Historic York County York, PA United States 717.502.1281
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U.S Navy Small Boat Ensign Flag with 13 Hand-Sewn Stars

Documentation Signed
Origin United States
Period 19th Century
W. 117 in; H. 63 in; D. 1 in;
W. 297.18 cm; H. 160.02 cm; D. 2.54 cm;
Condition Good. See Item Description.
Creation Date 1866 - 1870

13 star American national flag of the type flown by the U.S. Navy in the 1870-1880's period. Because the Navy's flags of this era were made in the same fashion as many of those produced for private use in cottage industry settings, it can be difficult to ascertain the intended purpose of a 13 star flag of this period. Some, for example, were produced to glorify the original 13 colonies during the 1876 centennial of American independence. At 5.28 x 10 feet (63.36 x 120 inches), the dimensions of this flag, as well as its star pattern, conform with the largest of the Navy's small boat ensigns in the period between 1864 and 1882. These flags were flown at the stern, from a gaff, or from the yard-arm on a larger vessel, or as the primary flag on a skiff or other small Craft that carried sailors back and forth to shore.

The stars are arranged in staggered lineal rows in counts of 3-2-3-2-3, which is the most common configuration found in 19th century flags with 13 stars. In most cases the 3-2-3-2-3 design can also be viewed as a diamond of stars, with a star in each corner and a star in the very centre. It can also be interpreted as a combination of the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George, which some experts feel could have been the design of the very first American flag, serving as a link between this star pattern and the British Union Jack.

The Navy generally produced their own flags during the 19th century. Because these objects were handmade there was a good deal of irregularity and variation. This particular flag is strikingly beautiful among the 13 star U.S. Navy examples that I have owned in this star pattern. The scale of the flag, the hand-sewing, and the crude positioning of the stars, which point in various directions on their vertical axis, all contribute to this fact. The orientation of the stars is one indication of the date of its manufacture and subtle age toning from the passing of many years contributes to its endearing presence.

Why 13 Stars?
As the number of stars grew with the addition of new states, it became more and more difficult to fit their full complement on a small flag. The stars would, by necessity, have to become smaller, which made it more and more difficult to view them from a distance as individual objects. The fear was that too many of them close together would become as one white mass and distort the ability to identify American ships on the open seas. Keeping the count low allowed for better visibility.

Flag experts disagree about the precisely when the Navy began to revert to 13 stars and other low counts for this practice. Some feel that the use of 13 star flags never stopped, which seems to be supported by depictions of ships in period artwork. This was, of course, the original number of stars on the first American national flag, by way of the First Flag Act of 1777, and equal to the number of original colonies that became states. Any American flag that has previously been official, remains so according to the flag acts, so it remains perfectly acceptable to fly 13 star flags today by way of congressional law.

Use of 13 star flags by the U.S. Navy theoretically ended in 1916, by way of an executive order from then-President Woodrow Wilson, though old military traditions die hard and according to at least one expert, Wilson’s order did not completely dispel the presence of 13 star flags on U.S. Navy Craft.

Construction: The stars are made of cotton, hand-sewn and double-appliquéd (applied to both sides). The stripes and canton are made of wool bunting, joined with treadle stitching. The canton is pieced from two lengths of blue wool, which are joined by hand stitching. There is a sailcloth canvas header with two brass grommets for hoisting, along which the name "Summers" is twice inscribed with a dip pen. It was common to mark flags during the 19th century to indicate ownership.

Although present knowledge concerning small boat ensigns isn't conclusive regarding the precise year that their stripes began to be sewn with treadle machines and brass grommets were introduced to replace hand-sewn ones and/or open sleeves with rope hoists, both of these features seem to be indicative of a post-Civil War date. Because the look and feel of this flag so closely resembles commercially-made 34 and 35 star examples, as well as those with 36 and 37-stars, I would suggest that this flag was most likely produced during the 10-year period between 1866 and the 1876 centennial of American Independence.

Mounting: The flag has not yet been mounted. We employ professional staff with masters degrees in textile conservation and can attend to all of your mounting and framing needs.
Styles / Movements Americana, Folk Art, Traditional
Incollect Reference Number 248762
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