One of the National Heritage Museum’s treasures – and a perennial favorite with our visitors – is the large 15-star American flag that proudly hangs in our Farr Conference Center.
Donated in 1995 by John E. Craver, the flag had been passed down in his family for generations. Makers sewed this flag, which measures approximately 11 feet by 12 ¾ feet, to fly over a military fort (or garrison) or on a vessel, marking them as U.S. property. Unfortunately, we do not know who made it or where it originally flew.
The flag is made of wool bunting, a lightweight, mildew-resistant, coarsely woven fabric. The blue section, called a canton, is colored with indigo. This dye, common during the late 1700s and early 1800s, provided a deep, permanent color that rarely faded. The red stripes are dyed with an unknown colorant and the white stars are made out of linen.
In 1996 and 1997, conservators worked 500 hours to stabilize the flag and prepare it for display. After it was gently cleaned and stabilized, a supportive backing was attached. A slightly angled back board further supports the flag in its specially constructed case, and low lighting helps to preserve it for generations to come.
The 15-star flag was the official U.S. design from 1794, when President George Washington (1732-1799) signed the Second Flag Act, until 1818, when legislators adopted the 20-star flag, adding one star for each state that joined the union since 1794. The 1794 Second Flag Act mandated 15 stars and 15 stripes – one for each state then in the union – but did not specify design details, such as the arrangement of the stars. You may notice that the Museum’s flag has only 14 stripes. One was removed before we received it, probably due to deterioration, or possibly by a souvenir seeker.
The National Heritage Museum’s 15-star flag is one of only a handful still in existence known to have been made between 1794 and 1818. The most famous 15-star flag is the Star-Spangled Banner, which flew over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. The survival of that flag during the Battle of Baltimore in September 1814 inspired Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) to write the words to what is now the American national anthem. The Star-Spangled Banner was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1912. That flag recently underwent a $7 million conservation project to better preserve it in the decades to come.
The National Heritage Museum holds over fifty flags in its collection. Most are American flags of varying sizes with anywhere from 13 to 50 stars. In addition, the Museum’s collection includes Masonic and fraternal flags, as well as a few state flags.
15-star American flag, 1794-1818. Gift of John E. Craver, 95.021. Photograph by David Bohl.