Military dealers and flag enthusiasts alike have long claimed that flags were never made of cotton during the Civil War or prior. I have to admit that when I was first exposed to better quality flags, I thought the exactly the same thing, because this is what I was taught. Like so many myths in antiques, however, the problem was based on the personal opinions of collectors and dealers who passed cotton flags by, instead of about the use of cotton during the mid-19th century. I soon came to the conclusion that such claims about cotton flags were flatly incorrect.
The first and most obvious proof that the cotton theory is myth, is that cotton was in widespread use during the Civil War and had been for many years. Cotton had been a commodity that the American black was so woefully enslaved to for the better part of 100 years. It was as commonly used as wood or coal and a utilitarian staple of American textiles in the mid-19th century.
Given my background, I am embarrassed that I did not spot the problem more quickly. In addition to selling flags, I am also a quilt dealer and collector. I had been buying, selling, and collecting quilts for years before I got heavily involved with flags. I knew that cotton was regularly used in quilts after 1820 and even sometimes before that year. Many 1820 quilts are made of chintz (a specific kind of cotton), but it became more common for quilts made after 1840 to be constructed of what I will call “plain cotton”, the same basic type of cotton you probably picture in your mind today when someone uses the word. This plain cotton, in a variety of weights, was popular in quilts, clothing, and all manner of utilitarian textiles. It was significantly cheaper than wool or silk, was comfortable, washable, and long wearing, and became instantly popular once it was widely available at a reasonable price. What were all those slaves doing in the south that was so profitable and eventually caused the Civil War? Many were picking cotton, especially after Eli Whitney and others developed the cotton gin to remove seeds (in and around 1794), which tripled or quadrupled cotton’s profitability for slave owners. It was used in every imaginable way to create textile goods of all kinds. It was utilized in clothing, bedding, and yes, flags.
Cotton had specific and important early uses with regard to flags. It was, for example, used on the stars of almost every wool flag with pieced, sewn construction that was made between the late 1830’s and 1920 (at least 95% of them). And the same kind of plain cotton bunting was employed in the 1840’s to make the first printed American flags. These 1840’s printed cotton flags are well documented in “Threads of History” (Smithsonian Press, 1979), which for most well-educated collectors serves as the “Bible” of political textiles. This 566-page tomb was authored by Herbert Ridgeway Collins, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian. I own several of these very important, early, cotton, printed flags, as I am one of the few dedicated buyers and sellers of these items, and I also collect printed flags. The same type of cotton was also used in the same period to manufacture all manner of printed bandanas and handkerchiefs, plus hand-painted and printed banners.
Another obvious factor that dispels the myth is the simple presence of so many known cotton flags that are so clearly of Civil War period manufacture.
No, cotton was not the fabric of choice for flags made by professional flag-makers. Why? Because cotton absorbs water, which makes it heavy and causes it to rot. Wool sheds water, which is why it is the choice for almost all nautical flags made during and prior to WWI. Silk was the choice for land-use military flags in most instances, especially in the first three quarters of the 19th century and prior, because while more absorbent than wool, it is extremely light weight, can be readily painted to include text and other elements, and is beautifully decorative. So wool and silk were the primary mediums used by professional and cottage industry flag-makers before 1900, especially in the stripes and cantons of flags with pieced and sewn construction. But the makers of homemade flags used cotton. They used wool also, yes, and occasionally silk, and combinations of all the above. But cotton was cheap, the poor man’s fabric, and an obvious alternative for those who could not afford more expensive cloth during wartime.
So to suggest that poor Americans only bought wool and silk is to ignore their often meager existence. Even today these fabrics are very costly by comparison. Lightweight cotton can easily be $1.99/yd., but wool and silk are generally several times the cost. I pay $12 - $32/yd. for the wool and silk I use during flag restoration, while the plain weave cotton that I buy ranges between $1.99/yd. and $5.99. People were generally poorer during wartime. The men of the house of working age were absent in many cases, and those persons who remained did what was necessary to get by. They did without niceties, and when a private individual made a flag for a special occasion, for a parade, to welcome home a soldier, to hang in a store or a window, or to welcome a government official, long term use in wet conditions was not of great importance. It was a patriotic time filled with many needs for all manner of flags.
