Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Flag and a Mystery for the Fourth of July

One of my personal rituals is flying my mother’s family flag on certain holidays. It’s moth-eaten, torn in some places, and frayed at the ends. It also has 39 badly arranged stars. There are no neat rows, and the stars in the blue field look like they were added haphazardly. Or perhaps the designer had poor spatial skills. No matter. I found the flag in a trunk when I cleaned out my mother’s house, and didn’t think any more about it.
My mother and grandmother had a habit of labeling things. My grandmother did this because she knew she was losing her memory and wanted to pass on items of family history, such as my great grandfather’s change purse or her mother’s winter muff. My mother labeled things because she was orderly and liked to save things.
The flag came with a note on my mother’s stationery used in the 1940s, and identified the maker of the flag as her maternal grandmother, Grandmother Osborne. My mother added, “I seem to remember her sewing in the last one [star].” Hmm, no. But the flag is clearly homemade, with the stars hand stitched first and then on a sewing machine.
History buffs will already have identified the problem. The United States never had an official flag with 39 stars. In 1877, a star was added for Colorado (admitted in 1876), and the official US flag thereafter had 38 stars until 1889. But flag makers had expected Congress to accept two new states and had produced flags with 39 stars in anticipation. Unfortunately, they were stuck with an inventory they couldn’t sell. Until 1889?
In 1889, Congress was poised to accept the Dakota Territory as a state, and the assumption was that it would be one state. But, surprise, it came in as two. Those who anticipated one state (commercial flag makers) once again ended up with an inventory of flags with 39 stars they couldn’t use at all. And even if they had guessed there would be two Dakotas, Congress in its perversity accepted four more states right away (Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming), pushing the star count to 43 in 1890 and 44 in 1891. Anticipating the actions of Congress was a losing proposition (and not much has changed).
Hence, there has never been a year in which the US flag officially had 39 stars. If you find a flag with 39 stars, you know it was made before 1889.
My family’s flag, with its haphazard arrangement of stars and its inconsistent width of red and white stripes (from three to four inches) could date from 1876 or 1889, the only two years when people expected there to be 39 states and flag makers produced flags in anticipation. But in both years they were wrong.
Whatever the truth is, I may never know. Grandmother Osborne was born in 1864 and died in 1931. She might have made the flag at the age of 25, as a young married woman, but she could just as likely have inherited it from her mother, and added a star in 1889 in anticipation of the state of Dakota. I’ll never know if she created the flag or not unless I find more evidence. I’ve examined the stars, and two or three seem to have been sewn on by a different hand, but that could mean no more than two women in the family worked on the flag together, each one showing a distinctive style in her stitching.
The more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me that Great grandmother Osborne inherited the flag from her mother, Great great grandmother Beckwith, and my mother remembers her repairing it, not adding a star sometime in the 1910s.  I’m tempted (only tempted) to repair it myself sometimes.

Not all mysteries have answers, but at least I can work on this one a little every year. Right now, I’m grateful for beautiful weather and a place to hang it, on the porch. But after learning more about the history of the flag, and its rarity, I no longer leave it out unless I’m at home. As someone who grew up sewing as much as reading, I treasure something made and handled by a long line of women ancestors.


  1. What a wonderful story to read on the 4th of July! A lovely family tradition. I'm staring right now at a calendar that has Norman Rockwell's painting of Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag. Women have used their skills to support patriotism in creative ways. The women in your family are a great example.

  2. Thanks, Jacquie.I enjoy making history more personal, reminding us that we're all part of it. Happy Fourth!

  3. What an interesting story and wonderful heirloom!
    Good luck and God's blessings

  4. Susan, I easily understand why you treasure your flag. It's unique, historical, and puts you in touch with your foremothers. (That may not be a real word, but it should be.) Happy Holiday!

  5. Thanks, Earl. Exploring the history has been a lot of fun, as you well know yourself. Happy Fourth!