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20 Star Flag

This flag is one of the earliest American flags in the Rare Flags collection, dating to the period of the Third Flag Act of 1818. Also known as the Act to Establish the Flag, the Third Flag Act superseded the Second Flag Act of 1794 which specified fifteen stars and fifteen stripes.  The new Act's guidance on maintaining thirteen stripes while increasing the number of stars for each state would guide the evolution of our flag for the next hundred years to its modern form.  The act reads:

"An Act to establish the flag of the United States. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress Assembled, That from and after the fourth day of July next, the flag of the United States be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be twenty stars, white in a blue field. And be it further enacted, That on the admission of every new state into the Union, one star be added to the union of the flag; and that such addition shall take effect of the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission."
 
Flags of twenty stars are extremely rare.  I am aware of only two other period twenty star flags, one of which is in a large oval pattern, and the other of which is in a similar row pattern formerly held in the renowned collection of Boleslaw and Marie Louise Mastai and pictured their famous 1973 book The Stars and Stripes on pages 54-55.  According to the Mastais at the time it was believed to be the only twenty-star flag in existence. These two, and this flag, are the only three I know of that date to the period of 1818-1819, though there a few later period Civil War era twenty star flags that have surfaced.  According to the Mastais, the first twenty star flags flown on April 13, 1818, were "grand luminary" flags, also known as "great star" flags.  However, two consecutive presidential directives specified a different pattern for the Navy to use.  First, on May 18, 1818, that the stars be "staggered" rows; and second on September 18, 1818, that the stars be in "parallel aligned" rows.  Given this flag's construction, its size, its obvious wear and repairs on the fly end, and its compliance with the second presidential directive for official Navy flags, it is likely that this flag was made for U.S. Navy use, especially since the primary use of the American Flag during this period of time was to identify American ships at sea.  Its construction, with its canvas sleeve hoist, whip stitch grommets, homespun wool bunting, hand stitching and single-appliqué stars, is correct in every
HMS Jersey

American Oil Painting, 1828, depicting the H.M.S. Jersey in 1777, a British Prison Ship during the American Revolution.  An uncle of artist G. Hinkley of Albany, NY, was a prisoner aboard the ship. Most likely the ship would have flown a British Flag, but Hinkley's memorial painting shows an American Flag to honor those patriots who suffered there.
 

way for a flag of the 1818 period.  The flag shows evidence of extensive early repairs, including two partially replaced red stripes near the canton and a replaced bottom red stripe.  Based on the proportion of the canton, the flag has been considerably shortened from its original length, probably by several feet.  The worn fly end the flag, which suffered losses during use, has been being turned back and sewn.  You can imagine this beautiful flag, most likely several feet longer, flying majestically from the mast of an American ship.  All told, this flag, of the same period as the Star Spangled Banner, remains among a handful of the very earliest American flags that survive into the 21st century.


 

Learn more about rare star counts. Star Count:  20

Dates:  1817-1818

War Era:  None

Statehood:  Mississippi

Construction:  Wool Bunting with Cotton Stars

Catalog Number:  IAS-00255

   
   

Next:
Original 15 Star Flag
1795-1818


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