In 1916, the United States Navy discontinued a long standing custom of using a smaller number of stars on the flags of boats (as opposed to ships). The dimensions of U.S. Flags were first standardized in 1912 and the following was a part of that standardization:
Pursuant to the 1912 Presidential Order the US Navy issued the following specification about this flag:
Vexillologists disagree as to when the custom actually began. For many years it was believed the Navy "always" had this custom. However, Howard Madaus, a well recognized expert in the field says:
The thirteen star U.S. Navy boat flag seems to have originated in 1862 (based on the surviving boat flag of the U.S.S. Ironsides, which was launched that year and sunk in 1864). The 1864 Navy Regulations list five sizes in the "boat flag" category, with fly dimensions respectively of 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10 feet. (These sizes continued in force until at least 1880, as they are listed in Preble's second volume.) From the period of 1862 to about 1870-1875, the boat flags bore the thirteen stars in three horizontal rows of 4-5-4. The date of transition to the most common pattern is not yet known, but the launch of the U.S.S. Saginaw (whose ship was sunk in 1870) still used the 4-5-4 pattern.
Somewhere in the 1870's the Navy changed the star pattern of the U.S. Navy "boat flags" to five horizontal rows of 3-2-3-2-3. This star pattern continued in this style until the "boat flag" was discontinued in 1916. However, there are a number of changes that were affected during the use of this pattern that distinguish flags within certain periods. These include:
|1870-1885||stars in canton do not "point" in any consistent direction.|
|1885-1890||marking on heading lists the size of the flag, e.g. "U.S.E. No. 8"; brass grommets (dated 1884) replace hand whipped button holes or plain grommets.|
|1890-1900||stars are oriented in common directions; rows of 3 "up," rows of 2, "down;" the heading is now marked with size, location of navy yard where the flag was made and the date (month/year) of production.|
|1900-1916||stars all oriented "up," dates no longer appear on brass grommets, stars applied to canton with machine, zig-zag stitch.|
US Navy flags often are stamped with their size rating, a single digit number. Also, they are often, but not always, marked with the code for the place of manufacture, for example, "NYC" indicates "Navy Yard Charleston," the US Navy facility near Boston, Massachusetts.
Navy regulations specified the sizes of the "Boat" flags; over the course of time, the number and sizes of them changed. The following chart gives the sizes designated as "Boat" flags in 1854, 1864, 1870, 1882, 1899, and 1914. The different sizes were designated by a number except for the 1854 regs. All sizes are in feet.
What confuses the issue of these true U.S. Navy boat flags is the adoption of the same star pattern as "patriotic" expressions of the United States centennial and the continued commercial production of these flags well into the 20th century for sale to the general public. So far these have been found in a number of styles and sizes, it is doubtful that we'll ever have a "handle" on the variations that exist(ed).
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