Another easy way to expose the “no cotton flags” myth is to consider wool and its availability. The wool bunting used in the making of most all naval flags and garrison flags, as well as some other, smaller flags for outdoor use, was not used in clothing or other household goods. It was a cheap, open weave that was great for flags but did not lend itself well to other purpose. The typical dry goods store would not have carried it. It could probably have been ordered, but maybe not in small quantities (only a couple yards would be necessary to make a common sized, single flag). So it was a specialty item and not readily available. If flags were therefore not made of cotton and not made of wool bunting, that means that they would have to be made of some finer, clothing grade wool, blanket grade wool (thick and unwieldy for piecework), silk, linen, hemp, or a blend of some kind. Linen or hemp was probably used on some rare occasions, but use of common grade linen and hemp in stripes or cantons is extremely rare in the last three quarters of the 19th century. Linen is used on stars in rare instances, and is often used on the hoist or sleeve, but is not used in stripes and cantons. Sometimes light weight, tightly woven grades of linen may have been used, along with wools, silks, and blends of these fabrics. But these textiles were not inexpensive and to assume that private individuals bought only expensive fabrics for flag-making does not take into account the realities of early America in this period, especially the rural communities.
Before the Civil War, use of cotton in flags with pieced and sewn construction is more scarce. Then again, all flags made prior to the Civil War are scarce. At any given time I have 1,000+ flags in stock. Of these, most are pre-1912, but maybe 10 or 15 are pre-1861. This is because pre-Civil War flags account for far less than 1% of the early American flags that have survived to the present. Recently I had about 20 pre-Civil War flags, which is probably the maximum I have owned at any one time. The interesting fact about these 20 flags is that while a few were silk and a couple were wool, most were cotton. Most of these cotton flags were printed, yes, but there were at least three pieced and sewn examples that were period to their star count.
Why would sewn flags not be common in this period? To summarize, there is simply no good argument to the contrary. It is well documented that the production of printed cotton flags began in the 1840’s (or shortly prior). Wool flags of the late 1830 – 1865 period (before and during the Civil War) have plain cotton stars in almost all instances. Many Civil War flags exist that were sewn from cotton, and there are numerous, earlier examples of sewn cotton flags. And cotton was used to piece quilts, clothing, and other utilitarian household goods.
Even among those persons that agree that cotton flags existed during the Civil War, it has been suggested that cotton flags may not have existed pre-war. So, in other words, they claim that 1861 was the very beginning of the use of cotton in flags with pieced and sewn construction. The assumption that there was some grand change in the use of cotton, say between 1858 and 1861, for example, has no basis in fact. Cotton production decreased during wartime because so many men were at war and some slaves escaped for freedom in the north, but cotton was in widespread use before the war, it had been used in flags since at least the 1840’s (probably prior), and that use did not desist.
Though not the focus of this paper, the same sort of myths exist for other flag characteristics, such as the use of metal grommets and sewing machines. Grommets are often seen on Civil War flags, though many collectors and military dealers claim they were never used. In her book “Thirteen Star Flags, Keys to Identification” (Smithsonian Press, 1973), flag historian Grace Rodgers Copper, a former curator at the Smithsonian, sites patents for grommets in 1848, 1854, 1867, 1868, and 1869. So there is no reason to make the assumption that they were not employed, especially with so many known examples that are period and have grommets. Similarly, the sewing machine was mass-marketed by Singer in the 1850’s. Sewing machines were used in the stripes of about half of all flags made during the Civil War. To say that it could have not been used on stripes three years prior, in 1858 or at any year when sewing machines widely existed is simply incorrect. So neither of these factors alone, metal grommets or machine sewing, can preclude an 1850’s date.
Why then are some flag enthusiasts so skeptical of cotton flags? For one reason there are many flags with pre-war star counts, especially with 28 stars and fewer, that were made after we had the corresponding number of states. Though we often don’t know the purpose of these flags with absolute certainty, we assume, based on various construction characteristics, that they were made for such events as anniversary of statehood (100 years of Indiana, for example, in 1916) or for World’s Fair events, such as the 1876 Centennial International Exposition. Many of these flags are cotton. Some are wool, but the wool examples are often quite clearly of professionally manufacture, while the cotton examples are homemade. This is consistent with earlier examples of both cotton and wool flags, as I have previously indicated. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that cotton was the number one choice in fabric for the makers of homemade flags during most of the 19th century.
So when examining an early cotton flag, be careful when taking the advice of what I call “old-time” collectors and dealers. Ask them why flags could not have been sewn of cotton, and don’t accept the often heard answer of “well, they just weren’t”. Remember what the Civil War was all about and what many American slaves were doing in the south, and had been doing for more than the past half-a-century. They were picking cotton, some of which would be used to make some of the best known examples of the Stars & Stripes, before the war, during the war, and after it finally ended with their freedom.
Jeff Bridgman owns Jeff R. Bridgman American Antiques in historic York County, Pennsylvania, and is the nations’ leading seller of antique Stars and Stripes. He also trades in painted American furniture, folk art, and early American textiles. You can reach him at 717- 502-1281 or through his website at http://www.jeffbridgman.com