Flag Act does not specify that the red stripe comes first, but it has been tradition since then, except for this flag design) 

Fabric:  plain weave cotton throughout (unusual as wool bunting was most predominant during the early period of flag manufacture) 

Sewing Thread:  cotton thread using 3/2-ply throughout

 Stitching:  hand sewn throughout

Heading:   hand sewn over to form a sleeve 1.75” wide

Grommets:  none (a sleeve was hand sewn to accommodate a hemp rope halyard)


 There are no identifying marks or identification.

How stars are “updated” for personal hand sewn flags.

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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