A Collector’s Guide to Antique American Flags

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The Pageant of a Nation: Betsy Ross 1777, circa 1932 Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The Pageant of a Nation: Betsy Ross 1777, circa 1932 (Public Domain). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the United States each year, the Fourth of July holiday marks an annual nod to the Star-Spangled Banner that has soared overhead for centuries. Some of the flag’s contemporary design, like its thirteen alternating stripes of red and white, harkens back to its original concept, but other elements of an antique American flag reveal how this beloved banner has changed over time — through nearly 30 iterations — since the eighteenth century.

For those whose interest in world history has spurred a passion for collecting antique American flags, this article explores some of the most celebrated and rare American flags, and also offers some tips for care for those who collect these coveted artifacts from American history. 

A 13-Star 'Great Star' pattern American Flag, late 18th/early 19th century

A 13-Star ‘Great Star’ pattern American Flag, late 18th/early 19th century. Sold for $33,750 via Freeman’s (November 2019).

13-Star Colonial American Flag (circa 1776–1867)

The story of the American flag began with the creation of the 13-star colonial American flag, also known as the ‘Betsy Ross flag,’ as she is often credited with having created the first version. Bearing the traditional red and white stripes totaling thirteen in number, this flag features a blue canton in the upper left with a circle of thirteen stars symbolizing the original thirteen colonies of the United States.

The exact story of how Ross developed the flag is a bit murky. Her grandson, William Canby, reported that she first created the flag in 1776, however, there is no evidence to verify that date or the fact that Ross was the sole creator of the flag. Nevertheless, the flag became the official symbol of the United States on 14 June 1776 (celebrated each year as Flag Day). Its presence endured well into the nineteenth century as a commemorative reminder of the country’s past. In fact, the flag backdrops often used at presidential inaugurations usually reference this foundational flag.

While the production of this colonial flag endured well beyond Ross’ generation, examples of the 13-star American flag remain some of the rarest antique American flags to be discovered. Variations of this example also exist. The Great Star format, for example, in which the thirteen stars assume a star formation on the blue canton, are highly coveted.

15-Star Antique American Flag (circa 1795–1818)

It was already during the tenure of our first President, George Washington, that the American flag changed. This was owed to the addition of the states of Kentucky and Vermont to the Union by 1792. The only main change to the flag’s design was the addition of the two requisite stars, but the lore of these flags is much more substantial: it is often stated that the massive 15-star American flag ordered by Major George Armistead served as the inspiration for Sir Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” His inspiration to pen the song that would become the national anthem came from British attacks during the War of 1812; the 15-star flag would only endure six more years from that point when the country grew again.

20-Star Antique American Flag (circa 1818–1919)

21 Star Silk American Flag 1818-1819

21 Star Silk American Flag 1818-1819. Sold for $7,000 via J.T. Francis Auctions (December 2015).

Adopted to reflect the ongoing expansion of the United States – specifically, the joining of the states of Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Mississippi between 1796 and 1817 – the 20-star American flag was introduced in 1818 under the administration of President James Monroe. These flags are special in that they were only in use for one year, making them one of the shortest-lived American flags in existence. Indeed, the country would cycle through four versions of the American flag during Monroe’s time in office.

28-Star American Flag (18461847) and 31-Star American Flag (1851–1858)

While each update to the flag was spurred by the addition of new states to the Union, several landmarks exist that are tied with other major moments in history that might be particularly attractive to some collectors. For example, the adoption of the 28-star American flag in 1846 marked the addition of one of the Union’s biggest states, Texas, which had been an independent republic since breaking away from Mexico in 1836.

Then, in 1851, the 31-star American flag was introduced following the addition of the 31st state of California in 1851. This stately addition marked the Union’s reach all the way to the West Coast, and it was accomplished in part thanks to the mania surrounding the Gold Rush of 1848.

34- and 35-Star American Flag (1863–1865)

Lincoln & Johnson: Perhaps the Largest Known 1864 Campaign Name Flag

Lincoln & Johnson: Perhaps the Largest Known 1864 Campaign Name Flag. Sold for $11,950 via Heritage Auctions (November 2010).

In 1861, the addition of Kansas to the Union as the 34th state meant another adaptation of the American flag, this time introduced during the year months of President Abraham Lincoln’s tenure. Thus, this became the Stars and Stripes that President Lincoln would use as part of his campaign in 1864, a tenuous time as the country was in the grips of the Civil War.

Though the war raged until 1865, the United States continued to grow. The addition of the 35th state, however, reflected the growing divide within the country: West Virginia was formed in 1863 when it broke away from the remainder of Virginia for its pro-Union sentiments. Sadly, it was the 35-star iteration of the American flag that accompanied President Lincoln’s funeral cortege following his assassination.

48-Star American Flag (1912–1959)

It was in 1912 that the style and format of the American flag became standardized with the introduction of the second longest-flying flag in American history, the 48-star American flag. This iteration was introduced during the presidential administration of William H. Taft with the addition of the states of New Mexico and Arizona, respectively.

50-Star American Flag (1960– )

The American flag that flies today, 50-star American flags came into prominence shortly after the 50th state of Hawaii joined in August of 1959. The longest-flying of any American flag in history, this 50-star flag has spanned more than twelve administrations and five decades. It has also enjoyed some modifications to mark specific historical landmarks, such as the celebration of the American Bicentennial in 1976. It has also become the symbol of the United States far out into space: the National Air and Space Museum, for example, showcases the small flag that accompanied the astronauts on the pivotal 1969 Apollo 11 mission.

Caring for an Antique American Flag

A 13-Star American Flag, circa 1861

A 13-Star American Flag, circa 1861. Sold for $28,750 via Freeman’s (November 2019).

Depending on the age of your antique American flag, you may need to take extra steps to ensure the preservation of its incorporated materials and fabrics. Very old or rare American flags have most likely succumbed to the rigors of time, so if you are concerned about the stability of your flag or note that it needs some restoration work, it would be best to reach out to a textile conservationist for help.

 Generally speaking, though, to ensure that your Old Glory continues to waive, some good guidelines to follow for handling rare American flags include:

  • Washing your hands before working with your antique American flag to ensure you do not bring any dirt, oils, or lotions into contact with it.
  • Wear gloves or remove any jewelry to ensure you do not catch or snag the fabric of your flag on a clasp or prong.
  • Keep your antique American flag away from light as much as possible, as old fibers are particularly susceptible to bleaching. If you have your flag on display, try whenever possible to rotate or refold your flag to prevent the same section’s continued exposure to the sun.
  • Try to store your flags within your home, not in an attic or storage space where your antique flag might be exposed to dust, moisture, or excessive temperatures.

Collecting Antique American Flags

Whether it is your love of American history or your passion for a political symbol as significant as the Star-Spangled Banner, antique American flags offer a fascinating field for collectors that blends artistic design along with the documentation of the birth – and growth – of a nation. Collecting such artifacts can take great effort, as seeking out antique American flags can require research into authenticity, dating, and conservation. The fruits of such efforts, though, can be a true piece of America’s past that you can carry into the future.