Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The making of a historic slipcover.

Early original furnishing textiles are rare. They were often recycled as tastes changed, or simply as they wore out. "Slip", "loose", or "protective" covers are examples of such textiles. Once upon a time they were a common item custom made for all types of furniture (not just upholstered seating furniture) often to protect the expensive fabric or surface that lay beneath. Leather coverings for tables were also made, as were covers for expensive carpets. Now, few of these coverings survive. A few museum collection's have them, with probably the fewest examples for easy chairs.

Boscobel House and Gardens has an early easy chair that originally was not upholstered, but instead protected with a slip cover. They wanted to recreate a slip cover in the historic manner. The problem was how would it have been created? Where did the seams lay? How did they work the cones? Was there a flounce? The questions and the "unknowns" were endless. What was known, is that it could not be created with a modern eye.

Reupholstery of historic furnishings is expertly done at Spicer Art Conservation. Before image of chair.
The "bare-bones" of the chair. This chair has a slip seat, under which,
 at center, is indeed an opening for a chamber pot to be placed below.

Historic illustrations, as well as small domestic and formal paintings of the time, are hugely beneficial and very useful in recreating a slip cover to accurately reflect the time period that Boscobel wanted to interpret. Such examples of historic illustration are by Ella Emory and Mary Ellen Best, two women who created many illustrations of interiors in the late 1800's. The amount of detail found in their illustrations is remarkable, as is their amazing detail. These sources can assist with identifying fabric type and indications of fabric direction and trimming locations.

However, questions of construction still remained.

The solution was to find originals. With the help of the Boscobel curator, Judith Pavelock, two were located. One from the collection of Historic New England, which was quite well known, being illustrated in several publications on slipcovers (Its accession record can be found here), it specifically comes from the Sayward-Wheeler House in York Harbor, Maine. 

The slipcover is made of chintz cotton fabric printed with columns of large scale
 undulating flowering vine flanked by dendretic vine/roots of blues and golds; 
off white ground. It is edged-hemmed with striped linen tape. It dates from the
1840's and was made for a 1759 chair; 1977.541A for an Easy Chair (1977.253)

The other is from Locust Lawn, an 1814 historic house outside of New Paltz, New York, that was shuttered in the 1880's, and so remained a time capsule of the early nineteen century.

Chair from Locust Lawn.

The two examples were both floral chintz with striped tapes. By blending solutions from the two examples, a plan for the new slipcover was developed. The fabric was selected as a white dimity with a small herringbone pattern. The tape was simple twill tape also in white, both woven by Thistle Hill Weavers.

The wing of the chair during the construction of the slip cover.

Dimity refers to a cotton, woven on a harness loom into a patterned fabric. It was originally imported from India, but soon was woven in Britain and in the Americas. The term dimity covered a wide variety of weave patterns, from figured, bird's eye, to stripes. Strips were the most common being the easiest to weave. Dimity was both sturdy and serviceable, being attractive for finishing and clothing.

Expert reupholstery of historic furnishings is done at Spicer Art conservation, the chair during treatment
Positioning the fabric around the arm and cone.

The historic chair after reupholstery in custom made reproduction fabric, textile conservator Gwen Spicer performed the work.
The completed slip cover.

Linda Baumgarten wrote in "Protective Covers for Furniture and its Contents", that "Checks and stripes were preferred for public rooms such as libraries or parlors, whereas printed cottons were favored for the bedchambers, where the slipcovers often matched the bed hangings". Her article goes on to talk about that at various times chairs were fitted with slipcovers to protect the finer fabric below.  And at other times the opposite was true for chairs that were covered with a simple linen, with the intention of    being covered. It is on chairs like the later, that the absence of nail holes for an outer textile can be observed, thus these chairs were made to always have a removable slipcover. She also discusses in great detail the use of covers for nearly all valuable property and furnishings, from beds to desks, to bookcases and clothespresses.

Read what you can about these textiles. Slipcovers are a fascinating and often overlooked textile.  Another great resource is "Furnishing Textiles" by P. Clabburn. Chapter eleven in particular is fully devoted to "case covers".

