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The Continental Colors, also known as the Grand Union Flag, is considered the first national flag of the United States.  American militia units took to the field against the British regulars as early as April, 1775, well before the formal Declaration of Independence from Britain on July 4, 1776.  By June, 1775, when George Washington was appointed Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Armies, it was apparent that a national color was needed to represent the Colonies, and the Continental Color flag was adopted for this purpose. The inclusion of a British Union Flag in the canton of the flag representing the colonies is not unexpected, since a formal declaration of independence had not yet been made despite open warfare, and, at the opening of the struggle, it was still undecided whether or not a formal break with Britain was actually the ultimate goal of the war.  The first documented use of the flag occurred on December 2, 1775, when John Paul Jones raised the Continental Colors aboard the ship Alfred.  Although the circumstances are unclear, it is possible that the Continental Colors were also raised by George Washington's Army on New Year's Day, 1776, above Prospect Hill in Charlestown, Boston, and initially mistaken by the British command as a sign of surrender.  The Continental Colors appears in several period engravings of the time, including a North Carolina $7.50 Halifax Note printed in April, 1776.  With the establishment of the formal break from England and the formation of the United States on July 4, 1776, the flag thus served as the National Flag of the United States from that time through the early part of 1777, when its design was replaced by the Flag Act of June 14, 1777, nearly one year after the Declaration of Independence.  The new Flag Act resolved: "That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."  The 13 stars replaced the Union Flag canton, thus beginning the evolution of the Stars and Stripes that we know today.  Notice that the Union Flag in the canton of the Continental Colors, correctly mimicking the style of the British Union Flag during the period of the American Revolution, does not have the red St. Patrick's Cross over the white cross stripes, as is seen in the modern British Union Flag.

Given the construction of this flag, to include its thin woven cotton fabric, treadle stitching, age and wear, I am confident that it dates to the period of the American Centennial, circa 1876, when the Continental Colors were revived and reproduced as part of the celebration. The period of the American Centennial was a time of great patriotic fervor.  In honor of the events of 1776, Americans produced historic reproductions of the flags of the Revolutionary War period for the celebration.  The American Centennial Exposition, hosted by the City of Philadelphia, commenced on January 1, 1876 at the Pennsylvania Statehouse.  The very first act to open the Centennial Exposition on January 1st was the hoisting of the Continental Colors above the Pennsylvania Statehouse.  The name "Grand Union Flag", by which the flag is more commonly known today, was only introduced later, in 1880, in George Henry Preble's book, History of the Flag of the United States of America. Early antique examples of the type, such as this special flag, which is a particularly small example at just two feet by two-and-a-half feet in size, are extremely rare. Most likely fewer than ten, and possibly as few as five, 19th century pieced-and-sew examples of this important early flag are known. It is a treasure and holds a special place in the Rare Flags Collection of American National Flags.



The cotton fabric, treadle stitching, construction and aging of the flag
are all consistent with other cotton flags in the Rare Flags collection made during the
American Centennial of 1876.

Grand Union Historical Flag, Flags of the World Website, http://flagspot.net/flags/us-gu.html
Grand Union Flag, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Union_Flag


 

Learn more about the history of the American Flag. Star Count:  None

Dates:  1876 (Reproduction of 1776 era)

War Era:  Revolutionary War

Statehood:  The United Colonies

Construction:  Cotton

Catalog Number:  IAS-00280

   
   

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39 Stars, Geometric Medallion
November 2, 1889


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