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15 Star Flag - (1795-1818) (U.S.)

Last modified: 2019-08-02 by rick wyatt
Keywords: fifteen | united states | greasing flagpoles |
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[U.S. 15 star flag 1795] image by Clay Moss, 24 February 2007



See also:


Description of the flag

In 1795, two stars were added, representing Kentucky and Vermont, bringing the total number of stars to 15. Two stripes were added to make a total of 15 stripes. This was the only U.S. flag to have fifteen stripes. In 1818, Congress proclaimed that one star for each new state would be added on the 4th of July following the state's admission to the union and there would be thirteen stripes representing the thirteen original colonies. The 15 star flag flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired the writing of the National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.
Rick Wyatt, 5 April 1998

This flag flew from 4 July, 1795 to 4 July, 1818 even though five more states would join the Union during that time.
Clay Moss, 24 February 2007

The addition of two stars and two stripes in 1795 was a reluctant compromise, an attempt to make sure the new states did not feel left out. However, the biggest users of flags, the merchant ships, were unhappy with the solution because they felt the purpose of a flag, identification, would be diminished as more and more new states joined the Union. Many felt retaining just 13 stripes and adding new stars was a better design plan, which Captain Samuel Reid pioneered and which was enacted into law in 1818.

Besides which, Americans, especially in the first century of the country, have never paid that much attention to the details of our own legislation, especially where our symbols are concerned. Thirteen, fifteen, heck, just nine or any number of red and white (and sometimes blue) stripes with a blue canton bearing any number of white stars IS an American flag to Americans. Which is why I always say in that era, the US flag was more like a National Art Project, with each contributor making it in their own unique way, regardless of official specs.
Dave Martucci, 26 February 2019


Jack

[U.S. 15 star jack 1795] image by Clay Moss, 24 February 2007


Fort McHenry flag

[U.S. 13 star Fort McHenry flag 1777 ] image by Clay Moss, 25 February 2007
[Source is Fort McHenry Flag page]

This is a drawing of what the original Star Spangled Banner looked like. You should note that, like the 13 star flag, this flag existed in many different variations. Anyway, this is the most famous 15 star-15 stripe U.S. Flag and the one our National Anthem was written about. It was flying over Fort McHenry in 1814 in the early morning after a major bombardment, signaling the Fort still held out. The original is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and is huge (30' x 42').
Dave Martucci, 6 December 1997

In "The Reading Eagle", Charles J. Adams III gives more details on the history of the flag:
"...Another [referring to Betsy Ross' story] legendary banner was the star-spangled one that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Its creation is rooted not in legend, but in fact. And, its creator was also a Pennsylvania woman a native Pennsylvanian, at least. She was Mary Young, who was born in Philadelphia in 1776. She married John Pickersgill in 1795 and moved with him to Baltimore where she took up what had been her mother's trade. After her husband's untimely death in 1805, Mary set up shop as a signal flag and banner maker for the busy maritime shipping trade in Baltimore harbor. With a respected reputation for her work, Mary Young Pickersgill drew the attention of George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry. With the threat of attack imminent in the summer of 1813, Armistead ordered a flag "so large that the British will have no trouble seeing it from a distance."
The flag, and the job, was immense. Mary needed the assistance of several family members and hired hands to complete the 30-by-42-foot banner and a smaller garrison flag. The job was completed in six weeks. That attack didn't happen until the summer of 1814, when a young lawyer detained on a British ship watched the siege of Fort McHenry and marveled at the flag's endurance during the Battle of Baltimore. He was, of course, Francis Scott Key, and the rest is history. And, that history comes alive at the Flag House in Baltimore. It is the former residence and shop of Mary Pickersgill, and it is where she died in 1857. The original Star-Spangled Banner isn't there it's a few miles down I-95 in the Smithsonian Institution. But, the splendid see-through "Great Flag Window" at the Flag House is a full-scale exact representation. It is also the facade of the Star-Spangled Banner Museum that adjoins the Flag House. The circa 1793, National Historic Landmark house is furnished with 18th- and early-19th-century items including several from the Pickersgill family inventory. Opened for guided tours since 1927, it is one of the oldest museums in museum-rich Baltimore.
source: www.readingeagle.com/re/adams_weekend/1616466.asp
Ivan Sache, 19 January 2007

If you take the tour of Ft. McHenry, then you will learn the story of the Star Spangled Banner on the night of the British bombardment.
It was raining and the garrison flag that Mary Pickersgill had made, already taking a reinforced flag pole as it was, starting absorbing lots of rain water thus increasing its weight. The flag pole began to bend over. So the troops of the fort pulled down the larger flag, then hoisted the smaller storm flag. The large flag was taken into one of the barracks and fires were built under it to help dry the flag.
In the morning, before the sun had come up, the rain stopped and the larger flag, now dry, was hoisted back upon the fort's flag pole. Thus when Francis Scott Key say it flying that morning after the night's bombardment, he never knew that it had actually been taken down and a smaller flag hoisted in its place.
Greg Biggs, 19 January 2007