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Monday, April 14, 2014

America had a 15-star flag when there were 18 states, and other flag trivia you might not know.

by Barbara Owens, SAC Staff

Maybe we've mentioned in a few of our posts, we treat a lot of flags.  And for us here at Spicer Art Conservation, LLC perhaps we think of it as common place that everyone else knows details of flag composition, types of flags, flag history, and what we like to think of as "flag trivia".  Not surprising, those details, as well as lots of flag trivia, are not known by many, save perhaps some of our friends at NAVA, aka the North American Vexillological Association.  We thought it would be fun to share some interesting flag facts and hope that maybe our blog readers will discover something they had not known before.

The first interesting flag fact that might not be known is that when some states became states, the number of stars on the flag did not increase automatically.  For example, the 13-star flag was the official flag when Vermont (the 14th state) and Kentucky (state #15) were both admitted to statehood.  Yet the 15 star flag did not become the new flag until nearly 3 years after Kentucky became a state.

This little tidbit of knowledge is handy when we talk about flags from the War of 1812.  And with the  200th anniversary of the War of 1812 upon us, we have received several calls and emails with photographs of flags that were thought to be War of 1812 flags.  A flag from the War of 1812 will be a 15-star AND 15-stripe flag, even though before the war even began in 1812, the United States consisted of 18 states; #16 Tennessee, #17 Ohio and #18 Louisiana. The most famous 15-star/15-stripe flag is the "Star Spangled Banner". 1818 marks the year of he next flag act.  It is here that the stripes are returned to 13 to represent the original colonies and it is suggested that a new star be added for each of he new states on July 4th following their admittance to statehood, we've been doing this ever since.

Large Fort Niagara garrison sized flag, conserved by textile conservator Gwen Spicer
This is the 15-star flag from Fort Niagara.  It is a "Garrison" flag, meaning it is made to be so large that it will be easily seen by the enemy when flown from a fort or garrison.

Which numbered star flag existed for the shortest amount of time?  Hmmm...this is a tricky bit of trivia because of the official status of flags as described above.  So even though a state had officially become a state, it was a flag act that created a new flag with accurate star count.  And this only happened on July 4th.  But that said, certainly it did not stop the good citizens of those states from making their own unofficial flags with the number of stars sewn upon it to represent their new statehood.  Great examples of this and the answer to which amount of stars existed for the shortest amount of time is the 10 day jump from 38 to 42-stars (these are unofficial flags of course).  North and South Dakota are made states on the same day on November 2, 1889.  North Dakota is first (the 39th) so technically a 39-star flag exists for  the shortest duration, but that is not to say it is the rarest.  However, South Dakota (#40) is followed 6 days later by Montana (#41) and two days after that, Washington becomes #42.  Washington stood as the final state for about 8 months and just as soon as people were comfortable stitching a 42-star flag, Idaho became #43 the day before the next official flag resolution was passed on July 4, 1890.  Officially however, the answer is that the 20, 21, 25, 27-29, 32, 43 and 49-star flags were only official for one year each.

Interesting for us from the conservation point of view is that an early Revolutionary War era flag might appear in as good, if not better, condition than a flag constructed 100 years later.  See the flags below, each is a 34-star flag, constructed in the same time, yet the conditions are quite different.  This of course is due in part to the materials it is composed of, how it was stored, what it was exposed to and how much time it spent exposed to those conditions (excessive light, weather, water, etc)

before image of 34 star flag undergoing conservation treatment at the studio of Spicer Art Conservation
This 34-star flag was improperly stored and suffered a tremendous amount of mold damage. 34-stars flags were official from July 4, 1861 (Kansas #34) to July 4, 1863 when West Virginia became # 35.

Expert Flag conservation, historic flags, repair, framing and mounting, Spicer Art Conservation
This 34-star flag suffered insect damage.

