Physical Characteristics of Antique Flags
Size, Appearance & Display
There were no standard flag sizes prior to 1912. A stars-and-stripes flag only 5 feet long were less common prior to the end of the 19th century as most flags were used on ships or on public or commercial buildings. Flags ten to twenty feet long were the norm, though unless you lived near a seaport you would not see flags on a daily basis. Flags were not displayed by businesses until the Civil War nor by individuals at their home until the late 19th century.
By law (since 1818) the star representing a new state is added to the flag on the 4th of July following admission. However, there are "unofficial" US Flags in exsistence with a number of stars that are fewer than the correct number for a given date. For example, 39 and 42 star are more common than the 43 star flag that became official on July 4th, 1890. This is because of the uncertainty of what Congress would do at the time and a desire of manufacturers to be the "first" with the new flag. Also, Congress pulled a "fast one" by admitting Idaho on July 3rd!
It was also not uncommon for a manufacturer to leave extra space on the canton for the consumer to be able to add new stars as necessary. Stars were found in rows, ovals, double rings, open boxes, great star pattern, flower patterns, etc. The American people adopted the Stars and Stripes as the highest artistic expression of the American spirit in the 19th century and countless variations of design existed. No official specifications were issued outside of the US Navy until 1912.
Stars in a strict geometric order with all of the top points up was the RAREST form of design prior to about 1900. Only flags made for the US Navy would have closely approached that description. Stars were found in ovals, double rings, open boxes, great star pattern, flower patterns, etc. Star points often radiated from the center towards the edge. Stars were made whatever size the maker wished. Some made smaller stars so they could fit in stars for new states, others made the stars large enough to nearly touch each other, filling the canton. Some had a large central star with smaller ones surrounding it, some had large stars in the corner with smaller ones inside.
Applied to the flag
Typically the blue canton (see below) was one thickness of bunting, with either two sets of stars applied, one to each side, or, especially for larger flags, one set of stars would be sewn on the front and the blue bunting was cut out from the back of the star and the raw blue edge hemmed. And of course there was no standardization as to which side of the flag was the "front."
Later, becoming common about the time of the Centennial, although there are some examples from the Civil War, the star fields were often printed on less expensive flags. By the early 20th century, the complete flag might be printed.
Prior to about 1845, it was not uncommon for US Flags to have stars with 6, 7, 8, or more points as well as the more popular 5 pointed variety. Even up into the 20th century there are known examples with other than 5-pointed stars. In the 18th century, it was not uncommon for the stars on a single flag to vary from star to star in the number of points they had.
The number of stars varied depending on the number of states in the Union (see the list of state admissions and official flag dates), the intent and feelings of the maker or the whim of the customer. Thirteen star flags have always been popular (see below) and have always been available. During the Civil War, some flag makers only included the number of stars to represent the loyal states, although this was officially frowned on by the government. Some flags had the stars make forms or words and these often required a number different than the correct set.
The proportions of the canton were not specified until 1912. Only a good aesthetic sense of proportion was needed by the maker. The canton would tend to be rectangular if the maker wanted stars in rows or in an elliptical pattern, and roughly square if the star pattern was to be circular. The canton usually was seven stripes deep, resting on a white stripe, although cantons six or eight stripes deep were not unknown in the early 19th century.
The length of the stripes was not specified prior to 1912. Ships flags tended to be made "longer", approximating 1 by 2, as they were subject to excessive wear at sea and were trimmed and rehemmed numerous times until they were nearly square or until the hoist end deteriorated beyond repair.
The flag resolution of 1818 was the first to specify that the stripes should be horizontal. A number of flags prior to that are known with vertical stripes and some after that date.
In the early days of the republic, it was not uncommon to have stripes of red, white, and blue. Although the official description never included blue stripes, Benjamin Franklin described the flag with the three colors of stripes when he was involved in diplomatic missions in Europe. Captain John Paul Jones and other naval heroes also are known to have used flags with stripes in the three colors. In addition, the official descriptions of the flag did not specify if there were to be more red stripes or more white ones until 1912.
Besides stars, early US Flags sometimes included other emblems. For ceremonial or military use on land, the US Coat of Arms (the Eagle) was frequently painted or embroidered into the canton along with the stars. Words sometimes appeared, slogans, mottos, campaign statements, etc. can all be found on early US Flags.
