Waving the Vexillologists’ Banner

Documenting the Star Spangled Banner: Because of its size and the confined space of the lab, the flag could not be photographed as a whole. This is a composite of seventy-three separate images (source: Smithsonian Institute).

The Star Spangled Banner

Documenting the Star Spangled Banner: Because of its size and the confined space of the lab, the flag could not be photographed as a whole. This is a composite of seventy-three separate images (source: Smithsonian Institute).

The first step on the path to recovery is admitting that you suffer from vexillology. Let’s say it together, “I am a vexillogist.” Great, now that we have that out of the way, we can begin to examine this illness and the diagnosis and treatment relationship.

By now, I am sure that you’ve already sought the definition of the term and know that vexillology is neither a medical or psychological condition requiring any sort of treatment. Many of you would hardly fancy yourselves as vexillologists, yet you do have interest in the subject matter. For me, I only dabble and have a specific, myopic interest as it pertains to my own militaria focus. For those of you who decided to forgo your own online search (knowing that I would eventually get to it), Merriam-Webster defines vexillology very simply as, “the study of flags.”  I’ll leave the etymology of the (relatively new) term for you hardcore folks.

USS Blackfin Battle Flag

A beautiful example of a WWII Pacific Theater submarine battle flag from the USS Blackfin (source: Naval Historic & Heritage Command).

My post today really isn’t about the study of flags per se, but it does play into what I want to share with you. Learning where to turn for sound research and trusted sources is highly important to verifying details as to the authenticity of a flag: the maker, when it was made, who it was made for, etcetera.

USS Olympia Flag

From the Battle of Manila Bay, this flag flew over the USS Olympia (Source: Naval Historical & Heritage Command).

Flags play a significant role in militaria collecting. While creating a display with period-correct items, collectors may seek a flag that would provide an appropriate accent or aesthetic value. For a World War II display, the requisite 48-star flag would be fairly easy to source. Or, perhaps a captured German or Japanese flag would be fitting? Acquiring flags that look correct is one thing but buying the real thing requires due diligence and still might not guarantee an authentic flag purchase.

Star Spangled Banner Storage Bag

Canvas Bag - the Armistead family kept the Star-Spangled Banner in this large canvas bag (source: Smithsonian institute).

Perhaps the ultimate American vexillological artifact is the subject of a bicentennial celebration this year. Two hundred years have passed since the last national conflict with Great Britain commenced – which is also the last time a foreign enemy invaded the home front (not counting the Confederate Northward invasion of 1863) – and there are celebrations and recognition events taking place throughout the United States. The most significant flag of the United States, The Star Spangled Banner, whose popularity stems from the Francis Scott Key poem of the same name, is also being recognized during these bicentennial celebrations, though two years premature (the Battle of Baltimore and the shelling of Fort McHenry occurred September 5-7, 1814).

The commander of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead anticipated a British attack and desired to have an enormous American flag flown over the fort. The renowned flag maker, Mary Pickersgill, was contracted to construct the garrison flag that measured 30 by 42 feet. Pickersgill and her assistants spent seven weeks constructing the flag (along with a smaller, inclement weather or storm flag that measured 17’ x 25’). In the years following the battle, Armistead’s family kept the flag, passing it down two generations. 90 years after the Ft. McHenry bombardment, Key’s poem had gained incredible popularity and the legend of the flag blossomed. Armistead’s grandson, Eben Appleton, released the flag for public display during Baltimore’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1880. The flag then remained in locked storage (in a New York safe deposit box) as deterioration had become an issue. By 1912, the flag was permanently donated to the Smithsonian Institution by Appleton with the directive that it be forever viewable by the American public. The provenance for this flag is traceable and verifiable over the course of the last 198 years, making it truly priceless.

NHHC USS Olympia Boat Flag

This small flag was used on one of the small boats from Dewey's flagship, the USS Olympia(Source: Naval Historical & Heritage Command).

In my collection, I have some significant flags that have more personal historical importance. I served aboard the Navy’s newest (at the time) cruiser, the first of its kind to serve in the Pacific Fleet. I was assigned to the ship 10 months prior to her commissioning. Because of the significant period of time spent with the ship as she was being completed, I developed quite a fondness for her and her legacy (three previous naval warships proudly carried the name). I suppose that my desire for the preservation of history was nurtured in these early years, prompting me to save a number of disposable artifacts.

2nd Confederate Flag

This tattered example is the second Confederate flag (source: Naval Historical & Heritage Command).

CL-64 Commissioning Pennant

Commissioning pennant from the WWII light cruiser, USS Vincennes CL-64.

I have yet to actively pursue any flag purchases, however during that time aboard my ship, five vexillological artifacts found their way into my collection. The most significant (to me, at least) was my ship’s very first commissioning pennant and the acquisition was a matter of happenstance.

CG-49 Commissioning Pennant

This is the first commissioning pennant raised aboard the CG-49 on her commissioning day in 1985.

During our transit to our home port from Mississippi (where the ship was built and commissioned) a few weeks after the ship was placed into service, I found myself coming off a 4-8am watch, making my way back to the signal bridge to catch up with one of my friends who was a signalman. He was in the process of swapping out the grungy, grimy commissioning pennant with a brand new one, prompting me to ask if I could have it. My shipmate confirmed that the grayed and soiled pennant had flown since the commissioning ceremony and that it was destined for the shredder before I rescued it.

In addition to the pennant, I also have a standard (daily) ensign and union jack set that flew on the ship while in port in 1987. The other two flags were from the captain’s gig (ensign and jack), obtained when I was part of the boat crew serving as the rescue swimmer.

The ship was decommissioned a few years ago and subsequently scrapped, making these flags even more significant in my collection. As of yet, I have not affixed any documentation or description to provide provenance to the flags and pennants. If something should happen to me, these flags become nothing more than nice examples of naval flags. With the Star Spangled Banner, the flag was kept in a bag that possessed the documented provenance along with the narrative that was passed down from one generation to the next.

Flag Collecting Resources/References

This commissioning pennant is from the heavy cruiser, USS San Francisco CA-38 (source: Naval Historical & Heritage Command).



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DoubleEnvelopment HI M.S. Hennessy, I am a new Vexxilologist. I began collecting Japanese Hinomaru Yosegaki and I am pretty obsessed. I am going to be uploading several of my pieces tonight, please check them out. Thanks -Matt November 15th, 2013 at 9:52 PM

M. S. Hennessy

M. S. Hennessy Greetings, Matt, I am still waiting to see your posts of your collection. Where (if you've posted it) may I access your images? December 10th, 2013 at 7:45 PM


DoubleEnvelopment Hello M.S. Hennessy, I have them posted if you click on my screenname and go to my user page you should see them listed, if not a search for Japanese WWII Flags album, In the collections section. I tried to send you a message on here but I wasn't able. If you could you should please enable your messages, as I would to give you my opinion on a blog entry you wrote. -Matt December 11th, 2013 at 5:11 PM


DoubleEnvelopment Hello Mr. Hennessy, Were you able to find them? I could always post a few more from my collection, if interested. January 5th, 2014 at 12:18 PM

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