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We learn the phrase "Manifest Destiny" in grade school, but for modern day Americans, the term describes a bygone era.  For the last 100 years, the number of stars on the American Flag has remained relatively stable.  In 1912, with the admission of Arizona and New Mexico, the "Continental United States" was complete, with "the Lower 48" all present in the Union.  In January, 1959, Alaska entered the Union, and on July 4, 1959, 49 became official.  But by August 1959 Hawaii completed the modern United States as its 50th State, and in the 50 years since 1960, the flag has remained as we know it today.  It is for this reason that very few Americans know much about the great variety of antique American flags that exist.  Perhaps they know about their grandparents' 48 star flag, but you must go back nearly 100 years to encounter any significant variation.

That was not the case in the early days of the republic.  For example, it's a little known fact that President James K. Polk, our 11th President, served under more versions of the American Flag than any other sitting president, despite the fact that he only served one term (1845-1849, covering 26, Michigan; 27, Florida; 28, Texas; 29, Iowa, and 30, Wisconsin).  Consequently, Americans often planned their flags with spaces in anticipation of new states being added to the Union.  Sometimes these voids remained empty.  But on some flags, clear evidence exists of Americans adding stars to the flag, in some cases decades after the original flag was created.  Three such flags are highlighted here as examples.

In the canton of the 19/25 Star flag featured in the showcase, the creator of the flag chose to position all of the stars to the right side of the canton, leaving space for new stars on the left.  This is somewhat unusual, but not unheard of.  It's clear that on two separate occasions stars were added, most likely by two other individuals, both of whom were less experienced seamstresses than the original creator (and both of whom had access to lower quality materials).  Interestingly, because it's not possible to tell which update took place first, the path to 25 Stars for this flag could have been 19 to 21 to 25, or 19 to 23 to 25.  Which is correct? We will most likely never know.

The flag as it appeared in 1816

Updated to 21 Stars in 1819 Updated to 25 Stars in 1836

Stars sewn by two different hands

In yet another example of an updated flag, the Dale family of Virginia City, Nevada, kept their family flag for many years, and updated what was originally a 37 star flag to 46 stars with the addition of 9 folky hand sewn stars.  A note accompanying the flag states "Mrs. Mary Dale used this flag on public occasions over their hotel in Virginia City in the "good old days" of 60's and 70's. Her family moved to Sebastopol about 1890, buying the Calender place, now owned by Mr. and Mrs. Chas. Leland."  This later period flag also features a canton of stars right-justified in a "notched configuration" to allow space for new stars in anticipation of new states.

The Dale Flag in its original configuration,
37 Stars

The Dale Flag in its current configuration,
updated to 46 Stars

A spectacular example of updating on a manufactured flag is found on this silk 42 star flag, which ultimately dates to 1889-1890, but which began its life as a 38 star flag.  The original 38 stars, which are gilt painted with mustard-yellow paint used to highlight the arms of each star, has been augmented with four additional painted stars which flank the center star.  In all likelihood, the flag was manufactured for military use, by a military contracted outfitter, and was in the company's inventory when our star count jumped from 38 stars to 42 stars in the course of just nine days, between November 2, 1889 and November 11, 1889.  The four added stars are slightly brighter gilt, and the accent paint is a different shade of mustard-yellow than is seen on the other original 38 gilded stars.

Beautiful Double Wreath with
38 Original Stars, circa 1876-1889

Updated to 42 Stars
circa 1889

The 48 Star Great Star flag below, a rare homemade example that actually dates to the period of the American Civil War, began its life with 35 hand embroidered stars.  Great Star flags seemed to reach the height of their popularity during the Civil War, but by the time of the American Centennial, the pattern was rarely seen, being replaced primarily by medallion pattern flags.  The stars of this flag were updated several times, and by at least one, and most likely, more than one, different person than the original maker of the flag.  It's evident from the construction of the later stars that they were done by various seamstresses with less experience at embroidering techniques than the original creator.  The left image shows the flag as it originally looked in 1863 when it was made, during the height of the Civil War.  One star in the main Great Star was replaced, probably out of necessity to repair a damaged original star.

A Hand Embroidered Great Star Pattern
with a Circular Center

Updated from 35 to 48 Stars
Several updates between 1865 and 1959

Another example of updating is this wonderful homemade flag of 42 stars, updated to 45 stars.  The update is subtle but the three added stars are somewhat smaller than the other stars in the flag, and are placed into spaces left to the right of the staggered rows.

A 42 Star Flag, circa 1889
Washington Statehood (Unofficial)

Updated to 45 Stars, 1896-1908
Utah Statehood


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