By Jillian Heller
This week we are focusing on a 19th century flag with New Paltz origins. The history of the American flag is very reflective of our own nation’s history. The foundation of the flag spurs from our freedom from Great Britain. Since declaring independence on July 4, 1776, the country needed a symbol to represent a strong young nation. The exact origin of the first design of the flag is unknown. However, it is widely recognized that Pennsylvanian Congressman Francis Hopkinson played a key role in designing the flag, while the legendary Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress, constructed it. The flag exhibited this week is one of the many successors of Hopkinson’s original design.
The Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act on June 14, 1777, making flag-making a bit more official. This act “resolved, that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” From then on, every flag produced followed a variation of this arrangement. In fact, the design of the flag has been modified 26 times officially since 1777 and most likely much more times unofficially as saw fit by various seamstresses. Indeed, the Flag Act of April 4th, 1818, contributed to the ever changing design. It declared that there would be one star for each state on the flag in addition to the 13 stripes, representing the original 13 colonies. What is interesting about this proposal is that new states were continually and fairly frequently being admitted to the union during the 19th century. In turn, President Monroe also stated in this act that each new star be added to the flag on Independence Day following the admission of each new state. Therefore, each time a new state was added, the flag maker could officially sew another star onto the flag as long as it was after the next Fourth of July. This Flag Act supports why there were so many various flag constructions during this time period. In addition, there was not an established proportion of the flag or arrangement of the stars until June 24, 1912, when President Taft made an executive order. Before Taft stated that the stars should be arranged in six horizontal rows of eight each, with a single point of each star upward, seamstresses took a lot of liberty in their own flag arrangements. Due to the deep history of the American flag, a lot can be understood when studying one particular flag of the past. In fact, it is possible to even tell a story based on its specific design and structure, including the flag we are focusing on here.
This particular flag is a combination of machine and hand sewn materials, with 44 undyed stars on a blue background and 13 red and undyed stripes. It is quite large, at 72” in length and 108” in width, needing 5 grommets to be raised. Despite the faded color and substantial tares throughout the flag, there is another way to gather how old it is. Referring to the Flag Act of April 4th, 1818, as mentioned above, each star represents each state. Consequently, if this flag has 44 stars, then it must represent 44 states. On July 10th, 1890, Wyoming was admitted to the Union as the 44th state and since the flag cannot be officially altered until the following Fourth of July, this particular flag can be as young as July 4th, 1891. The 45th state, Utah, was not admitted till January 4th, 1896. Due to this, it is clear that the flag we are presenting was most likely commemorated in the five years between July 4th, 1891 and July 4th 1896. The then rapidly growing United States of America, along with the Flag Acts help us easily determine when this remarkable flag belonged in history.
The number of stars placed on this flag, although very uncommon, is not the only interesting aspect of this flag. Written across a stripe of the flag reads, “ELTINGE POST G.A.R 212 NEW PALTZ.” This marking just makes this flag even more specific and adds to its story. The G.A.R is an acronym for “The Grand Army of the Republic,” the largest organization of the Union’s Civil War veterans. It was founded in Illinois in 1866 with the goals to honor their fallen comrades, give aid to their families and wounded veterans, and most significantly, advocate for benefits and pensions for soldiers. The association saw its last day in 1956, when its last member passed away. A “Post” was the organization at the community level, each with a consecutive number within its department. The group had many Posts across the country joining together to strengthen their comradeship and political power. The Posts were named to honor a deceased person. In the case of this flag, it can be assumed that this flag was used by or to honor the Post of the G.A.R. that was located in New Paltz, NY. This Post was named “Eltinge,” assumingly to honor one of the deceased Eltinge’s around the time of the Post’s formation. There is a long line of Eltinges in Huguenot Street’s past; we cannot be immediately definitive in which one was being honored here. However, we do know that the New Paltz Eltinge Post 212 was originally formed as the New Paltz Veterans Association in 1880 and then officially became a Post of the G.A.R in 1884. There were weekly meeting and annual elections for the various positions. The most important positions were Commander, Senior Vice Commander, Junior Vice Commander, Quartermaster, Surgeon, Chaplain, Officer of the Day, and Officer of the Guard. The Eltinge Post was involved in numerous ceremonies, celebrations, fairs, and travels to meet with other local G.A.R Posts. Although the G.A.R as a whole did not dissolve till 1956, the New Paltz charter disbanded in 1920 and donated all of their historical documents and collections to what is now Historic Huguenot Street.
As our nation progressed and grew in strength and size, so did our Star Spangled Banner. Our flag developed side by side with our country. Specific to its time, different flags reflect different moments in history. The details in design and structure are what make flags so special. The flag exemplified here has quite a story, with specific construction between 1891 and 1896, and specific use by veterans in New Paltz, NY; it has already proved how extraordinary it is.
Below are photos of other flags in the HHS Collections, revealing a variety of designs.