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Original period flags from the earliest era in American flag-making, prior to 1830 or so, are extraordinarily rare.  In fact, many scholars who have studied and handled American flags believe that no American flags in the stars and stripes format that date to the period of the First Flag Act of 1777 during the American Revolution still survive.  The earliest 13 star flags known (and of these there are perhaps two or three authentic examples) likely date to the Federalist Era, which begins in the years of the Constitution, signed in 1787, and George Washington's election as president in 1789, and ends in 1801 with Thomas Jefferson's election.  In 1794, Congress passed the Second Flag Act, signed by President George Washington, that updated the flag to fifteen stars and fifteen stripes.  Fifteen remained official until the Third Flag Act of 1818, despite the fact that we added Tennessee (16) in 1796, Ohio (17) in 1803,  Louisiana (18) in 1812, and Indiana (19) in 1816.

This flag could date from as early as Kentucky statehood on June 1, 1792, to as late as 1818. Its construction and materials closely match those found in two other flags from this era: The Star Spangled Banner Flag from the War of 1812, sewn by Mary Pickersgill in Baltimore in 1813 now in the Smithsonian Institution; and a rare 15 star American Flag captured in the War of 1812 by the HMS Borer, currently in the Royal Museum in Greenwich, England.  In making the attribution of this flag as a period example, I have compared the construction and materials of this 15 flag side by side with several other early era American flags in the Rare Flags collection also made of wool, each of a known and certain age, including: a 20 star flag (1818-1819, IAS-00255), a 24 star flag circa (1821-1836, IAS-00319), a 28 star flag (1846, IAS-00293), a 30 star flag (1848-1850, IAS-00298), a 31 star flag (1850-1858, IAS-00106), and a 34 star flag (1861-1863, IAS-00157).  This flag is most similar to the 20 and 24 star flag examples, which date to just after the 15 star period, though this flag has linen stars, which indicates an earlier date, circa 1810 or prior.  The hoists of these three flags are made of linen; they are entirely hand sewn; they have whip stitched grommets; they have wool bunting made of hand spun yarns; the blue wool has a similar sea blue color; and at the point where the hoist is affixed to the wool, the wool is doubled over to reinforce the hoist.  While later period flags also have some traits in common (some have whip stitched grommets; some have single-applique stars, etc.) the differences in coloration and weave consistency in the wool bunting made of later factory spun yarns is apparent compared to the earlier 15 star flag.  This flag's stripes, like those of the Star Spangled Banner (1813), are hand stitched with a waxed linen thread which better withstands rot. The use of waxed linen thread is also correct for the period.  With regard to the linen stars on this flag, Grace Rogers Cooper, in her 1973 book Thirteen Star Flags, Keys to Identification, writes: "The power loom for weaving plain cotton goods was successfully introduced into the United States from England in 1814. Until this mechanization took place, linen--either imported or domestic--for the stars was cheaper than cotton. By 1818, however, cotton was the cheaper and more logical fabric to use." The transition from linen to cotton for the stars took place during the 1810s, and from the 1820s on, we see cotton used almost exclusively for the stars on early flags. Just two flags in the Rare Flags collection--this flag and IAS-00001, which is a period 19 star flag (1816)--have linen stars, and both were created during the period of the Second Flag Act, 1794-1818.

While we might expect that a flag from the period of the Second Flag Act to have fifteen stripes, documented evidence exists that tells us this is not necessarily the case.  Cooper writes: "Irregularity in the number of stripes at any given time apparently was not uncommon. In their history of the United States flag, Quaife, Weig, and Appleman quote an 1817 report to Congress which states that flags flying at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C, and over the buildings in which Congress sat had as few as nine stripes on one and as many as eighteen on the other."1  Cooper also notes an interesting case based on a surviving record from flag maker Ann Hoskin, which dates to the 1802-1812 period, where Ms. Hoskin provides a choice of either seventeen stripes or fifteen stripes for a seventeen star flag.2  In addition to its exceptionally early age, another fantastic attribute of the flag is its relatively small size, at just 36 inches by 65 inches, and its excellent overall condition. Most were made for maritime or military garrison use and were often very large, like the Star Spangled Banner. This flag is considered tiny by comparison with the other handful of flags that have survived from this era.  Records also indicate Ms. Hoskin made an American flag of 42 inches by 72 inches, delivered to the United States Military Department, Philadelphia, in 1801.3  Thought the star count is unrecorded, that flag was just slightly larger than this flag, indicating that in addition to very large garrison flags such as the Star Spangled Banner, smaller flags of this size range were also requested and used by the United States military. Ms. Hoskins also notes in her materials list that she used linen for the stars. On all counts, this flag is completely consistent with the construction techniques, materials, and historical observations of flag use during the period of the Second Flag Act to which it dates. 

This is one of just five surviving original fifteen star flags that I am aware of. Two of them--the Star Spangled Banner and the Fort Hill flag--reside in the Smithsonian collection.  The third, a flag captured by HMS Borer, is in the British Royal Museum collection.   The fourth is in the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts.  Fifteen star flags were official during the presidencies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.  Given the extreme rarity of stars and stripes American flags from this time, this flag is a true national treasure.

IAS-00377 Close-up of a red wool bunting stripe.
Note the brown linen thread used to stitch the flag's stripes.

IAS-00377 Close-up of the linen hoist, whip stitched grommet,
blue wool bunting and single-appliquéd linen star.


Comparison With The Star Spangled Banner

The photos below show a comparison of the fabrics of this flag and the Star Spangled Banner. The fabric photographed from the Star Spangled Banner are of souvenir pieces of the flag on display in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  Both flags are made of English wool bunting imported to the United States.  We know this because wool bunting was not manufactured in the United States until after the Civil War.  While the red dyes of IAS-00377 are a slightly pinker, lighter red, compared to the brick red color of the Star Spangled Banner, the blue cantons both flags are of identical color.  Note the same irregularity in the widths of the yarns and the tightness and consistency of the weave.4 By the 1820's, just ten years after these flags were made, flags are made with wool bunting using machine spun wool yarns having a much more consistent, regular weave and more uniform yarn thickness than what is seen on these extraordinary fifteen star flags.

15 Star Flag, Rare Flags Collection

The Star Spangled Banner
The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

15 Star Flag, Rare Flags Collection

The Star Spangled Banner
The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Thirteen Star Flags, Keys to Identification, Grace Rogers Cooper, Smithsonian Press, 1973, p. 28
2,3 Cooper, p. 15
4 The photos were taken on the same day, January 18, 2014, using an iPhone 4S 8 megapixel camera with illuminator light.
Learn more about the fabrics used in antique American flags. Star Count:  15

Date:  1792 to 1818

War Era:  War of 1812

Statehood:  Kentucky

Construction:  Wool Bunting with Linen Stars

Catalog Number:  IAS-00377

Learn more about the parts of a flag.

20 Stars, 1818-1819
American Federal Period

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