American Flag: An Historic Interpretation By Jennifer Robinson Research Conducted Spring 2008 Star design variations Boleslaw and Mastai , The Stars and Stripes (1973)
Abstract <ul><li>As part of a course in American Art and Artifacts at the University of Rhode Island, I was assigned the task of assisting the Newport Historical Society in investigating a thirteen star American flag of unknown date and origin. Through my research, I intended to try to find an approximate date of production for the flag and any information related to the name written on its reverse side. I also wanted to explore the many different ways of interpreting an historic object using primary and secondary sources. The research was divided into several segments, which included: </li></ul><ul><li>Comparative studies from flag history and star design </li></ul><ul><li>Markings research, including Newport’s civil records </li></ul><ul><li>Textile and craftsmanship research </li></ul><ul><li>The findings were eventually compiled into a research paper, and were given to the Newport Historical Society for assistance in further research. </li></ul>Third Maryland Regiment, 1781 Boleslaw and Mastai , The Stars and Stripes (1973)
Artifact: Front View It was decided that the flag details were either block printed or painted on a plain weave ground fabric. Frayed edges in some areas suggested that although the object could be considered by itself, it may have been removed from part of a larger textile. The imperfect nature of the color details suggested a handmade quality or limited degree of mechanical application. Courtesy of the Newport Historical Society
Artifact: Back View The focal point of the reverse side was hand-written lettering on the eighth stripe. The writing read: “FRGLADDING 188.” Below this was written “1882” or “1822”; the numbers were difficult to decipher because they appeared to have been lightly sketched on top of one another. Courtesy of the Newport Historical Society
Early Flags: Comparisons Grand Union Druckman, American Flag: Designs for a Young Nation (2003) It is difficult to pinpoint a definitive American flag origin, as most design elements were apparently derived from many sources. Although attempts were made to create “official” flags as patriotism increased during the Revolution, flag design was essentially left to the person creating the flag. This provided several remarkable variations with which to make comparisons to the flag being researched. Here, the “Grand Union” flag is shown; this was the first flag to have some predominance in representing the colonies between 1776 and 1777.
Star Design Boleslaw and Mastai , The Stars and Stripes (1973) The first “defined” American flag was decided by the Continental Congress in 1777 by stating: “Resolved: That the flag of the united states (sic) be 13 stripes alternate red and white, and that the union be 13 stars in a blue field , representing a new constellation.” The vague nature of this “new constellation” allowed for numerous design variations in star layout. In fact, it was not until 1912 that an “official” flag was decided upon. A number of factors, including recognition at sea and monetary concerns, would influence flag design from the Revolution onward. Many American-like flags were produced, especially in the early years of the country’s formation. Statehood flags, militia flags, and others show various “local” designs, either in star formation or general designs used. Rhode Island’s “ ‘United Company of the Train of Artillery’” flag, 1775. This flag, although local, is noted for its use of thirteen five-pointed stars. Star variations Boleslaw and Mastai , The Stars and Stripes (1973)
Stripes Markoe Flag. Quaife and Weig, The History of the United States Flag (1961) Nine or thirteen stripes were used in various ways in the earliest of flag designs. Subsequently, a star and a stripe were added to the flag design for each new state joining the Union (see Star-Spangled Banner, which used fifteen stripes). By 1818, however, an “overcrowding” effect resulted, and it was decided that stripes would remain at thirteen, while additional stars would be added for new states. Despite these efforts, no star layout was decided, and even stripe number and size was debatable. In the 1800s, nine to fourteen stripes could still be found. This was important to note in relation to the Newport Historical Society flag, which had either thirteen or fourteen stripes (if the final white stripe is not considered simply as ground fabric). Star-Spangled Banner reproduction. Druckman, American Flag: Designs for a Young Nation (2003)
Pierre L’Enfant’s flag design, early 1800s. Druckman, American Flag: Designs for a Young Nation (2003) Guenter, The American Flag, 1777-1924. Cultural Shifts from Creation to Codification (1990) Interpretation Issues The Spirit of ’76 by Archibald M. Willard, 1875. As the flag became increasingly accepted as a symbol, certain accepted “traditions” were built around its creation and design. The print pictured to the right popularized (or promoted) the idea of early flags having a ring of thirteen stars. Although this design was real (see left), it was only one of many star design layouts. These historic inaccuracies are important to note when researching the cultural and symbolic context of the flag.
