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Maritime flags (U.S.)

Last modified: 2024-05-18 by rick wyatt
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Signal For A Pilot

[Signal For A Pilot] image by Phil Nelson, 22 January 2000

U.S. signal for a pilot.
Source: Colton's Deliniation of Flags of all Nations, (1862)

Phil Nelson, 22 January 2000

Sizes of U.S. Ensigns (Historical)

The following dimensions are recorded in Treasury Department copies of receipts for flags purchased in Philadelphia in 1803 for USS Philadelphia and US Brig Siren (all in feet; for meters divide by 3.28): 22 x 38, 18 x 34, 17 x 32, 14 x 26, 7 x 13. (Vouchers filed by George Harrison, Naval Agent in Philadelphia, July 1803 and 20 August 1803, National Archives, Miscellaneous Material Relating to the American Flag, Folder 01).

Historical Notes: USS Philadelphia was a 130-ft-long 28-gun frigate that was run aground and captured at Tripoli in October 1803; later burned by a crew led by then-Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, in an operation that made Decatur an international celebrity (praise of Lord Nelson) and national hero. Siren was a 16 gun brig that also was involved in the 1803-1805 operations against Tripoli; later captured by HMS Medway (74-gun ship of the line) in 1814.

As I previously reported, USS Constitution had aboard (per her log, 7 June 1812) a 14 x 26 ft ensign and another of unspecified size.

The 1818 circular referred to a flag of 14 x 24 feet. The fly of the union is specified as 1/3 the fly of the flag. The existence of larger flags before and after this date show, by the way, that this was a benchmark to set proportions, not an indication that all US ensigns in 1818 were the same size.

A Treasury copy of a receipt for flags for USS Mississippi (a 12-gun sidewheel steam frigate built by Captain Matthew C. Perry of "opening of Japan" fame, and which had earlier served as his flagship in the Mexican War (1846-48) mentioned flags with the following fly dimensions (again in feet): 27, 24, 21, 15, 7, 6, 5 1/2, 5. (National Archives, Miscellaneous Material Relating to the American Flag, Folder 02)

Treasury copies of receipts for flags purchased for USS Powhatan (9-gun steam frigate) and USS Alleghany (10-gun sloop) in January 1853 mention flags of following fly dimensions (in feet): 25, 22, 19, 16, 14, 10, 8, 7, 6. Both these ships were in Matthew C. Perry's Japan expedition later that year, Powhatan serving as his flagship. These flags were probably bought expressly for that expedition, as the Powhatan procurement also includes the ensigns of Japan, Siam, China, and Cochin China. As a point of economic interest, the Powhatan's 19-foot flag cost the government $7.675. (National Archives, Miscellaneous Material Relating to the American Flag, Folder 02)

First known codification of flag sizes and specifications in a Navy Department directive, Charles S. McCauley and G. S. Blake, "Tables of Allowances of Equipment, Outfits, Stores, &c. Falling Under the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair" (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson, Public Printer, 1854). Ship ensign sizes are (in feet) 18.75 x 36, 16.75 x 32, 14.5 x 28, 13 x 25, 11.5 x 22, 10 x 19, 8.25 x 16, 7.25 x 14, 6.25 x 12, 5.25 x 10, and 4.25 x 8. Boat ensigns are 5.25 x 10, 4.75 x 9, 4.25 x 8, 3.75 x 7, 3.25 x 6, and 2.5 x 5. It will be noted that (1) the fly sizes increase in one-foot increments from 5 to 10, in two-foot increments from 10 to 16, in three-foot increments from 16 to 28, and in four-foot increments from 28 to 36; and that (b) the hoist dimension can be obtained by dividing the fly by 1.9--cf. the modern US flag ratio of 10:19--and rounding to the nearest quarter of a foot (3 inches).

Joe McMillan, 17 September 2003

USS Constitution

The Constitution Flag
- SmugMug: (22 June 2016?)
- Northshore magazine:

A nineteen-star flag supposedly flew from the USS Constitution, the last of the original US Navy frigates in service. The Constitution was launched in 1797, and first sailed in 1798, thus at those times she would have flown a star-spangled banner [1795-1818]. (Northshore writes that such 19 star flags were indeed authorised for that time, but I don't know their source for that. I would love to know what they based that on.)

This nineteen star flag would have represented 19 states, a situation starting at 11 December 1816 when Indiana became the 19th United State, and lasting until 10 December 1817 when Mississippi became the 20th state. The ship was out of service, in Boston, 1816-1821. This would mean that if the constitution has indeed flown this flag when it was at least current, if not official, it would have had to fly the Stars and Stripes while not in active service. I have to leave it to the naval historians and Constitution specialists to determine whether this is likely.

The flag is a red over white striped flag with ten stripes, with a high (ca. 3:2), blue union over seven stripes, bearing nineteen white stars, in columns of 5, 5, 5, and 4 stars. The white appears to be cloth white in both cases. The material of the flag is wool. According to Northshore the flag is dated according to the current number of stars.

The flag is in private ownership, but at the time of the articles was being conserved by Museum Textile Services.

Photographs of the flag lain out, show it having an approximately 2:3 ratio. That is, however for ten stripes, yet the photographs don't seem to show any evidence that this is the original height of the flag. Extending that to 13 stripes would yield an approximate 5:6 ratio. This was, however, before in 1818 congress decided to return to 13 stripes, so a nineteen star flag at this time might well have been a nineteen stripe flag as well, for a ratio of 6:5 - higher than wide. The union, displayed this way is higher than wide as well.

All the stars point to their right, rather than upward, as one would expect now, or in alternating directions along the rows, as one might have expected at the time. And the stars are arranged in columns this way, rather than rows; indeed the shorter column is not row-aligned to the rows of the other columns.

None of these things by themselves say all that much, but all of them together make me wonder whether we're not seeing the reverse of the flag: A flag of vertical stripes. wider than high, with a union that's wider than high, and with rows of stars that all point upward. It would be kind of a cousin of the customs ensign, with its 16 upright stripes Indeed, I'd estimate that at 16 stripes this would be a square flag. It would be interesting to know whether anything in the way the flag was sewn, suggests which side actually was the obverse, and which the reverse.

Curiously, the US National Archives have a drawing U.S.S. Constitution 1817, where she wears instead a 13 stripe flag with a clock-face canton:
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 19 May 2018