For the benefit those of us dwelling in another parish, I add that this was on Sept. 13th, 1812, during a war between the U.S.A. and Britain. More info at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_1812 and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ft._McHenry.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 21 January 2007


Fort Niagara flag

An actual garrison flag from Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario north of Niagara Falls (1813, possibly dating from 1809) has the star pattern in five staggered (or offset) horizontal rows of three stars each.
I checked a book entitled Picture History of the U.S. Navy by Theodore Roscoe and Fred Freeman published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York and London 1956. In it are several paintings and one photograph that give opposing views. Remember that at this time there was no official arrangements of stars. A very pertinent, very clear painting of the Battle of Lake Erie (September 10,1813) [also known as the Battle of Put-in-Bay] shows Commodore Perry leaving the USS Lawrence for the USS Niagara in a small boat flying a 15 stripe flag with three horizontal non-staggered rows of five stars. Other paintings of this battle have the flags less clear. In a painting of the H.M.S. Shannon and USS Chesapeake entering Halifax, Nova Scotia, (June 1813) the Chesapeake clearly wears a U.S. flag with three non-staggered horizontal rows of five stars under the British White ensign. Just to confuse things, a photograph of the actual 1814 Stonington, Connecticut, battle flag shows a 15 stripe flag with 16 stars arranged in a rectangular field of 4 non-staggered rows of 4 stars. Of course, artistic license exists in paintings, as the Constitution vs. the Guerriere has the flag depicted two different ways in two paintings of the same event! (5 rows staggered vs. 5 rows non-staggered)
I would conclude that the 15 star flag with 5 staggered rows of 3 stars each was definitely in use on the Great Lakes, and the arrangement of 3 non-staggered rows of 5 stars was likely in use as well.
More on the Fort Niagara flag www.oldfortniagara.org/flag.htm
Kevin McNamara, 18 February 1999


Greasing Flagpoles

When British troops withdrew from Boston during the revolution, and after returning Fort Niagara to U.S. control after the War of 1812, they were supposed to have greased the flagpoles and cut the halyards to make it difficult for the American troops to raise their flag!
Kevin McNamara, 18 February 1999


15 Star-13 Stripe U.S. Flag
(Discussion of irregularities in the number of stars and stripes on early US flags)

[15 star-13 stripe U.S. Flag] image by Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 24 February 2019

Mr. Rare Flags shows a Stars and Stripes flag that has 15 stars. His whole description of that flag is more or less based upon that fact. Not much is made of the flag having only 13 stripes to accompany those 15 stars. The references seem to be to cases where the number of stripes are higher still, for the number of states having grown to 17 or 18. (source)
Anyone who has thoughts on these numbers?
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 24 February 2019

I don't see anything too surprising here. He quotes Grace Cooper's comment that irregularities in the number of stars and stripes were not unusual in this early period, and they probably didn't have any particular significance. It would be interesting to know more about where this flag came from, however.
By-the-way, Anthony Iasso is a member of CBFA. We had meeting at his house in Middleburg, VA, a couple of years ago. He has incredible collection of flags and other Americana.
Peter Ansoff, 24 February 2019

I asked Jim Ferrigan if he had seen this flag. He replied: "Yes, I'd seen this previously on Anthony Lasso's site. He is a conscientious collector, very similar to Mr. Zaricor, and I seen no reason to doubt the analysis. There are period paintings of similar 15/13s flags. The other possibility is of it being a Southern Inclusionary flag representing the 15 slave states. All in all a very nice flag."
To state the obvious, there are numerious unofficial variant US flags with all sorts of different constellations of stars, but very few with more than thirteen stripes.
Pete Loeser, 24 February 2019

[1803 Liverpool Creamware pitcher] #15-13a     [USS Delaware Flag 1798] #15-13b
images from Dave Martucci, 24 February 2019

Anthony makes a good case for this flag being authentic, and I have no objection to what he has done. At face value, the flag could be from the 1792-1818 period. Hand spun wool bunting, linen stars and hoist, all hand stitched with linen thread, all good markers for an early flag.
The one thing we have to remember is that this also means there is no reason it couldn't be later as well. Most of the dating techniques we have only give us an earliest limitation date. Some crafters could have used the skills and materials they were familiar with for many decades.
Having said that, I'm inclined to agree with Anthony's analysis although he probably should have included the caveat I just laid out and a note that 15-star flags were known to be used in the 1840s in the South.
As far as design considerations go, there is evidence for 15-star, 13-stripe flags (as well as other combinations) in the period 1795-1818. Attached as an example is such a flag from an 1803 Liverpool Creamware pitcher (#15-13a). Another example is the flag flying from the USS Delaware in a famous painting of a naval engagement in the undeclared war with France, 1798 that I believe is illustrated in So Proudly We Hail. My drawing of that flag (#15-13a) is attached as well.
Dave Martucci, 24 February 2019