Period Illustration Preble, Origin and History of the American Flag, Vol.1 (1917) Boleslaw and Mastai , The Stars and Stripes (1973) Another source of flag design information, other than extant artifacts, are period illustrations. Although not explored in detail in my report, I offered sources such as the ones seen here as another option for research.
Written Text Courtesy of the Newport Historical Society Because it was assumed that the flag had some type of Newport connection, it was decided that research could be conducted to find any local “F.R. Gladdings.” Several resources were used to conduct the search, including local obituary records, two versions of the Rhode Island Vital Records, and a Genealogical – Biographical catalog. The most notable piece of information found was the obituary of a Mrs. Freelove Gladding, which was dated 1822. This was interesting, because 1822 was one of the dates suggested by the writing beneath the name (not clearly visible here).
Period Piece or Centennial Replica? It was also suggested that the NHS flag could have been produced for personal or mass use during the Centennial celebrations of 1886. A variety of memorabilia was produced at the time of the Centennial (1886) for various celebrations nationwide. Druckman, American Flag: Designs for a Young Nation (2003)
Centennial Memorabilia <ul><li>The printed qualities apparent on the flag’s surface suggested that it could have been mass produced. </li></ul><ul><li>Flags were the focal point </li></ul><ul><li>of celebratory merchandise. Pictured here (at right) is a fan that depicts an interpretation of flag progression from 1776 to 1886. </li></ul>Boleslaw and Mastai , The Stars and Stripes (1973)
Druckman, American Flag: Designs for a Young Nation (2003) Many flags that were produced referenced the original thirteen colonies. In this Centennial flag, the thirteen stars are arranged in a unique way that utilizes one particular early star layout. Boleslaw and Mastai , The Stars and Stripes (1973) Flags could were also used for a variety of purposes, including advertisement . The printed quality of this flag is reminiscent of the Newport Historical Society’s flag.
Notable here are the number of printed flags, still with a variety of star layouts. With more mechanized systems in place, mass production of American flags for a variety of end uses became a definite reality in the 1800s. Boleslaw and Mastai , The Stars and Stripes (1973)
Handcrafted Quality Boleslaw and Mastai, The Stripes and Stars: The Evolution of the American Flag (1973) Boleslaw and Mastai , The Stars and Stripes (1973) Flag production can also be viewed in a personal light. At left, the “imperfect” quality of the color application suggests a painting technique. At right, the hand-worked flag emphasizes the personal nature of flag creation. Flag from the War of 1812. “ Needlecase flag,”1865
Conclusions in Brief It was difficult to decipher the date of origin of the Newport Historical Society’s flag. It can generally be understood that this flag is representative of a trend in American flag design, in which the flag itself was considered a type of “folk art.” The physical size of the object suggested a personal use. Certainly, knowing that star layouts were not made official until 1912 opens a range of possibilities. If the flag is interpreted “literally,” its thirteen stars and stripes could suggest an early flag dating from 1777 onward. The star design to the right, from the early 1800s, has a similar layout to the object being studied. However, the printed nature of the NHS flag, although imperfect, suggest that it could be considered as a replica of an earlier flag. The Centennial was a focus of my research because it was a time of high volume production of replica flags. It was concluded that a fiber and dye analysis would be the most accurate way to date the flag. Further investigation into the writing and name found on the flag’s reverse side may also be helpful, keeping in mind that the writing may have been written long after the flag’s original production date. Druckman, American Flag: Designs for a Young Nation (2003)