NEW YORK – It is the only national flag that has officially changed its design more often than any other. The 28 different designs tell the history of a country that began in revolution nearly 250 years ago. Collecting the American flag is more than just counting the stars; the stripes and the fabric are important, too.

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Authenticating a flag of other nations is, at times, dependent on its change in design or color. The national flag of Greece, for example, changed its canton and stripes from light blue to dark blue in the 1960s. Cambodia’s flag can be determined by the number of towers of the temple, Angkor Wat, used as a symbol on its flag since Independence in 1948. But these changes are known only with a bit of research.

The flag of the United States, on the other hand, has the most noticeable changes of any national flag. With the addition of a star for each new state since its official adoption in 1777, the national flag has changed a total of 28 times. The number the stars on the flag is the key to learning when it was adopted.


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Thirteen-star flags usually date to late 19th or early 20th century like this unusual star pattern that sold for $2,500. It has hand-sewn stars (before 1890), but machine-sewn stripes with metal grommets (after 1850). Image courtesy: Cowan’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers.com


The Stars

From Independence in July 1776 until June 1777, the U.S. flew an unofficial flag called the Grand Union Flag, which consisted of the UK flag (before 1801) in the canton with 13 alternating red and white stripes. When asked for a naval flag to fly aboard ships when entering foreign harbors, Congress adopted the first Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777 that simply stated, “Resolved, That the flag of the 13 United States be 13 stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” That’s it. There was no standard for how many points in the star, the star pattern, whether the stripes were horizontal or vertical and certainly gave no special meaning for the colors.

And so, until 1912 (when the 48-star flag was officially standardized as six rows of eight), stars were arranged however the manufacturer saw fit while the stripes became consistently horizontal by tradition.

To collectors, it is the number of stars and the star pattern that determines its auction value. Most stars were five-pointed (the first country to use this device on a national flag), but some were six-pointed. All stars were cut and sewn by hand until the zigzag sewing machine was invented about 1890 (stripes were hand sewn before 1850 and machine sewn after that).


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Virtually all military and official government flags were made of wool bunting from the 18th through World War II. Shown are a close-up view of a 36-star handmade linen U.S. flag dated 1876 (left) and a later 50-star cotton flag (right). Image courtesy: William J. Jenack Auctioneers and Forsythes’ Auctions LLC


Some star patterns were in a circle, others in a row and even a few in patterns. As long as the flag had the right number of stars, all were official and still are. The stars were originally made mostly of linen and hand stitched. Cotton wasn’t made commercially available in the U.S. until after 1810.

If you have a 13-star national flag, just know that one has never been found that survived the 18th century. Any flag with 13 stars is generally a commemorative-type flag, perhaps from the Centennial era of 1876, or is more likely a U.S. Navy “boat flag” that was officially used as a naval standard from 1860 to about 1920.

Material 

Curiously, all of the wool bunting used to manufacture the military flags throughout the Revolution was imported from Great Britain. That’s right. Our enemy supplied the material for the symbols of U.S. resistance.

All national flags of the United States were made of a one-ply worsted woolen bunting up through 1940 or so. This allowed for a higher quality, lighter weight construction, was virtually moisture resistant and allowed flags to unfurl more easily in the wind. Wool was reserved mainly for military uniforms during World War II and so manufacturers turned to cotton for government and civilian flags. Smaller flags were made from other materials such as silk and muslin, particularly the small parade flags that were fastened to a stick.

Construction

To fly a large flag, a several-ply hemp rope called a halyard was stitched through a plain weave, coarse linen sleeve on the flag known as a heading. Later, heavy metal clips held the flag to the halyard through hand-sewn eye holes on the hoist end of the flag before 1850, then through metal grommets thereafter.


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Pictured are three types of flag attachments; first is a woven rope attached in a sleeve of the heading (left), the second is a hand-sewn eyelet (center) in use until about 1850 when a metal grommet (right) became the norm. Images courtesy\ William J. Jenack Auctioneers and personal collection


Collectibility

When it comes to collecting flags, size matters. Any flag measuring more than 3 feet by 5 feet is more difficult for collectors to display and is therefore not as desirable. Smaller handheld flags sometimes have the same value as larger ones, especially if the material, the star pattern and condition are all extraordinary.

Any flag before and during the Civil War-era (up to 33 stars) are more desirable simply because relatively few survive in any condition, yet the flags of the Civil War-era are the most reproduced, especially military unit flags. Flags from the Centennial era of 1876 up through 1896 (34 to 44 stars) have secondary collector interest; 45- and 46-star flags still do well as a third collectible category.


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Handmade stars were prevalent throughout the late 18th and most of the 19th century up to the Civil War-era. On the left is a hand-cut linen star which was sewn by hand until the invention of the zigzag sewing machine about 1890; the last is a machine-sewn star. Image courtesy: William J. Jenack Auctioneers and personal collection


The 48-star flag of 1912 served the second longest at 47 years (the 50-star flag has served for nearly 60 years to date). It was the first U.S. flag to have its stars officially arranged by statute. Its wool bunting construction prevailed from 1912 until 1940 or so with a mostly cotton construction thereafter. Depending on condition, a wool 48-star flag usually has a somewhat higher value than a cotton version.

The 49-star flag served for only one year, from 1959 to 1960, and is considered desirable in any size or condition (as long as the stars are intact) with a slightly higher value at auction from the 48-star flag.

A 50-star flag in any size is common and not usually collectible unless it has a historic context, has flown over the White House or Capitol (with original box and certificate), flown to the moon, or autographed by a president or someone of significance. Otherwise, the value is about $30 to $40 or so, depending on size.

Unlike other collectibles, the condition of a flag is not usually the deciding factor. Instead, the stars play more of a central role in its auction value. If some of the stars are missing, but the stripes are intact, the value would be compromised. It is more desirable to have all the stars intact even if some of the stripes are missing.

Finally

The material that was prevalent throughout, the way the stars are arranged and stitched (whether sewn by hand or machine), the type of material in the sleeve, what ply and type of thread was used to sew the parts together, and how it was attached to a pole (whether by a rope, hand-sewn eyelets or metal grommet) are the key factors to determine when a flag was created.

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These specifications are what separates an authentic flag from a reproduction. No matter how skillfully a flag was made, the details in its construction will always tell the real story. It is therefore important to have an expert in textiles verify any historic flag before it is auctioned or restored.