Textile conservator, flag repair expert, 34 star flag, historic, artifact, deterioration of silk
A 34-star flag with yet another creative star pattern.  This flag was in the most deteriorated condition of the three 34-star flags we are showing here.
Another fun fact is that the original proclamation about flag construction simply dictated how it should be composed, but not what it should actually look like.  The resolution adopted by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on June 14, 1777, read: “Resolved: that the flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white; that the Union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”  When you look at the two 34-star flags above you can see that they differ in the way the stars are positioned on the canton.  Not to mention the 33-star flag (Oregon #33) below and its beautiful canton with 32 stars encircling a slightly larger 33rd.  It was not until 1912 that the canton arrangement design was made official, and now of course flags have a government specification and are produced according to exacting standards.

flag conservation
This 33-star flag is in remarkable condition, having been stored properly and cared for  continuously.

Another interesting fact is that our current 50-stars is the longest continuous design in our history.  This past July 4th marked the 53rd year of its use.

We are often asked which is the rarest flag that has ever been treated at Spicer Art Conservation.  This is a tough question to answer as some flags are historically important, while others are one-of-a-kind, some are incredibly old, and some are privately owned and belong to extraordinary and remarkable collections.  Rare, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder.  What I do know is that each flag that enters the studio is unique and often is accompanied by a great story which often teaches us something, adding to our own flag trivia.

To see more flags treated by Spicer Art Conservation go to our website.  If flags make you think of Betsey Ross, find some flags and trivia in another recent blog post here.
Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Forster Flag, and the conservation of a Revolutionary War textile

by Barbara Owens, SAC staff

Conserving precious artifacts from important moments in history is exciting. And SAC has had some pretty exciting pieces come through the studio doors. It is impossible to say which one is the most exciting, but if ever there were a contestant for that title, the Forster Flag is it. Certainly we treat many flags, we also treat a lot of very unique items, but this one is a standout.

Pre revolutionary war flags, textile and art conservator, expert conservation care
The Forster Flag

If you've missed some of the fervor in the flag community, or the excitement from Revolutionary War buffs, then you have not heard that the Forster Flag was set to be auctioned after years of being privately held by the Forster Family descendants.

There are very few Revolution era flags in existence. What's more, is that all of these flags are held by public institutions - except one. The Forster stands alone in that it has been passed down through the Forster and Knight family generation after generation. The flag has been cared for by this family since its patriarch, Samuel Forster, lieutenant, Manchester Company of the Essex County Militia of Massachusetts responded with his fellow minutemen to the "Lexington Alarm". While the Manchester Company never made it to Concord to respond to the alarm, the story of the flag being flown by the Manchester Troops has endured through history and has not been refuted.

Charles Willson Peale's portrait of Washington at Princeton, 1779, clearly shows the symbolism of the time period.  Notice the British ensign flag at his feet, as well as the other flags heaped against the cannon, while the flag symbolizing 13 stars on a blue field, flies proudly in the background.

The Forster flag arrived at the SAC studio in 2013. As far as we know it is the first time the flag had been conserved.  The images below are the illustrations prepared following the examination of the flag.

The flag is unique in many ways, but a source of intrigue and much discussion is the replacement of the canton from a British Ensign to a plain field of red and the addition of 13 stripes - 6 on the obverse, 7 on the reverse. The photographs below show the details of this replacement and some detail of stripe placement.  

So why would the Manchester Company alter their flag? Many historians pose the explanation that for the minutemen to carry an ensign into battle with British troops who are carrying the same ensign, would be awfully confusing. It makes sense that the minutemen would begin to make their militia colors less British and more reflective of the feeling of a national symbol, rather than a symbol of region or colony. After all, they are patriotically standing up for themselves as a new independent nation.

Gwen Spicer flag conservator, pre-revolutionary war, framing mounting and repair of historic flags
Closeup of the canton area, the photo is oriented so that the hoist edge is at the bottom.

