A rare 19-star flag that once flew on America’s first battleship, the USS Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides,” is being conserved by Museum Textile Services, the premier textile conservation studio in New England. The flag is owned by former US presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, who received it as an 80th birthday gift from his son, Ross Perot, Jr., in 2010. It will be surface cleaned, stabilized and mounted for long-term display at the Perot Companies Corporate headquarters in Texas.
“American history is preserved and venerated through its national symbols. What greater symbol can there be than an American flag that flew over the U.S.S. Constitution nearly 200 years ago? We are proud to be the stewards of this great flag, to help preserve it and to share the meaning of its history for generations to come,” said Ross Perot, Jr.
The number of stars dates the wool ensign to circa 1816. As one of the earliest and rarest colors in the USS Constitution collection, 19-star flags were authorized for use for one year, from December 1816 to December 1817. The following year, Congress passed the Third Flag Act of 1818, which provided for 13 stripes and one star for each state, to be added to the flag on the fourth of July following the admission of each new state. It wasn’t until the Executive Order of June 24, 1912 that the order of the stars and proportions of the U.S. Flag were codified. Before that, flags sometimes had unusual arrangements of stars and odd proportions based on the discretion of the flag maker.
According to Camille Breeze, Director and Chief Conservator of Museum Textiles Services, the flag is from a group of flags with provenance to the Constitution that had been in the same collection for 150 years. “It is a great historical coincidence that this particular flag is being worked on in the Boston area while the USS Constitution is presently in dry dock for maintenance and repair at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Given the 19 stars, the flag was associated with ‘Old Ironsides’ when the ship was also in dry dock from 1815 to 1821, just 100 years ago,” she said. “The flag was likely not flown over water or in battle, but would have served as an important patriotic symbol while the boat was out of the water.”
Despite its lack of combat action, inevitable wear and tear over nearly 200 years has taken its toll on the flag. However, it is still in remarkably good condition. It measures 16’8′ wide by 10’6″ high and has 9 stripes. The hoist is missing, there are some tears, losses and discoloration to stars, missing stripes, patches, as well as scattered holes or tears. Portions of this ensign appear to have been removed, possibly by 19th Century souvenir hunters.
The goal is to improve the flag’s preservation level by removing pollutants, stabilize it with a minimum of hand-stitched repairs, correct distortion using water vapor, and realign it. The rest of the conservation work will be done onsite during installation.
Treating some of our most significant cultural heritage materials is second nature for Ms. Breeze. Since founding Museum Textile Services in 1999, she has worked on more than 1,500 objects including military uniforms, presidential garments, royal tapestries, sacred textiles, quilts, and childhood embroideries. Locally, the organization has included such varied projects of note as: Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial; the conservation of 18 Tibetian Tangkas from the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College; and the National and Regimental Colors of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments, the first official African American units in the United States during the Civil War made famous in the 1989 motion picture Glory.
This 19-star USS Constitution flag was originally in the collection of philanthropist and collector of early American decorative and fine arts H. Richard Dietrich, Jr. In April 2012, it was sold by Freeman’s auction house. The flag was purchased by Ross Perot, Jr. and presented to his father H. Ross Perot, an avid steward of American history, for his eightieth birthday. The flag was displayed in the former Perot Systems headquarters in Plano, Texas until it was removed for conservation. The flag will be featured in an entirely new installation at the new Perot Companies’ headquarters in Dallas at the end of this year. Boston-based exhibition design firm, Amaze Design, is developing the flag exhibition, along with other exhibits at the new campus.
To learn more, please visit www.museumtextiles.com or call 978-474-9200. ?