31 Star Flag, "Great Star" Pattern
31 STARS ARRANGED IN A RARE VARIATION OF THE “GREAT STAR” PATTERN, WITH THE WORD "CALIFORNIA" PAINTED IN THE STRIPES, A PRE-CIVIL WAR FLAG, CALIFORNIA STATEHOOD, 1850-1858, PART OF A SERIES OF THESE FLAGS, THOUGHT TO HAVE BEEN USED AT THE WIGWAM CONVENTION (THE 1860 REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION) IN CHICAGO:
31 star American national parade flag, printed on glazed cotton. California became the 31st state in 1850, ushered in on the heels of the 1849 Gold Rush. The 31 star flag became official on July 4th, 1851, and remained so until July 3rd, 1858. Flags made prior to the Civil War are extremely rare, comprising less than one percent of 19th century flags that exist in the 21st century.
The stars of the flag are arranged in a whimsical variation of what is known as the "Great Star" pattern, a large star made out of smaller stars. Because it is such a beautiful design, many collectors consider it the "Rolls Royce" of geometric configurations. Because there was no official star design until 1912, the pattern was left up to the whims of the flag-maker. Note how the very center of this particular design is comprised of a pentagon of stars surrounding a single center star. This is surrounded by a wreath of stars arranged in 5 groups of 2, from which the points of the Great Star extend. Unlike some Great Star patterns, note how this one has concave, semi-circular valleys and very pointy arms. It also has a additional star between each arm, just beyond their outermost point of intersection.
The word "California" is painted across the field of stripes in bold, black letters. This flag is part of a series of known parade flags, with the names of other states on them, that are collectively thought, by way of verbal history, to have been used at the 1860 Republican National Convention at the Wigwam Building in Chicago, Illinois. At least four other flags are known, all in the same style and with the same manner of lettering. One reads "Pennsylvania", one "Virginia", one "Georgia", and the other "Florida". It is interesting to note that at least one other parade flag exists that has 30 stars, arranged in a different version of the Great Star pattern, across which the word "Verginia" (misspelled) is formally printed (as opposed to hand-painted) in a similar scale, presumably by the manufacturer, E.C. Williams of Rochester, NY. If the flag made by Williams was part of a similar series, used to designate seating areas for 1848 or perhaps 1852 convention delegates, then it would be logical to presume that the series of 31 star flags with California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida were copied from an earlier series of similar flags.
Use of parade flags prior to the Civil War seems to have been largely limited to political campaigning. There was very little private use of flags pre-war, for general patriotic purpose not associated with government or military affairs. Because most of the pre-Civil War parade flags that exist have the names of presidential candidates printed directly on them, it is logical to suggest that even those that do not share this feature were produced for political campaigns in some fashion.
1860 was the year that Abraham Lincoln won the White House against Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, and popular independent John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. There were 33 states in 1860 and the flag officially had 33 stars, but flags used by politicians during the 19th century often had a star count that lagged behind that which was official. It may be that the star count simply wasn’t that important to the person ordering these small, printed flags. The purchaser may have sometimes been a campaign manager, but at others simply a political supporter who wished to make an impression and so chose an impressive star design from the flag-maker's existing inventory, regardless of the star count. In any event, several Lincoln campaign flags are known with 31 stars that are exactly like the California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Georgia flags, in various sizes, with the exception that they have "Lincoln & Hamlin" printed on them in some fashion. There is also a "Douglas & Johnson" flag with 31 stars in the same pattern. So 31 star flags of this exact style were certainly in use in 1860, which support the reported history of use of the California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida flags at the Wigwam Convention.
The "Florida" example is documented in a book by Stuart Schneider called "Collecting Lincoln" (1997, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., Atglen, PA), on page 46, accompanied by the Wigwam story.
Because a flag in the same style also exists with a Fremont & Dayton overprint, produced for the 1856 presidential campaign, it is also possible that the flags were produced for the 1856 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, the very first for the newly formed Republican Party. The count of 31 stars does not exclude 1852 Whig convention in Baltimore, but 1852 campaign textiles are practically unknown (1 flag and 3 or 4 kerchiefs are known, all of them representing Whig candidate Winfield Scott). The 31 star count also does not exclude Democrat conventions in this or any of the aforementioned years, but Democrats appear to have made little use of flags, perhaps because they were slower to adapt to the pursuit of campaign advertising in general. Campaigning for public office was considered unbecoming of a gentleman until the pivotal year of 1840, when Whig candidate William Henry Harrison became the first to produce flags, kerchiefs, banners and broadsides. Democrats were slow to respond.
In summary, this 31 star flag has a collection of features that makes it a particularly special object. Here is a pre-Civil War star count, on a flag made for California statehood--a large and heavily populated state with major cities and wealthy inhabitants--with the word California actually appearing on it in bold letters, and with one of the most desirable star designs in flag collecting. These features are present on a textile that was probably used in Chicago, a historic and wealthy city, for the political convention where Abraham Lincoln was selected and hence became the Republican Party's first successful candidate for president. This event of course took place on the doorstep of the Civil War. When this many things come together in one flag, it can easily be counted a masterpiece among known examples.
Brief History of the Great Star Design:
The Great Star pattern is thought to have come about shortly after the War of 1812, when Congressman Peter Wendover of New York requested that Captain Samuel Reid, a War of 1812 naval hero, create a new design that would become the third official format of the Stars & Stripes. A recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Reid became harbor master of New York following the war. During his lifetime, he created many innovations in signal use, including a system that could actually send messages from New York to New Orleans by sea in just two hours.
Use as a Naval signal had been the primary reason for the initial creation of an American national flag in 1777, but since there was no official star configuration, the appearance of our flag varied greatly. Reid's primary concern centered on both consistency and ease of recognition. His hope was that as more and more states joined the Union, and more stars were subsequently added to the flag, that the design would remain easily identified on the open seas. In 1818 Reid suggested to Congress that the number of stripes permanently return to 13 (reduced from 15) and that the stars be grouped into the shape of one large star.
Reid’s proposal would have kept the star constellation in roughly the same format, in a pattern that could be quickly identified through a spyglass as the number of states grew. His concept for the stripes was ultimately accepted, but his advice on the star pattern was rejected by President James Monroe, due to the increased cost of arranging the stars in what would become known as the “Great Star”, “Great Flower”, or “Great Luminary” pattern. Monroe probably didn’t wish to impose this cost on either the government or civilians, so he suggested a simple pattern of justified rows. The Great Star was nevertheless produced by anyone willing to make it and its rarity today, along with its beauty, has driven the desirability of American flags with variants of this beautiful design.
Mounting: The water gilded American frame dates to the period between 1830 and 1860. The flag has been hand-stitched to 100% cotton, black in color, which has been washed to reduce excess dye. An acid-free agent was added to the wash to further set the dye, which was heat-treated for the same purpose. Spacers keep the textile away from the glazing, which is U.V. protective glass.
Condition: There is minor foxing and staining, primarily along the very bottom, below the last stripe and along the hoist end, where the flag was originally affixed to a wooden staff. There is a tiny hole in the 4th white stripe, near the hoist, and small areas of fabric loss where tacks would have held the flag to its staff. The overall condition is excellent for the period, especially in a flag that is so rare that it warrants practically any condition issues. Further, many of my clients prefer flags to show their age and history of use.