Thanks for the explanation. It wasn't, however, quite what I was asking about. I hadn't even thought of the possibility that the flag might not be authentic at all. He makes an elaborate case from the details that to him prove the authenticity of his flag. But the reason I asked "Anyone who has thoughts on these numbers?", was that Anthony Iasso apparently does not. He doesn't elaborate on details that do not prove his point, unless to show that they don't disprove his claim.
But flags aren't meaningless quilts (and then again: Even good (American) quilts are far from meaningless). Flags are meaningful within their framework of rules. Flag laws and other adoptions of flags tell the viewers and users what those flags represent. This one represents the USA, and the development of the rules governing that flag causes it to represent the USA at a specific time. But it doesn't appear to be a flag exactly following those rules. (I don't have the 1795 text at hand; it may or may not be as imprecise as its predecessor.)
We have a flag with 13 stripes and 15 stars, and the only thing we hear about the stripes is that other flags have different numbers of stripes as well. With the possible exception of the 9-stripe flag, those flags all had more stripes than stars. And the reason for that is clear in each case: They had as many stripes as the country had states when they were made.
Say that that's true for this flag as well. Then this flag would be from before 1791. If it merely has 13 stripes because of the change back to 13 stripes in 1818, then it might be from 1818 or later. But at that time the number of stars jumped up so significantly that it would be hard to imagine anyone using the wrong number of stars, whether intentionally or not. If it has 13 stripes for 13 stripes, however, Vermont may have become the 14th state in 1791, but this flag has nothing that refers to 14 states. Even more so, what evidence is there that the stars on the flag refer to the current number of states? According to the adoption, the stars don't represent the states, after all. Rather, they represent a new constellation.
This is, IMO, also the reason why older flags have the stars "pointing" in random directions, BTW. It's not that flag makers of old couldn't figure out how to align stars, but rather it's that the stars represent a constellation. Have you ever seen a constellation of stars with little tags on them saying "This side up!"?
This is a 13-stripe flag, but the number of stars makes it unlikely that it might be following the pattern that the stripes represent the than current number of states. It has 15 stars: It would be interesting to determine when people started to think about changing the numbers according to the number of states. If that idea was current when Kentucky became the 15th state, then it might be that stars were already added because of this. Against that, however, speak all those examples of different numbers of stripes. If changing the number of stripes was popular, then why isn't this flag fifteen stripes and 13 stars? It looks like this flag would not be from before 1795, and there is no apparent reason why it would be from after 1795, when the new pattern was fixed. What's left?
I'm not an Usanian, so far be it from me to tell them to have another look at a precious flag of theirs. But I can speculate about what would happen with a 13 star 13 stripe flag when the country's flag changed to 15 of both in 1795. I don't know how difficult adding stripes would be; changing the number of stripes would certainly ruin the ratio. But might the owner not send it back to the flag maker to at least add the two new stars? Sure, that flag might be from 1792-1818, but in my opinion its design suggest specifically 1795.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 26 February 2019

Yes, I did misunderstand your point. Sorry. I hope I can clarify it. The addition of two stars and two stripes in 1795 was a reluctant compromise, an attempt to make sure the new states did not feel left out. However, the biggest users of flags, the merchant ships, were unhappy with the solution because they felt the purpose of a flag, identification, would be diminished as more and more new states joined the Union. Many felt retaining just 13 stripes and adding new stars was a better design plan, which Captain Samuel Reid pioneered and which was enacted into law in 1818.
Besides which, Americans, especially in the first century of the country, have never paid that much attention to the details of our own legislation, especially where our symbols are concerned. Thirteen, fifteen, heck, just nine or any number of red and white (and sometimes blue) stripes with a blue canton bearing any number of white stars IS an American flag to Americans. Which is why I always say in that era, the US flag was more like a National Art Project, with each contributor making it in their own unique way, regardless of official specs.
This is even true today. Indeed, the Marine Corps "Flag Manual" dated 6 November 2013 MCO 10520.3, states: "The term 'Flag of the United States' shall include any flag, standard, colors, ensign or any picture or representation of either, of any part or parts of either, made of any substance or represented on any substance of any size evidently purporting to be either of said flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States of America, or a picture or a representation of either upon which shall be shown the colors, the stars and the stripes, in any number of either thereof, or of any part or parts of either, by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag, standards, colors, or ensign of the United States of America."
Please let me know if you need further clarification.
Dave Martucci, 26 February 2019



 
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