Most people know surprisingly little about early American flags. In fact, most Americana dealers know as little about them—and sometimes even less than—the average person on the street. It’s downright peculiar when you think about it, and the situation continues to perplex me. What item can you honestly say is more American than the American flag? Save possibly an original draft of our Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, there is no antique that so encapsulates our nation’s heritage and the word “Americana.”
Now, I am a dealer in early flags so I am more than a bit biased, but even when I play devil’s advocate with myself, I cannot think of any other item that should be treasured over all other American antiquities.
A couple years ago, a rare little Connecticut needlework brought $203,750 at a Sotheby’s auction. The maker of the needlework was unknown. The piece had strong graphics, including an urn of flowers, a row of trees, and a house, but most people wouldn’t have recognized the needlework’s rarity or understood the very high selling price. That same auction included one of the most important pieces of Americana ever to come up for sale. It was the very first American National Flag to be manufactured of 100% American-made wool bunting. This means that it was, at least on record, the first entirely American-made American flag.
Historically, blue bunting for flags was imported from England. On March 2, 1865, however, Congress passed a law mandating that all American flags manufactured for the federal government from that point forward had to be made of American-manufactured materials. Documentation accompanying this particular flag substantiated that it was the first flag to meet these requirements. The flag was manufactured at a firm owned by well-known Union General Benjamin Butler. Butler presented this flag to President Lincoln for his approval just three days before his assassination.
While only a handful of experts could tell you why the little Connecticut textile was worth more than ten or twenty thousand dollars, I think it’s safe to say that most people in this country, if asked to guess the value of this American flag, would have said $100,000, or possibly a few hundred thousand, or maybe more. In other words, there are lots of people out there who, in theory, would have recognized the flag’s value and should have been eager to acquire it. Additionally, the Sotheby’s auction took place shortly after September 11. Can you imagine a better time to sell such a flag in New York? Well, the first entirely American-made American flag, in a rare star pattern that closely resembled the flag that flew over Fort Sumpter, South Carolina, presented to Lincoln three days before his death, sold in New York City in the wake of one of the most patriotically stirring events in American history for $58,250.
Fifty eight thousand dollars. How may mass-produced, art deco-period vinyl and chrome marshmallow sofas will that buy you? Two. How many 19th century game boards will that buy you with American flags painted on them? Maybe three, maybe one. How many 1920’s vases will that amount buy you at a high end Arts & Crafts auction? Depending upon which one you want, quite possibly none. And how many paintings have you seen of questionable beauty bring more than fifty eight thousand? It would almost be impossible to count them all.
So what’s wrong? Why do Americans pay comparatively little for the American flag and so much more for other types of decorative arts? I don’t mean to put down early American furniture, samplers, and folk art. I sell these things, too, and I am passionately interested in them. But how have early, rare American flags come to be ignored by the majority of dealers and the collecting American public at large? No one seems to have the answer. It remains true, however, that in the high-priced world of rare Americana, the most American item of all, even when it has unmatched historical importance and great folk quality, brings proportionately little when compared to its relative counterparts. In short, early American flags are one of the least respected items in the field of antiques.
The history of our flag’s evolution is a fascinating study. Most people don’t realize that we don’t know how the stars were actually configured on the first American National Flag. It’s a mystery. We are fairly certain, however, that the stars did not form a circle. This means that the flag you see carried in the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot is probably not historically correct. In fact, the flag carried during the early part of the Revolution didn’t contain any stars at all. The first American flag was our colony flag, called the Grand Union or the Continental Colors. It did have 13 red and white stripes, representing the 13 original colonies, but instead of stars it possessed the British Union Jack in its canton (fig.1). This denoted that America was not yet a nation unto itself, but a colony of England.
Most people simply assume that the 13-star “Betsy Ross” flag appeared at the onset of the Revolution. In fact, the American flag as we know it did not come about until 1777, and even then was probably not produced in great quantity. Actually, so few Stars and Stripes exist from colonial times that the number of them thought to date to the period when we actually had 13 states is believed to be nearer to zero than it is to 10. One expert believes there to be four such flags, two that date to the Revolutionary War period (1775-1783) and two that date post-war (1783-1791).
