Red, White, and Blue
The American flag is a powerful and easily recognized symbol, carrying a variety of meanings for many people. Congress first resolved that the American flag would be composed of thirteen red and white stripes and stars on a blue background in 1777. In following decades multiple laws specified colors, the number of stripes and stars on the flag and how these elements should be arranged, as well as rules surrounding the care and use of official flags. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, Americans primarily employed flags in military situations or to mark government property. Our rare treasure, the 15-star flag, was created for this purpose, and it is on view in the museum’s Farr Conference Center.
Everyday Americans started to display the flag and symbols related to it around the time of the War of 1812. During the Civil War, manufacturers and individuals seeking to express their patriotism or political point of view decorated everything from envelopes to quilts with interpretations of the United States flag. This trend of portraying the flag on all kinds of objects continues today. The objects gathered here hint at the many ways the American flag has been used to help convey feelings and suggest values, by individual Americans and by groups as various as fraternal organizations or manufacturers selling campaign souvenirs.
To the left and below are a few of the objects on view:
Mercer Pottery Company, Trenton, New Jersey. Special Acquisitions Fund, 83.25. Photograph by David Bohl.
The Mercer Pottery Company decorated this pitcher with the square and compass and an arm wielding a hammer, a shield and United States flags—all emblems of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics. This fraternal organization promoted jobs for native-born Americans, patriotism and public education. The design and decoration of many of the badges, banners and surviving objects made for the group incorporate United States flags or red, white and blue colors to reflect members’ interest in patriotism.
Junior Order of United American Mechanics Emblematic Painting, 1894
H. G. Hillmer (dates unknown), Possibly Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Special Acquisitions Fund, 97.016. Photograph by John M. Miller.
The Junior Order of United American Mechanics was originally part of a nativist organization that promoted jobs for American born workers. The group’s founders selected emblems that represented work—like a raised hammer and the square and compasses. In keeping with their agenda, members also incorporated patriotic symbols into their emblems. You can see some of those symbols here in a painting that may have decorated the organization’s meeting hall in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. It features a recognizable figure from American history—George Washington (1732-1799)—along with stars, stripes and colors of a United States flag.