38 Stars in a Starburst Cross on an Antique American Flag, Colorado Statehood

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38 Stars in a dynamic starburst cross, one of the most spectacular star configurations in flag collecting, on an antique American flag with possible confederate sympathies, Colorado Statehood, 1876-1889:

38 star American national flag, made sometime between 1876 and 1889, with its stars arranged in a configuration that falls among the best-of-the-best that exist across 19th century examples. This consists of a dynamic pattern that appears to burst outward from the center into what I have termed a “starburst” or "starburst cross" medallion. One of four pieced-and-sewn flags that are known in variants of this precise style, its extraordinary beauty is matched by its extreme rarity among known examples.

Each of the Starburst Cross flags is slightly different, but all share interesting similarities. All have a prominent saltire present in the design, formed by the two diagonal lines that run corner-to-corner in the canton. Commonly known as the Cross of St. Andrew, borrowing the term from the British Union Flag (a.k.a.,Union Jack), in the Civil War era this was recognized in America as the Southern Cross. For this reason, presence of the pattern in war-period flags, or in those made in the two or three decades that followed, is suggestive of possible Confederate sympathies. Whether this is true or not is unknown in at least 3 of the 4 examples, including this one.

A Southern relationship seems unlikely in the 4th flag, which was owned by a Union Army veteran from one of the hardest fighting units of the Civil War, who became a career Union soldier and remained with the Army until his death (or very near to it) in the 1920s. But whatever the case may be, symbolism of various kinds, both obvious and subtle, abounds in Civil War era flags, as well as those produced in its wake. This was, of course, a time of great passion and expression, and since there was no official way to configure the stars on the American flag until 1912, flag makers took all manner of liberties to both send messages and create beautiful imagery.

When a visually impressive star pattern or is present on an early flag, interest among collectors is heightened. When the design is unique or particularly rare, and/or historically interesting messages exist, the increase in desirability can become exponential. So the inclusion of the saltire adds both mystery and value, and whether or not the flag bears Southern sympathies, the configuration of the stars is so extraordinarily graphic that it easily falls among the top 1% of those known to exist.

Among the four flags in this closely related group, all are post-war. One other shares the 38 star count. The remaining two have 37 stars, which places their manufacture immediately beforehand, between 1867-1876. I expect that all of these may have been made in 1876 specifically, for use during celebrations of our nation's 100-year anniversary of independence. This patriotic occasion resulted in lots of flag-making and this was the year when Reconstruction of the South came to an end. Both the 37 and 38 star counts were in use during that year and those with a starburst may symbolize an exploding firework and the general fanfare associated with this historic event.

Two of the four flags, including the one in question here, actually display the Cross of St. George juxtaposed against other stars that form the Cross of St. Andrew, creating a closer association with the design of the British Union Flag. For this reason, one could postulate that this suggests British ties in those two cases instead of Southern, but it could simply part of an artistically balanced pattern.

Flag collectors and authors Boleslaw and Marie-Louise D'Otrange Mastai owned one of the 37 star variants, which they illustrated in their landmark text: “The Stars & The Stripes” (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1973), p. 116.

Colorado became the 38th state on August 1st, 1876. This was the year of our nation’s 100-year anniversary of independence. Per the Third Flag Act of 1818, stars were not officially added until the 4th of July following a state's addition. For this reason, 37 was the official star count for the American flag in 1876. Flag-making was a competitive venture, however, and few flag-makers would have been continuing to produce 37 star flags when their competitors were making 38’s. It is for this reason that 38 and 13 stars (to represent the original 13 colonies) are more often seen at the Centennial International Exposition, the six-month long World’s Fair held in Philadelphia in honor of the event. Some flag-makers would have been adding a star for the 38th state even before it entered the Union, in the early part of 1876 or even prior. In fact, many makers of parade flags were actually producing 39 star flags, in hopeful anticipation of the addition of two more Western Territories instead of one. But the 39th state would not join the Union for another 13 years, when the Dakota Territory entered as two states on the same day. The 38 star flag became official on July 4th, 1877 and was generally used until the addition of the Dakotas in 1889.

