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1856 - The United States flag

A flag with 31 white stars in the blue canton was the flag of the United States between July 4, 1851 and July 3, 1858 - obviously including all of 1856. For a long time there was no official design controlling the layout of the stars in the American flag. Many of the possible 31-star designs which were used are shown below.

(Custom-made flags of the designs below can be ordered here.)

The most common design
(Order 3' x 5' ft. nylon flag for $69+ here.)
(Order 4" x 6" rayon flag on staff for $6 here.)

Double-square or Square-frame design

"Trumbull" design used by the navy

Design used by Commodore Perry

"California great star" design
(Order 3' x 5' nylon flag for $125 here.)

"Great star" design

Star circles designs

Scattered stars design

Design of the USA flag:
origin of the stripes

The US flag is based on the Grand Union Flag which employed the Union Jack as its canton. This antecedent banner was used at first by the thirteen colonies in their independence struggle with the British crown. The white-stars on blue-field canton design we now employ was later specified by the the Second Continental Congress, in the Flag Act of 1777, representing a new Constellation.

It is not widely known that the Grand Union Flag was quite possibly identical to the ordinary flag the famous (British) East India Company (aka the "John Company") used during the years 1707-1801. The company's eventual choice of 13 stripes bore no relation to the number of separate colonies in British North America, which well exceeded 13 by the time of the Revolutionary War: remember, colonies in Canada and the Carribean remained loyal to the crown. The striping explains the flag's nickname as the "John Company's gridiron." (The personification of England as John Bull dates to 1712. In the world of 1856, the United States was not called Uncle Sam, as it is today, but rather Jonathan.)

Painting of the East India Company's settlement in Bombay by George Lambert and Samuel Scott circa. 1732-1733. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.)

Perhaps it is not inappropriate that a country in which many look to entrepreneur, franchiser and philanthropist Benjamin Franklin as the "original American" should inherit its national symbol via a giant, global for-profit mercantile concern. One is reminded of the 1925 words of President Calvin Coolidge:
After all, the chief business of the American people is business.
which parallels what many allege Napoleon said of its "mother" country:
L'Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers.

Of course, use of the Grand Union Flag by the American rebels is quite ironic in light of the Boston Tea Party, in which the Sons of Liberty destroyed the cargo of East India Company ships! By 1767, the Sons of Liberty had adopted a flag consisting of alternating red and white vertical stripes, five red and four white, representing the nine colonies which attended the 1765 Stamp Act Congress. Later, they used a flag consisting of 13 alternating horizontal red and white stripes, eventually called the "American Merchant Stripes" because of its use by American merchant ships during the Revolutionary War.

Aside: The year after 1856 saw the beginning of the Sepoy Rebellion in India. At its conclusion, the East India Company gave over rule of India to the British Crown, with company dissolution following as 1874 began.

It is interesting to speculate on the origin of the alternating red-and-white horizontal stripes in the flag of the East India Company, chartered in 1600.

Lübeck's flag

Bremen's bacon flag

The flag of Lübeck, keystone city of the Hanseatic League, a medieval trading alliance embracing many of the maritime cities of northern Europe, consists of a white top and a red bottom. Many northern German cities (and nations with northern European ports) use(d) these same colors in their flags, especially as horizontal stripes or bars (viz. Holland, Second-Empire Germany, Poland, Latvia and Russia). Also included is the Hanseatic city of Bremen, whose fancifully named "bacon flag" dates back at least to the 1500's, which the East India Company banner greatly resembles.

Perhaps the multiple Lübeck stripe-pairs of the bacon flag symbolically represented the multiple sea lanes navigated between pairs of Hanse cities. Unlike on most naval charts, in which lanes point in all directions, the east-west orientation of the ice-free portions of the Baltic and North Seas aligned the Hanse sea lanes along that same axis - which is to say horizontally on a conventional map with north at the top.

While never a proper member, London had links to the Hanse. With the Hanse itself all but extinguished by the late 16th century, it would not be improbable for the new East India Company to adopt a flag design inspired by those used by Hanseatic trading cities, as a self-confident expression of its "successorship" to that commercial confederation.

Psychological aside: The British Empire dominated the world in the 19th century. It is interesting that the British East India Company flag bears graphical comparison to the naval service flag of another would-be empire headquartered on an island-nation off the coast of Eurasia - that of Japan. The so-called "rising-sun flag" also seems to echo the famous 1829 boast paraphrased as
The sun never sets on the British Empire
As best your editor knows, the Japanese added rays to the austere isolated solar disk of their national flag to create a naval banner only after they had seen the stripes on Commodore Perry's flag (depicted above), which event greatly undermined Japan's sense of safe and secure isolation and inspired the creation of an ocean-going navy.

British East India Company flag
Japanese Navy rising sun flag

barber pole

Repeated red-and-white horizontal stripes flying from a flagpole remind one of an ancient craft symbol, the barber's pole, whose design recalls the use of leeches by medieval surgeon-barbers. Surely the Sons of Liberty - and the rebellious sepoys - might well have reckoned this coincidence appropriate.

26-stars flag design used by Captain John Fremont
(1856 Presidential candidate) in the 1840s
(Order 3' x 5' nylon flag for $40 here.)
(Order 4" x 6" rayon flag on staff for $2 here.)