38 STARS ON AN EXTRAORDINARY ANTIQUE FLAG MADE FOR THE 1876 CENTENNIAL EXPOSITION, LIKELY BY THE HORSTMANN COMPANY IN PHILADELPHIA, WITH AN EXTREMELY RARE FORM OF THE MEDALLION CONFIGURATION THAT BEARS AN ELIPSE OF 6 STARS IN THE CENTER AND A LARGE STAR IN EACH CORNER
38 star American national flag, press-dyed on wool bunting. The stars are arranged in a very rare form of the medallion configuration that has an ellipse of 6 stars in the center, surrounded by two circular wreaths of stars, with an oversized star flanking in each corner. Most medallion designs have a single star in center, often larger in size than all of the rest. The elliptical center is not only unusual, but unique among all known designs.
If there is a large center star, it is sometimes also true that the corner stars will likewise be noticeably larger than those in the wreaths. It is extremely unordinary, however, for there to be large flanking corner stars without the inclusion of a large star in the center. In addition to the ellipse, this result is a pronounced visual difference between this and other known styles of wreath pattern parade flags. Only one other variety shares this trait, constructed in the same manner, though smaller in scale and with a single, small star in the center and tree rings of stars around it.
Upon closer inspection, the placement of these 6 stars is purposeful and it actually creates a very interesting secondary pattern. The design is hard to see unless you begin in the bottom left corner of the star field and work towards the center. Starting with the large corner star, draw a line toward the center with two small stars. Then note how the stars fan outward from this short, diagonal line in successive arches. The same works in reverse if you begin at the top right corner. Corner-to-corner, the design is a mirror image, which is probably no accident.
Currently there are perhaps ten known examples of this flag, most of which I have owned. The star placement, the fact that the stars point in all, directions and the exaggerated size of the corner stars, all lend it a skewed, folk quality that is superior to most wreath designs and it exists as one of the great oddities of 19th century flag-making.
Construction: The flag is constructed of a wide panel of wool bunting that has been clamp-dyed to created the canton and stripes. The top edge of the flag and the fly end are bound with treadle stitching. A treadle-sewn, sailcloth canvas sleeve binds the hoist end, along which is a period stencil that reads “3 x 5”, to indicate size in feet, accompanied by the number "36" in blue pencil, probably to notate the length of the sleeve, which may have been made prior to the flag as part of a run of them to be ready on hand for a production run. The name "G. Ackerman" is also penciled along the sleeve. This would be the name of a former owner, and it was common to mark flags in this fashion during the 19th and early 20th centuries to indicate ownership.
The maker of the flag was most certainly Horstmann Brothers of Philadelphia, a major military outfitter. While no Horstmann-signed examples of this exact style of flag are known, I have owned others others with the same construction and with interesting star patterns that bore the Horstmann stamp on similarly applied hoist bindings. Due to the fact that the company was located in Philadelphia and the Centennial International Exposition—a major World’s Fair event—took place in the same city in 1876, it is logical to assume that Horstmann supplied these flags for the occasion.
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.
Press-dyed wool flags are scarcer than those printed on cotton and silk. Most parade flags were made of cotton because cotton was inexpensive and such flags were often intended for one day’s use only at a specific parade, political rally, a reunion of soldiers, or some other patriotic event. The Centennial Expo lasted for a period of six months, however, which required decorative flags that would last for a longer time. It is reasonable to assume that press-dyed wool flags were made for just such a purpose, because wool sheds water is suitable for extended outdoor use.
Some Notes on the Press-Dying Process:
First patented in 1849, the press-dying process was thought to be a novel idea that would improve flag-making efficiency. In this case, for example, it could potentially alleviate the chore of hand-appliquéing 76 stars (38 on each side). In reality, however, the result must have been less efficient than sewing. To achieve white stars, for example, metal plates in the shape of stars had to be clamped to either side of a length of woolen fabric, in the desired configuration, so they were back-to-back. These may have been lightly brushed beforehand with a solution that would resist dye, or perhaps with a thin coat of wax. The stars were clamped together tightly, the bunting was dyed blue, and the areas where the metal stars were positioned would be left white. For flags with press-dyed stripes, the same task was repeated with different clamps.
A form of resist-dyeing, this method often resulted in crude characteristics, such as stripes with irregular lines, in various widths, and stars with inconsistent shapes, in slightly varying sizes. It is likely that this resulted in some lost product and wasted time, from flags that had bleeding or misprint issues and were of too poor quality to sell. This may perhaps explain why it never became a become a popular method of flag production.
Wool was preferred because it sheds water, making it the fabric of choice for all maritime flags and, in fact, most flags produced by professional flag-makers for long-term outdoor use. The inclusion of cotton would have made the fabric easier to dye and may have, in fact, precluded the need for clamp dying (another name for the process). Whatever the case may be, printing on wool is costly and difficult. Even today, only about 1% of wool fabric is printed*, because it generally needs to be washed afterward and wool cannot easily be treated with water.
In regard to wool flags, press-dying was primarily used during the Centennial-era by the U.S. Bunting Company of Lowell, Massachusetts, which began making press-dyed flags for the U.S. military in 1869, and by Horstmann Brothers of Philadelphia. The U.S. Bunting Co. was one of the first flag-makers to successfully produce high quality wool bunting fabric in the States, and while its owners worked diligently to master the press-dyeing process, it seems quite obvious today that it was actually more costly than expected, because it never become a popular method of flag production. This inexact art of reverse-dyeing would often add crude characteristics, such as stripes with irregular lines, in various widths, and stars with inconsistent shapes, in slightly varying sizes. It is likely that this resulted in lost product and wasted time, from flags that had bleeding or misprint issues and were of too poor quality to sell. But within those flags that survived, today’s collectors today find the irregularities interesting, not only because they demonstrates early production methods, but also because they lends the sort of folk qualities that make early flags more interesting to look at.
* Chen, W., Wang, G., & Bai, Y., “Best for Wool Fabric Printing…,” (Textile Asia, 2002, v.33 (12)), pp. 37-39.
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 preservation of flags and have framed 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: There is minor mothing throughout and there is very minor water staining. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.
Frame Size (H x L): Approx. 46.5" x 72" Flag Size (H x L): 34.5" x 60"
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