The Evolution of Old Glory: The 26 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 26-Star Flag of the United States.  Enjoy!

The 26 star flag. The design pattern of the stars forming one big star would remain a very popular design element until the early 20th century. Photo credit: zaricor.com

Overview 

From 1797 until 1800, the area near the Great Lakes became the Northwest Territory encompassing what would become the states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, parts of Minnesota, and Michigan.  

This area was divided first into Indiana Territory in 1805 (until Indiana was admitted as the 19th state in 1816), then further divided both into Illinois Territory in 1809 (until the state of Illinois was admitted as the 21st state in 1818) and as Michigan Territory in 1805 (until Michigan was admitted as the 26th state on January 26, 1837).   

The Flag Act of 1818 mandated that a star be added to the flag of the United States for each new state on July 4th, Independence Day, following their admission.  So, Michigan was officially admitted on July 4th, 1837, with the addition of a 26th star on the flag of the United States.

The official flag of 26-stars would last from July 4, 1837 until July 3, 1845, a period of 8 years.

What the Flag Act of 1818 didn’t specify was how the stars or the stripes were to be officially arranged.  Beginning with the 21-star flag, all manner of star designs were being created for home use, mostly from wool bunting.  The most notable was the Grand Luminary or Great Star design where each of the stars formed one Great Star.

This period also shows that additional material such as cotton, silk, and muslin would become more commonly available for flags other than just wool bunting.  Production methods would also change from the strictly hand sewn versions to simpler methods such as block printing, a method that uses hand cut wooden inked stamps for the stars and the stripes pressed directly onto woven material. 

According to Grace Cooper in her “Thirteen Star Flags: Key to Identification,” apart from the usual wool bunting used for the manufacture of flags up to this point, two additional types of manufacture were examined; “…one type is a block-printed cotton flag and the other is a printed silk.”  Cooper goes on to say that this type of manufacture was cheaper to produce and “…intended for patriotic use…and political and domestic demonstrations.” (page 35).  This probably means that the flags were manufactured to be made more accessible for common usage. 

Cooper describes the cotton flag as being a 27 inch “power-woven cotton…probably American manufacture,” which was more plentiful than imported wool bunting.  There aren’t any further details as to the thread ply for the cotton fabric or its type of heading.

The silk flag was 29 inches, but instead of the row of stars as we have normally seen before, the design was “…with the stars arranged to form one large star, reminiscent of the earlier twenty-one star flag.”  This pattern would remain a very popular design element for the stars until the early 20th century.

What is becoming more prevalent beginning in this period is the use of “parade flags,” which are smaller flags of cheaper construction attached to small sticks that were waved at parades and other commemorations.  They were not meant to last very long and were usually discarded after a time.  For that reason, not very many exist of this period, and the ones that do survive are usually in very worn condition.  Curiously, it is the paint of the block printing that helps retain the integrity of the parade flag over time. 

The presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison of 1840 was the first to use a Grand Luminary flag for campaign purposes.  Campaigns would continue to use the national flag with slogans and profiles printed directly on the flag itself until the early 20th century.

What Experts Look For

While cotton flags were made starting about 1816 or so, they were created strictly for personal use.  Official flags were still made of wool bunting.  Starting about this period, cotton flags were becoming more commercially made, although in smaller numbers while other types of materials such as silk and muslin were also being manufactured.  Of course, wool bunting was still the major material used for official flags.

Example of worsted wool bunting.

Date:  1837-1845

Size:   Grand Luminary Flag is 14.2’ x 19.5’ (overly large example); 4 rows of stars design 9’ x 16’

Star Pattern:  25 white stars in a star pattern with a 26th star in the center (Grand Luminary Star Pattern); 4 rows of 6 white stars with 2 white stars centered at the fly end of the canton (possible updated 24-star flag)

Another variation of the 26 star flag: 4 rows of 6 white stars with 2 white stars centered at the fly end of the canton (possible updated 24-star flag). Photo credit: rareflags.com

Stripes: wool: hand stitched cotton, linen thread

Fabric:  wool: single-ply worsted wool bunting was still the most predominant during this period, but silk, cotton and muslin were being produced as well

Sewing Thread:  not clear

Stitching:  wool: still hand sewn throughout

Heading:   wool: plain weave, coarse linen; parade flags were attached to sticks using small nails

Grommets:  wool: still whip stitched

Marks/Identification

 None noted


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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