No qualified person has ever traveled the world to inspect every one of them thought to be of the pre-1791 era, prove that each one is or is not, and arrive at a total. But some of the ones long thought to be 18th century were proved to be much later, most notable among them the Bennington flag. This familiar design, much reproduced at the Bicentennial in 1876, has an arch of 13 stars in its canton over the numerals “76”. It was proved to be no earlier then the 1840’s and my suspicions are that it is actually an 1876 flag, made to celebrate our nation’s 100-year anniversary in 1876 (the centennial of our independence from Britain). This would make the most sense, as similarities exist between the Bennington flag and other Centennial designs.
What we do know is that no surviving 13 star flags exist in the design attributed to Betsy Ross, with a perfect circle of stars. There is a 1779-1780 painting of George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale that depicts a flag in the background that has its stars in a circular format, but there is simply a blue field with stars and no stripes. It may be the only evidence in a painting that such a flag may have existed in the Revolutionary War period; but it wasn’t a Stars and Stripes, and Peale may have used some artist’s liberty in its inclusion. Peale made at least 4 copies of the painting prior to 1782, one of which shows the Battle of Trenton in the background instead of the Battle of Princeton, like the original, so he obviously wasn’t opposed to alterations on the request of the person(s) who solicited the work. There are paintings of Revolutionary scenes by other artists that depict Stars and Stripes flags with perfect circle patterns, but these were painted in the 19th century and so can not be trusted for their authenticity with respect to the star configurations.
There are colonial currencies that show a Stars and Stripes in the Betsy Ross pattern, but there are no actual flags. In fact, most people are shocked to learn that I have never seen an American flag with the Betsy Ross pattern of stars that was made before the 1890’s. The design is now believed by to be a creation of a nephew and the grandchildren of Betsy Ross, put forth in the period between 1870 and1890 (fig.9). Starting about 1898, Ross’s granddaughter and great granddaughter made flags in the East Wing of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and sold them to tourists, proliferating their story and, along with it, the belief concerning their grandmother’s use of the circular design.
Many clients who approach me have a pretty good idea of what they want. Their ideas come from the movies they’ve watched, the many images they’ve seen of the Betsy Ross circle design, and everything they learned in grammar school about our flag. I often have to tell them bluntly that, in fact, “that’s not what you’re looking for,” and proceed to go about the sometimes difficult job of explaining why.
So, why do flags look like they do now, and what did the early ones look like? In 1777 our forefathers passed the Flag Act. This dictated that there would be 13 red and white stripes, 7 of them red and 6 white, and 13 white stars in a blue field representing a “new constellation.” But there was no specific description of how this constellation should appear. In fact, there was no legislation passed to dictate this aspect of the flag’s design until President Taft signed an executive order in 1912. In other words, for the first 135 years of the lifetime of our flag, there was no set design for its stars. Furthermore, there was nothing that said the stars had to have five points. Sometimes, the flag carried six-pointed Stars of David, or four-pointed stars, or eight-pointed stars. Because flag makers were afforded great leniency with respect to American National flag design, all sorts of peculiar and beautiful star configurations were pursued. In 13-star flags, the most common configuration was some variation of stars in rows. A series of staggered rows of 3-2-3-2-3 was most common and, though it may have been intentional, this created a secondary design that curiously mimicked the overlaid crosses of St. George and St. Andrew, which appear on the British Union Jack (fig. 2).
There are four things that drive the price of flags. These are, in rough order: size, age, design, and historical significance / provenance. Size plays a huge role in a flag’s salability and is a much more important factor than most people think. I have a much better chance of selling a relatively common, ca. 1900 flag that is very small, say three or four feet in length, than I do of selling a Civil War period (1861-65) flag in a size more typical of the 19th century, say 8 to 12 feet in length or more. People like to have flags framed to display them decoratively in their homes or offices, so flags larger than about six feet in length are simply too big for most of my clients. Since most 19th century flags measure between eight and forty-five feet, this makes finding smaller examples a challenge and it places a premium on their price.
Age is a more obvious issue with regard to value. Generally I buy flags that are made prior to 1912. This means I mostly concentrate on flags with 46 stars and fewer. Flags containing 48 stars, made between 1912 and 1959, are abundantly available in common, factory-produced forms, but there are some 48 star flags that are handmade or otherwise atypical. Unless they are homemade or have some other desirable attributes, the value of a typical 48-star example ranges roughly between a mere two dollars and two hundred dollars.
