At my antiques appraisal events, I review many American flags. Made of wool, cotton, and even silk, our country’s beloved flag—affectionately known as the Stars and Stripes--is celebrated in many forms.
When we think of antique flags, the famous Betsy Ross 13-star wreath pattern flag comes to mind. However, there is little documentation that confirms that Betsy Ross, from her home on Arch Street in Philadelphia, PA actually designed or sewed such a flag. There is no definitive information that states that Ross’ flag was the first American flag design.
While we have definitive information that the famous 13-star (representing our original colonies) flag highlighted by a circular wreath format was produced circa 1890. That was the time when Ross’s granddaughter established a business making flags for tourists from a site in center city Philadelphia. The 13-star flag was used often and remains a highly recognizable image in Americana. Similar flags were flown during the 1876 Centennial and 1926 Sesquicentennial events both held in Philly. Based on this famous design, the 13-star wreath flag (a.k.a., Betsy Ross flag) was mass produced by the American Flag Company of New York in the 1890s.
Early 19th Century Flags
Over the years, many different flags were introduced. A 21-star flag featured embroidered stars in a snowflake pattern. The stars were not all of the same size, but rather both large and small scale. The stars were not designed in straight lines but rather scattered upon the field of blue. Dating to 1818-20, the 21-star flag was the official flag of the nation when Illinois entered the Union in December of 1818. It got its official nod as the flag of our country in July of 1819 and was replaced by the 23-star flag in 1820. Some of these early flags were enhanced with high quality and expensive materials such as silk and spun metal threads of gold and silver. Spun metals were used in early military uniforms, too.
The white stars were painted with oils and the silk fabric provided the support for the artistry. Embroidery machines were introduced about the time of the Industrial Revolution along with French ribbons. Some early silk flags will have painted stars while later flags, circa late 19th Century, will host embroidered stars. Most flags that were intended to be used at outdoor events or lengthy fairs were made of wool with appliquéd stars. The most common method for attaching the all important stars to the flag was to apply them using a zigzag stitching pattern.
Civil War Flags
Civil war flags are among the most desirable and collectible on the market today. These flags are traditional in format and typically feature 35 stars. Some flags date to the era when West Virginia became the 35th state on June 20, 1863, days before the historic Battle of Gettysburg. On our nation’s flag, star number 35 was added on July 4, 1863 and that flag was used until the war’s end. Nevada’s entry into the union made this flag obsolete and gave the stars and stripes its 36th star.
On a cotton flag, it is rare to find painted stars. Instead, stars are either embroidered on by hand or by machine or hand sewn. The stars are applied in such a manner as they are visible from both sides of the flag.
Centennial Flags: 1776 to 1876
The Centennial flag focuses on the great celebration or world’s fair held in Philadelphia in 1876. In addition to the presentation of the Statue of Liberty’s torch at this spectacle in Philadelphia, many flags were produced and used during the event celebrating 100 years of American independence.
I appraised one such flag at an appraisal event in Hazelton, PA and it was made of thin fabric blend of cotton and wool. Typically a parade flag, the wool was introduced because it would withstand the outdoor weather and long time use. The stars spell out the Centennial’s dates “1776-1876” and these flags sell for $20,000 on today’s antiques market.
Celebrity Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events nationwide. Dr. Lori is the expert appraiser on Discovery’s hit tv show, Auction Kings which airs Thursdays 9-10 PM. Visit www.DrLoriV.com, www.facebook.com/DoctorLori or call (888) 431-1010.