American Flag Mystery: Old Glory in an Old Photo

American Flag Mystery: Old Glory in an Old Photo

This gorgeous (and mysterious) American Flag photo is the perfect way to celebrate Flag Day! Our Photo Detective takes a closer look at the details.

The Photograph

A mysterious photograph showcasing the American Flag is examined by our Photo Detective.

In the collections of the Library of Congress is this beautiful photograph of a tableau of four women sewing an American flag. (They aren’t really—it’s just a pose.) This image, called Birth of the American Flag, was taken by Harris & Ewing in an unknown year. They were well-known newspaper photographers. The Library of Congress has all but 400 of the 50,000 (!) images they took. The cataloging page lists a broad “created/published” time frame for this image of anywhere between 1905 and 1945. It’s hard to know exactly when these women posed for this American flag photo if they used an older flag. Determining a tentative date comes down to the details—a shoe, beading and of course the stars on the flag.

The Inspiration

It was a sharp eyed reader, Teresa Shippey, who found the source of this tableau. While I searched newspapers in a literal way using the search term, “Birth of the American Flag,” I didn’t find what I was looking for. I also did a Google Images search using the exact picture. No luck. Then again, not all images online are indexed in Google Images. Turns out I was being too specific in my searching. Teresa revealed she used the general phrase, “women sewing flag” in Google. She discovered the women based their pose on a painting by Henry Mosler titled, The Birth of the Flag.

The Stars

The flag's stars in a mysterious photograph showcasing the American Flag is examined by our Photo Detective.

If you own a flag, count the stars to obtain a time frame for it. You can learn more about the history of our flag courtesy of this PBS documentary. A quick reference guide to when stars were added to our flag due to the addition of states is on I’ve counted and double counted the stars in this picture, and I think it’s a 48-star flag. How many do you count?

If that’s the case, and the women are posing with a contemporary flag, then this image could date anywhere between July 4, 1912, and Jan. 3, 1959. That gives us a starting place.

The Shoe

The shoes in a mysterious photograph showcasing the American Flag is examined by our Photo Detective.

The woman kneeling to the left of the flag has exposed her shoe. It’s a calfskin shoe with a criss-cross upper and a Louis heel. Women wore shoes of this design with this heel from about 1908 to the 1930s, but I’ve found similar-style shoes dating from circa 1917 in Shoes: The Complete Sourcebook by John Peacock.

The Beaded Dress

A shoe in a mysterious photograph showcasing the American Flag is examined by our Photo Detective.

While all the other women wear Colonial-style costume, the woman with the calfskin shoe wears a beaded dress with a wide collar. It’s not a colonial design, it’s from the 20th century. with diaphanous sleeves and lots of beading also could date from the WWI period. The collar is an interesting addition to this style of dress.

The Pose

Why are they posed exactly the same way as the painting? I wondered (and I do too) if the women in this American flag photo were models for Mosler’s painting. Another possibility is that they were recreating the painting. Posing as famous paintings and sculptures was a pastime before radio and television, so it’s also possible that’s what they are doing.The problem with the modeling theory is that the women in the photo seemed to have posed with a 48 star flag, not the 46 star flag used in 1911. It’s hard to tell exactly the number of stars in the picture because part of the star field is folded over. There’s one more interesting feature of this photo: all the women posed with their eyes closed.

A woman with here eyes closed in a mysterious photograph showcasing the American Flag is examined by our Photo Detective.

UPDATE: To read about the story behind this photograph and the women portrayed in it, check out my follow-up post here!

Happy Flag Day!

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:


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  1. Della Steineckert

    I, too, count only 42 stars. My immediate response to the photo was, &quot;The photo was printed using the flip side of the negative. The &quot;wrong side&quot; of the fabric is showing.&quot;

    The field of stars always appears at the top left corner. If hand sewn, the field of stars would be on the left, not the right and each one would be appliqued in place -unless a doubled corner piece was used. If printed, yes, the white would be visible on both front and back of the fabric.

    The flag is obviously a finished, machine-sewn item. The seaming (top stitching) is obvious along the bands of red and white.

  2. In 1911, when Mosler painted &quot;The Birth of the Flag,&quot; there were 46 states, and the 6 rows of stars were not all of equal length.

    All of the flags between 42 stars (6 rows x 7 columns), which only existed from Nov 1889 to July 1890, and 48 stars (6 rows x 8 columns), from 1912 to 1959, had to have rows of different numbers of stars to make the correct total.

    There apparently were no &quot;Official&quot; 42-star flags. Flag makers did make unofficial 42-star flags – images online of 42-star US flags also have each row of stars &quot;tilted&quot; right or left.

    On the flag in this photo, the stars are in an even configuration: all rows have the same number of un-tilted stars. So I think this flag was made in or after 1912 and has 48 stars.

    Susan Dick