California State Flag, with Attractive Coloration and Gold Silk Fringe

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California State Flag, with especially attractive coloration and a gold silk fringe, made by Emerson Mfg. Co. In San Francisco, circa 1940-1950:

Early state flags fall between very scarce and extraordinarily rare in the antiques marketplace. One primary reason for this is that most states, even if they existed during the 18th or 19th century, didn’t actually adopt flags until the early 20th century. The Maryland State Legislature, for example, didn’t find need for a state banner until 1904, in spite of the fact that Maryland was one of the original 13 colonies. Other states had crests or symbols that were tied to the state legislature in some way, or to local patriotism, but didn't accept an official design until many years following statehood.

In the case of California, the "Bear Flag," as all California state flags and variations thereof are often called, is based on a significant early example. The eldest surviving Bear Flag is thought to date to the 1846 “Bear Flag Revolt”. This occurred when Major John Fremont arrived in the state on a so-called Mission to reach the Pacific and encouraged an uprising against Mexican rule in the territory. Fremont claimed himself military governor of the California Republic and was brought up on charges of treason for his actions, but was pardoned by President James Polk. Polk was an expansionist and Fremont’s actions brought California to statehood in 1850, immediately following the 1849 Gold Rush.

The original Bear Flag was designed and made by William L. Todd, a first cousin to Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd. Painted on cotton, it had a white field with a red stripe along the bottom, just the like modern design. The star image was taken from what was known as the “California Lone Star Flag”, flown during California's previous, 1836 revolt. Like the modern California flag, the red star appeared the upper hoist-end corner, but the bear was placed next to the star. On a later version, designed by a man named Peter Storm in 1870, the bear was fierce and walking. On the modern design it is black and brown, centered on the field, prominently huge, and walking.

The bear on the first bear flag and other early bear flags more closely resembles the more common American black bear than a grizzly, seen in the lack of shoulder hump and narrower muzzle. The bear on Storm’s 1870 version closely resembles the coat of arms of Bern, Switzerland, its capital city. The coat of arms displays a black bear walking toward the left with fierce claws and a protruding tongue. It is of interest to note that Switzerland was the home country of John Sutter, who established Sutter's Fort, in the area which would spawn the California Gold Rush and eventually become Sacramento, California's state capital.

On Todd’s 1846 flag, the words “California Republic” were likewise in black, but the letters spanned the width of the star and bear images and were placed immediately below them. Today they are underneath the large bear, just above the red bar. Unfortunately, Todd’s flag was destroyed in the fires following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but an image of it survives in a photograph, taken in 1890.

The bear flag did not become the official California state flag, however, until it was adopted by the California State Legislature and signed into law by Governor Hiram Johnson in 1911. States were regularly participating in World’s Fair events by this time—popular between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries—and were probably compelled to create state banners because other states had them, so it would have seemed improper not to obtain one and follow suit.

Because state flags are desired by modern antiques enthusiasts and because early copies are scarce or non-existent, I am sometimes compelled to acquire interesting vintage examples from the mid-20th century. This particular "bear flag" is a particularly beautiful example, with its red bar faded to a pleasant orange color that compliments its gold, silk fringe. Made by Emerson Manufacturing Company, probably between the 1940s-1950s, it bears their maker's tag. The early years of this company seem not to have been well recorded. A firm by the name of Weeks-Howe-Emerson Co. appears in the San Francisco 1907 City Directory as a manufacturer of "flags and banners." By 1913 Emerson appears to have either bought out his partners, or ventured out on his own, and "Emerson Manufacturing Company" appears on the role call list of a trade organization called the "Association of Flag Manufactures." This group is comprised of a short list that happens to include all of the major names in the business of flag-making that I recognize as having been active in this period. Nonetheless, I have not before encountered an Emerson label on any vintage example. The company appears to have possibly dissolved in the 1960's, but the legacy was revived in recent times. A firm by the name of "Emerson U.S.A., Inc.," listing itself as "California's Flag Company" and "Flag makers to the World," was incorporated in 2003. The company has a website that includes an image of the elder firm's name painted on a brick wall (probably at the site of an early location), but repeated attempts to contact them by phone and email were unsuccessful. Messages were left without reply.

Construction: The flag is made of rayon, pieced in two panels. The star is made of rayon and double-appliquéd (applied to both sides) with a zigzag stitch. The image of the bear and the verbiage were each printed on separate lengths of the same fabric and double-appliquéd. There is a silk or synthetic silk fringe and a matching cord. The body of the flag was bound at the hoist end around an open sleeve, which is reinforced with cotton on the interior. All of the stitching is done by machine.

Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by masters degree trained staff. We take great care in the mounting and presentation of flags and have preserved thousands of examples; more than anyone worldwide.

The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color. The black-painted, hand-gilded and distressed molding is Italian. The glazing is U.V. protective plexiglass. Feel free to contact us for more details.

Condition: The red bar has faded to burnt orange. The ivory white field has evenly oxidized and there is minor to moderate foxing and water staining. There are small tears in the upper and lower corners at the fly end from obvious use. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.

About Jeff R. Bridgman Antiques, Inc.:
As an advisor to top museums and collectors alike, Jeff Bridgman is the world's leading expert and source for antique American flags and political textiles. In this field there are many fakes, forgeries, and misrepresented items, and there is no substitute for experience. As the nation's leading buyer and seller, Jeff R. Bridgman Antiques, Inc. has handled more material than anyone in the field. Jeff has also operated a textile conservation business for 18 years, where expert staff have conservation mounted, framed and restored thousands of examples, more than anyone world-wide.

Frame size (H x L) approxiamte 51 x 75 inches
Flag size (H x L) 39.25 x 63.25 inches


    Good. See Item Description.
    51 in. H x 75 in. W x 2.5 in. D
    130 cm H x 190 cm W x 6 cm D
    Seller Location
    York County, PA
    Reference Number
About the Seller

1stdibs seller since 2008

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Located in York County, PA

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