President Ulysses S. Grant was in office when the first 38 star flags would have appeared. The list of presidents serving during the period when the 38 star flag was actually official include Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison.

Construction: The flag is entirely hand-sewn save for the twill cotton sleeve, which was applied with treadle stitching. The stars of the flag are made of cotton and double-appliquéd. This means that they were applied to both sides of the Prussian blue canton. The canton and stripes are made entirely of Fine merino wool. Six small brass ringlets were once present along the hoist, one of which is now absent.

"Mrs. Rundle" is inscribed in pencil along the hoist binding. This would be the name of either the maker or a former owner. A man's name or a surname only typically denotes ownership and it was common to mark flags in this fashion during the 19th and the early 20th centuries. While a woman's name might likewise denote ownership, it may also be a signature of the maker.

Note that the colors of the flag are particularly beautiful. The canton is a lustrous shade of what can be termed steel, Prussian, or Carolina blue, unusual among its counterparts of the period. This contrasts beautifully with the red stripes, which lean slightly toward persimmon orange.

Merino wool flags tend to be more interesting than their cotton and wool bunting counterparts. Professional flag makers were known to have made flags available constructed of merino wool, but generally speaking this was a very Fine, clothing grade fabric--as it is today--and merino wool flags tend to be homemade. They also tend to be unusual in any number of respects, often with elaborate star patterns and other interesting features. The flag in question here, probably a homemade example, is certainly no exception.

In summary, this is an absolutely exceptional flag in all respects and one of the best that I have ever encountered in the 38 star count, among which it has few peers.

Notes on similar patterns:

Besides the four flags discussed above, there are numerous others with saltires in the star pattern. Two in particular have configurations that one might argue can also be accurately described by the term "starburst cross" and are thus worthy of mention here. One, with 34 stars, has a single wreath of 21stars, inside which a diagonal cross the consists of a large center star, followed by 2 stars that extend toward each corner of the canton, where there is another large star beyond the wreath. I would term this a "cross-and-wreath," but whatever you wish to call it, it's equally fantastic. This flag has just 9 stripes, instead of the expected 13, for reasons I will not speculate here, save to say that this also may have Southern meaning.

The second flag has 21 stars, with a pattern that consists of a large center star, with progressively larger stars extending outward to create a superimposed Crosses of St. Andrew and St. George. In this case there are 11 stripes instead of 13. Recorded as period to when we had 21 states, this would logically have no Southern message, but I have to wonder if this may instead be a rather extraordinary, later flag, of the Civil War era, with hidden symbolism.

Mounting: The flag has been hand-stitched to 100% natural fabrics for support on every seam and throughout the star field. Fabrics of similar color were chosen for masking purposes. The flag was then hand-sewn to a background of 100% cotton twill, black in color, that has been washed to reduce excess dye. An acid-free agent was added to the wash to further set the dye and the fabric was heat-treated for the same purpose. The mount was then placed into a black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed Italian molding. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic.

Condition: There are a few tiny holes and very small tears in the canton, accompanied by two closed tears that have early, stitched repairs, one measuring 2" in length and one 7". There is a small amount of loss at the very top, fly end corner of the 1st red stripe with a darning repair. There is a closed, L-shaped tear at the fly end of the 4th white stripe measuring 4" x 3.25". There is a closed, U-shaped tear near the fly end of the 6th red stripe, measuring 5.5" x .75" x 4.5". There is a small white patch at the extreme fly end of the 6th white stripe. There is very minor, scattered soiling. There are some very minor black stains in stripes along the fly end and in the lower, fly end quadrant. There are some minor to moderate black stains toward the fly end of the last two stripes. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use. Overall the condition is excellent for a flag of this period and scale with merino wool construction and it surpasses expectations in that regard.
 

Details

    Materials and Techniques
    Wool
  • Condition
    Excellent. See item description..
  • Wear
    Minor losses
    Dimensions
    79 in. H x 114.25 in. W x 2.5 in. D
    201 cm H x 290 cm W x 6 cm D
  • Seller Location
    York County, PA
  • Number of Items
    1
  • Reference Number
    LU84978980531
About the Seller

1stdibs seller since 2008

Typical response time: 2 hours

Located in York County, PA

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