Something that surprises most people is that the Stars & Stripes was not used in the same way as it is today until about one hundred years into its existence. Prior to the celebration of our nation’s centennial of independence in 1876, flags were primarily used by the military, by private ships, and to mark government institutions. Private citizens didn’t display flags on their porches very often, nor did they appear in great numbers at parades. It is for this reason that flags made prior to the Civil War are extremely rare, and flags made before 1820 are practically non-existent. Use of the Stars & Stripes grew rapidly with the onset of the Civil War, but didn’t fully blossom until the 1876 centennial. Even then, sewn examples were not generally less than six to eight feet at the very smallest. Printed parade flags (also called hand-wavers), tacked and glue to wooden staffs, were small—generally less than three feet—waved at parades, Civil War veteran’s reunions, and political rallies. But three-to-five-foot-long sewn flags are generally a 20th century phenomenon.
Design is another issue that affects price. As with most American antiques, the more attractive, whimsical or interesting its form, the greater the likelihood that a flag will sell. Fortunately, interesting qualities exist in most flags made before 1912, so there are lots of great flags to choose from at all price levels. While linear rows of stars constituted the most common configurations among early examples, the rows seldom had equal numbers of stars and all of the stars on a flag seldom pointed in the same direction (fig. 3).
One pattern, called a wreath or medallion, is both scarce and beautiful (figs. 4 & 5). The most common of these has two or three concentric circles of stars, accompanied by a large star in the very center, and four stars outside the pattern (one in each corner). The medallion configuration was basically abandoned after the 1876 centennial era, so flags with more than 38 stars (post 1876-1889), such as the 45 star example in figure 5, are interesting to collectors.
A rarer pattern still is the called the “Great Star.” This is created by arranging all of the stars in the form of one large star (fig. 6). Collectors generally consider this to be “Rolls Royce” of configurations, but there are still rarer designs, such as the “diamond and two pillars” seen in the Benjamin Butler flag I mentioned previously. Sometimes the stars were arranged to form a word or number, such as “1876” or “USA,” and such examples are extremely desired.
Another variation of design occurs when flags have letters or pictures in the stripe area or the canton (fig. 8). Such flags were made or altered by businesses for purposes of advertising, as well as by soldiers, the military, politicians, fraternal groups, and other organizations. This practice was common until the end of the 19th century and didn’t become illegal until Congress passed a bill that made it so in 1905, but that didn’t entirely prevent it from happening. Even though flags with overprinted letters or images are scarce, it does not always make them easier to sell. With regard to value, the words or purpose have to be meaningful or appealing to the buyer. Sometimes their presence can actually hinder a sale, but the value of the flag can increase significantly if the words or additional element have mass appeal. “For President, Abraham Lincoln, For Vice President, Andrew Johnson” would be an example of text that could seriously affect the value of a flag.
Historical significance or provenance is another important factor. Flags used during the Civil War, for example, are greatly desired. Flags made for the centennial celebration garner a lot of interest. And flags linked to political campaigns are among the most valuable of all, having their own niche of collectors (fig.10). Sometimes a flag’s history is obvious, based on the number of stars, period construction, and any verbiage that is written or printed on it and can be associated with a particular person or historical event. This history must be proved, of course, because flags with wild and unsubstantiated stories, handed down through families or simply created by the seller, are everywhere in the antique marketplace. Many flags I encounter have a story and most of the time there is absolutely no way to verify the truth. “This flag lay over the dead body of General George Armstrong Custer shortly after he was killed,” for example, is a story I might hear, without any documentation to prove the claim. Since I cannot in good conscience pass on this kind of hearsay to my clients, such history is suspect, misleading, and ultimately has no effect on value. I would advise buyers to be wary of any story of this kind that is without printed or written documentation, even if a respected auction house is the seller. Fakes now abound in the marketplace, especially in internet auctions, so I would suggest buying from a reputable dealer who can prove to you that he/she has handled lots of flags and has a reasonably good understanding of them; otherwise, buyer beware.
When you have a flag with strength in all 4 categories its value peaks. But even the most interesting early American national flags, selling at the most prestigious auction houses, are often cheap by any measure when compared to other antiques. So if you are looking to add a significant item to your Americana collection, consider topping it off with the most American item of them all.
The author, Jeff Bridgman, owns Jeff R. Bridgman American Antiques, LLC and is considered to be one of the world’s foremost experts on early American flags. He can be reached through his website at: http://www.JeffBridgman.com.