Construction and Materials
Flag construction techniques consisted of hand sewing and possibly painting from the begining to about the mid- to late-1840s when machine stitching began to be introduced (the sewing machine was invented in 1841). Until the early 20th century, the stripes were often sewen by machine and the stars by hand. Mechanized stitching of stars began in the very late 19th century and became common by the 1920s. Keep in mind that crafters still hand sew today and machine-sewing is only a limiting factor, giving a "no earlier than" date. My mother hand sewed a 13 star flag for me in 1976!
Some ceremonial and military flags bore complex designs, usually hand painted until the 20th century (although the earliest known example of mass produced multi-color printed flags date from 1822 Maine!) after which screen printing and other techniques became available for the production of such designs.
In the 18th and 19th century, flags were usually made of one of three fabrics, although a home-made flag could be made out of most anything at hand. These fabrics are: wool, linen and silk. Later, more or less during and after the Civil War, cotton became available in weights and finishes suitable for flags. Woolen bunting, usually imported from England in the early days, is a light-weight, thin fabric prized for nautical use because of its flyability and resistance to rot from exposure to seawater. Linen was often used for the header and stars on such flags. Linen was also used for some "service" flags because of its inexpensive (at the time due to being the most common home-spun) nature. Silk was expensive and used for military and ceremonial flags. Thsese often bore complicated, allegorical or heraldic images painted on by master artists, often with different designs on each side.
In 1866, the American Bunting Company of Lowell, Massachusetts began production of American-made bunting. They trademarked the brands "US ARMY", "US NAVY" and "STANDARD" which are stamped on many late 19th century flags. Other brands are also found and probably the most common is "BULLDOG" which was first used by the Dettra Flag Company after about 1925, now a brand owned by Annin & Co., the world's largest manufacturer. Cotton bunting was introduced in the late 19th century and was in heavy use until about 20 years ago. After World War II, Nylon became a common fabric and today, Nylon, Rayon and Polyester are the fabrics most flags are made of.
Flags in the 18th and 19th century were stitched with different kinds of threads, mainly linen thread to begin with but gradually changing to cotton threads by the early 19th century. The exact twist of the threads and their uniformity can often determine their age and make.
Header & Grommets; Rope & Sleeves
A flag's header varied from zero to a couple of inches. Early flags had a rope sewn to the bunting with no heading, some had a canvas heading with the rope sewn in, yet others had hand-worked grommets like button holes. These hand-worked grommets might resemble button holes or they might have a metal or leather piece under the stitching. The metal pieces were called "thimbles". Military flags might have a sleeve through which the pole passed or they might have a series of hand-worked button holes that were then lashed individually to the pole.
Metal grommets were first introduced during the Civil War, but did not become common until about the Centennial (1876). Early metal grommets were made of steel but by 1880 or so, brass was much more common. Except for the shortage of brass during World War II (1942-44) almost all metal grommets on flags after about 1890 were brass. Metal grommets sometimes have either a number or an anchor stamped into them. The number indicates the size of the grommet (usually between 2 and 4) and the anchor indicates US Navy make grommets (not necessarily only found on the Navy's flags due to surplus).
Flags had no fringe unless they were silk military colors. Some military colors of the Revolution had fringe but it was usually made from the body of the flag, with the warp of the fabric pulled to fringe the woof. US Army units carried flags of blue or white fields with the US arms or the regimental designation but until the Mexican War of the late 1840s, no known US Military flag had gold fringe. By the era of the Mexican War some units did fly the Stars and Stripes.
Makers Marks and Inscriptions
Some manufacturers in the 19th century marked their flags with their name, logo or mark. The US Navy stamped the code of the Navy Yard that made the flag on the header. It wasn't until the 20th century, however, that names and trademarks were commonly stamped or stenciled on flags. On early flags, you can sometimes find an inscription or signature that would possibly identify the maker or owner of the flag. Sometimes naval flags have the name of the ship written on them.
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Special thanks to Nick Artimovich and Howie Madaus for assisting me with info on these pages.
© 2001 DAVID B. MARTUCCI - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED