13 Star U.S. Revenue-Marine Ensign & Custom house Flag 1790s.
SEE SUMMARY BELOW FOR ORAL DESCRIPTION OF MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUE FOR IDENTIFICATION.
This flag is believed to be the oldest surviving U.S. Revenue Marine Ensign and Customhouse flag. It is hand-sewn with an open weave wool bunting used for stripes affixed over a silk canton. It has been proposed that this flag is a variant of the 1799 regulations - of which only a letter still exists (the original regulations were destroyed when the British burned Washington DC in 1814). Some flag enthusiasts have stated that this flag might even precede the 1799 authorization and reflect a local flag maker's interpretation of the arms of the United States. Judging by the presence of metallic ribbon, fine embroidery details, and the use of silk threads in the canton it is unlikely that this flag was ever used as an ensign. It is more likely that this flag was flown onshore or displayed indoors at a US Customs office or customs-house.
This flag has 13 vertical stripes and is therefore not of the period of 1799 regulation design. It is a 13 star flag most likely from the period before the 14th state, Vermont, in 1791. The flag itself tells us it is a 13 star flag from 1790/91 when the Custom Office was established as the first bureaucracy of the new US Government. The US Government no doubt made 13 star flags for its first revenue making department since it represented the most or only important source of income for the government (Customs Duty and Tariffs).
Later, in 1799, the government changed to 16 stripes to maintain a character distinct from the national flag (which was 15 stars and 15 stripes) when the Customs House made its flag unique by adding three stripes to the 13 stripe flag of 1790. Consequently, this flag is not only one of the earliest surviving flags of the young government, it is also unique with its vertical stripes as homage to the sentiment that it must look different than the national flag. It was customary to change the flag's number of both stripes and stars according to the number of states. Despite this, it was not always practiced - as we see in flags made with anywhere between 15 and 18 stripes and stars, flags that have different numbers of starts to stripes (e.g. 16 to 13) and other examples.
Further textile analysis would reconfirm that this is the earliest surviving 13 stripe and 13 star bureaucratic flag of the US government made at the time of the original 13 star, 13 stripe flags from 1777 to 1791. It will reconfirm ZFC's opinion that this flag represents the original blueprint of the 1790/91 flag.
The Customs Administration Act, passed on March 2, 1799, proscribed vessels of the nascent "cutters and boats..." service to be identifiable from other government vessels by an ensign and pennant as directed by the President. The job of designing the distinguishing ensign eventually fell upon Oliver Wolcott, who had replaced Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795.
On June 1st, 1799, Wolcott submitted his design to President John Adams for approval. Wolcott's proposal featured an ensign of sixteen vertical stripes of alternating red and white, representing the number of states that had joined the Union by 1799. In suggesting a correspondence of stripes and states, Wolcott was following the lead of Congress, which in 1794 had changed the national flag to fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, implying an adjustment at the entry of each new state. Wolcott, therefore, raised the number of stripes to sixteen, and significantly, turned their arrangement ninety degrees to differentiate the new revenue cutter ensign from the U.S. Flag.
This ensign was ultimately authorized on August 1st, 1799, when Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, issued an order announcing that, under authority of the President, the distinguishing ensign and pennant would have "16 perpendicular stripes, alternate red and white, the union of the ensign to be the arms of the United States in a dark blue on a white field."
Although Secretary Wolcott created a service-wide design it was the responsibility of each collector of customs to make local arrangements for furnishing revenue cutter ensigns and, although originally intended as a marine ensign to be flown from revenue cutters and customs vessels, the collectors soon were flying it over their customhouses. Because of the locally produced variants there would be no standardization in the manufacture and issue of this flag until the American Civil War.
Flag Examination Videos:
Summary - ZFC2407 Flag Examination by Dr. Rabbit Goody, PhD, of Thistle Hill Weavers and James Ferrigan, Curator of the ZFC Collection, May 2009 (4 mins. starting at 4:12 minute mark in video.) Also features summary for ZFC0624 U.S. 13 Star Flag - Hancock & English (initial 4 mins.)
Full Flag Examination - ZFC2407 by Dr. Rabbit Goody, PhD, of Thistle Hill Weavers, May 2009 (20 mins.)