A compelling argument for altering the Union Jack canton is that Manchester is a coastal town, they would have been well aware of the British as a naval superpower simply from the sheer number of ships that sail in and out of nearby Marblehead and Boston Harbor. Flying from each of these ships is the British Ensign, it is a clear symbol. If you look into early colonial life, this same flag served the colonists as their symbol. And as you might suspect, as thoughts of revolution blossomed, having a flag that is the exact same flag as the one your enemy is carrying is going to cause problems. George Washington himself famously wrote about the confusion the flag caused on January 1, 1776 when he ordered it flown from Prospect Hill to commemorate the first day of existence of the Continental Army:
"We gave great joy to them (the red coats I mean), without knowing or intending it, for on that day, the day which gave being to the new army, (but before the proclamation came to hand) we had hoisted the Union Flag in compliment to the United Colonies; but behold! it was received in Boston as a token of the deep impression the Speech had made upon us, and as a signal of submission…"

Pre-Revolutionary war Flag, Forster, 13 stripes, flag conservation and repair Spicer Art Conservation
The stripes that "straddle" the replacement canton and the original field.  

The canton of "The Monmouth Color". The width and length of the white stripes are similar to those we see on the Forster. Also, each corner of the canton has 3 white pieces, for a total of 12 pieces, to make 13 you would have to "piece" together what was left. Does this give more plausibility to the possibility of the stripes being "repurposed"
from the original Forster Union Jack canton to the stripes of the Forster Flag we see today?

Here is a detail photo of the pieced stripe before conservation. This particular stripe is made of two pieces. Many pose the argument that it is pieced from the original white stripes of the Union Jack canton that was later removed.

The lowest stripe of the Forster Flag. Here you can see the stitching for the 13th stripe on the reverse.

We love when an artifact arrives with intrigue, and honestly, many items have some bit of historic uncertainty to them, because not all aspects of every single event or item in history is documented. The things that do point wholeheartedly to period authenticity are the things that are still tangible, the weave of the fabric, the stitching and composition of the flag for instance. These things are unmistakable and they are unchanging, ad most importantly they are evident by simply looking at the artifact.

The following table analyzes some of the important early flags, showing how their sizes are similar as is their construction and often their origins as British ensigns. It is important to point out that early flag making was at the makers whim in that many flag makers were seamstresses or tailors who made the flag from descriptions or drawings. There was no "central government source" to procure a flag from.

Early American Revolutionary Era Flags

Flag (date)
Height (inches)
Canton (Height)
Canton (Width)
Seams in field
Forster Flag (ca. 1775)*
Flag Heritage Foundation
Red British Ensign, canton replace, white possibly reused. Has associated tassels and cord. Complete.
Central horizontal seam
Monmouth Flag (1778 captured)
Monmouth County Historical Association, Freehold, NJ
Yellow British Ensign, however, red silk is damask and blue is moiré. Flag is not original size. Hoist is missing.
Four horizontal seams. Intact, 15” width of fabric.
Proctor’s Flag, Westmoreland Flag, 52nd Battalion of PA (1775)
State Museum of PA, Harrisburg, PA
Red British Ensign, later painted in field with rattlesnake. Complete.
Central horizontal seam
Dansey Flag (1777)
Delaware Historical Society, Wilmington, DE
Canton of seven red and six white silk stripes whip stitched together. Remains of fringe at the fly edge. Has associated tassels and cord. Complete.
47 1/2
47 1/2
17 ½
17 ½
Central horizontal seam, 24” wide fabric.
Philadelphia Light Horse (1774-75)
Museum of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, Philadelphia, PA
Yellow British Ensign, with stitched applied stripes covering the Union Jack.
9 ½
11 1/2
Horizontal seam.
New Bedford Flag (1758)
Fort Bedford Museum, Bedford, PA
Red British Ensign. Red field uses a damask silk fabric. 2” hoist sleeve. Complete.
70 ½
80 5/8
Horizontal seams.
Brandywine Flag, 7th PA Regt. (1776)*
Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia, PA
51 ½
53 1/2
Horizontal seam, near lower edge. Fly edge is a selvage
Liberty (1774)*
Schenectady County Historical Society, Schenectady, NY
American-made. Applied lettering. Hoist has been opened.
43 ½
No canton
No seams
* = These flags has been personally examined and treated by conservator, Gwen Spicer.

The proceeds of the auction of this flag will benefit the Whitney Smith Flag Research Collection at the University of Texas, Austin.
Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.