13 Enormous, Hand-Sewn Stars on a U.S. Navy Small Boat Ensigh For Sale
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13 Enormous, Hand-Sewn Stars on a U.S. Navy Small Boat Ensigh


13 enormous, hand-sewn stars on a U.S. Navy small boat ensign, circa 1890-1899, an extraordinarily beautiful example in a remarkable state of preservation  Despite the fact that America hasn't been comprised of 13 states since 1791, 13 star flags have been made and displayed throughout our nation's history, seemingly without pause, from 1777 to the present. The reasons for their manufacture are many, with functions both patriotic and utilitarian. They were hoisted at patriotic events, including Lafayette’s visit in 1824-25, the celebration of the centennial of American independence in 1876, and the sesquicentennial in 1926. They were displayed during the Civil War (1861-65) to reference past struggles for American liberty, and were used by 19th century politicians while campaigning for the same reason. As the number of stars grew with the addition of new states, it became more and more difficult to fit their full complement on a small flag. The stars would, by necessity, have to become smaller, which made it more and more difficult to view them from a distance. The fear was that too many of them close together would become as one white mass and potentially distort the ability to identify American ships. Keeping the count low allowed for better visibility and for this reason the U.S. Navy flew 13 star flags on small craft. Flag experts disagree about the precisely when the Navy began to revert to the 13 star count (and occasionally other low counts) for these "small boat ensigns," as they were termed. Some feel that their use never ceased, which seems to be supported by depictions of ships in period artwork, but it wasn't formally specified until 1854, when first appeared in naval regulations. 13 was, of course, the original number of stars on the first American national flag, by way of the First Flag Act (1777), and equal to the number of original colonies that became states. Because any American flag that has previously been official remains so today, according to the flag acts, it remains perfectly acceptable to fly 13 star flags by way of congressional law. U.S. Navy small boat ensigns were flown at the stern, from a gaff, or from the yard-arm on a larger vessel, or as the primary flag on a skiff or other small craft that carried sailors back and forth to shore. The particular example that is the subject of this narrative was made during the 1890's. The stars are rather enormous in scale when compared to most of its counterparts of other time periods. Made of cotton, these are hand-sewn and double-appliquéd (applied to both sides of the blue canton), and are configured into rows of 3-2-3-2-3. The canton and stripes are made of wool bunting and have been joined with treadle stitching. The rectangular wool patches at the top and bottom of the hoist are called gussets. These are original to the flag's construction and were added for reinforcement at the points where it was subject to the most wear. The coarse linen binding along the hoist, golden tan in color, is indicative of the Navy's flags in this period and shortly thereafter. One peculiarity present on the hoist is the length of blue thread that runs vertically through the fabric. This aided in measurement of the fabric, and while it can often be encountered in sailcloth, it is fairly unusual in linen of this sort and adds a nice, if subtle, element to the visual presentation. Although they acquired flags from commercial makers when the need presented itself, the Navy generally made its own flags. They began signing them regularly (though not always) around 1888 and most examples of the 1890's are signed as well as dated. Most also list the location of manufacture, with all of these declarations stenciled in black pigment along the hoist. Most have brass grommets. This flag is peculiar because it has none of the above. Instead of grommets there is an open sleeve, through which a rope would be passed and stitched into place for hoisting. There are no markings at all along the hoist, save for at the extreme bottom on the obverse, where, in small text, is what appears to be a letter "C," followed by "XX." This was inscribed with a dip pen. Sometimes a numeral can be encountered on various flags, followed by one or two X's, and when this is seen, often it notates the size of the flag on the fly, in feet. Here the purpose remains unknown. During the period in which this flag was made, Naval regulations specified that the largest variety of 13 star small boat ensign measured 3.52 feet on the hoist x 6.67 feet on the fly. While the length of this example is almost spot-on, at 6.65 feet (less than an inch in variance), the height of 3.83 feet is almost 4 inches taller than expected. In my experience, this is not unusual. Regulations seem to have been loosely followed at best, and it's remarkable, given the combination of human error and the propensity of wool to shrink, that the length is so close. Despite the lack of grommets or markings, the construction is otherwise precisely what I would expect of a U.S. Navy flag and it's readily identifiable as a product of U.S. Navy production. Since there was no official star configuration until the 20th century, (1912 specifically,) the stars on 13 star flags may appear in any one of a host of configurations. The 3-2-3-2-3 pattern begins to appear on U.S. Navy flags at the tail end of the Civil War. In addition, it is the most often encountered pattern across 13 star flags, with pieced-and-sewn construction, that were made during the latter half of the 19th century. In 1882, the scale of the stars changed. These became significantly larger and their orientation was, for the first time, fixed. The stars in the first row were oriented with one point up, followed by the second row, with one point oriented down, alternating throughout the pattern, as can be seen in this example. I have always like this feature, which in this case adds a strong visual element to flag that already has ample graphic impact. In most cases the 3-2-3-2-3 design can also be viewed as a diamond of stars, with a star in each corner and a star in the very center. It is of interest to note that the pattern can also be interpreted as a combination of the cross of St. Andrew and the cross of St. George, which some feel could have been the configuration on the very first American flag, possibly representing a link between this star pattern and the British Union Jack. The arrangement is often attributed--albeit erroneously, in my opinion--to New Jersey Senator Francis Hopkinson, a member of the Second Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Hopkinson is credited with having played the most significant role of any person in the design of the American flag, but his original drawings have not survived. Further, while he is known to have depicted arrangements of 13 stars on other objects, such as various seals and colonial currencies, his renderings on other devices are inconsistent. In addition to their use on U.S. Navy ships, some private ships flew 13 star examples throughout the 19th century. Beginning around 1890, commercial makers began to produce small flags for the first time in significant quantity. When they did, they chose the 13 star count, mirroring Navy practice. This continued into at least the first two decades of the 20th century. The use of yachting ensigns with a wreath of 13 stars, surrounding a fouled anchor, allowed pleasure boats to bypass customs between 1848-1980. Though they no longer serve this function, their use persists widely today in the boating community, without an official purpose. Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples. The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color. The mount was placed in a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding. The glazing is U.V. protective plexiglass. Feel free to inquire for more details. Condition: The overall condition is exceptional for the period. There is extremely minor mothing. There is some oxidation of the white stars and moderate water staining in two of them. There is minor to modest soiling along the hoist binding and in two of the white stripes. There are period darning repairs in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th white stripes, two of which bridge into the lower edge of the canton. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age. Frame size (H x L): 58" x 91.5" Flag size (H x L): 46.5" x 79.75".   


  • Condition
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  • Dimensions
    H 46.5 in. x W 79.75 in. x D 2.5 in.H 118.11 cm x W 202.57 cm x D 6.35 cm
  • Seller Location
    York County, PA
  • Seller Reference Number
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About the Seller

5 / 5
1stdibs seller since 2008
Located in York County, PA
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