J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Studying the Old State House's Liberty Tree Flag

Monday evening I attended an event I’d mentioned last week: a lecture at the Bostonian Society’s Old State House Museum about a banner in its collection called the “Liberty Tree Flag.”

Among flag historians and collectors there, I had the pleasure of meeting not only lecturer Whitney Smith, but also Peter Ansoff (after years of exchanging emails) and Ben Zaricor. Historians of Boston in the audience included Alfred F. Young, Marty Blatt of Boston National Historical Park, and Charles Bahne. And representing our host, the Bostonian Society, were executive director Brian LeMay, museum director Rainey Tisdale, public events manager Samantha Nelson, and many other staffers and members.

The Old State House’s “Liberty Tree Flag” isn’t a banner that depicts a Liberty Tree or pine tree, like several examples from the first years of the Revolutionary War. Rather, according to the statements of the woman who donated the flag to the Bostonian Society in the 1890s, this was the flag that Boston’s Sons of Liberty had flown from the pole beside Liberty Tree when they wanted to assemble a crowd for a public meeting.

The flag is made of wool, seven feet by thirteen feet, and assembled from nine vertical stripes of alternating red and white. Its design, shown above, appears in many discussions of the evolution of American flag. In dating from 1766-1775, when the British army chopped down Liberty Tree, this banner would represent the first prominent use of stripes in American Revolutionary symbolism.

However, the flag’s donor offered no documentation for its age or usage, nor an explanation of how the flag had come into her family. The banner she donated was probably the same displayed at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and perhaps one of the two exhibited at Old South Meeting-House during the Centennial as having flown from the Liberty Tree flagpole. But was it really hoisted in 1766-75?

The Bostonian Society, to its great credit, is now trying to authenticate that flag, and for a few days I’ll cogitate on the various issues the investigation is raising. One very important step was an examination of the flag by textile expert Fonda Thomsen. She wasn’t at the event on Monday, by Tisdale shared one of her preliminary findings: the “Liberty Tree Flag” is made of fabric from a machine loom, not a hand loom.

At one point, that finding would have made scholars conclude that the flag couldn’t have been around before 1775. But more recent research has apparently found that there were water-powered machine-looms in Britain as early as the first half of the 18th century. So it’s possible that the wool was woven in Britain well before the 1760s. Thompson wishes to explore whether the manufacturing details she spotted in the “Liberty Tree Flag” match pre-Industrial Revolution examples of machine-woven cloth.

There would be political implications if the Sons of Liberty flew a flag made from imported fabric. After the Townshend duties of 1767, Boston’s Whigs discouraged almost all imports from Britain and promoted domestic manufacturing instead. For example, when tanner William Dawes, Jr., married for the first time in May 1768, the Boston Gazette devoted an unusual amount of ink to the event:

Last Tuesday was married, Mr. WILLIAM DAWES, to Mrs. MEHITABLE MAY, both of this Town, and Yesterday made a handsome Appearance, dress’d wholly in the Manufactures of this Country, wherein he did honor to himself, and merits the Respect of the Province...
To be completely consistent with their political position, the Whigs shouldn’t have flown a flag made of British cloth, hand-woven or machine-woven.

However, there wasn’t a lot of North American cloth to go around. The Dawes-May wedding item was a “man bites dog” story, making news precisely because the bridegroom’s clothing was unusual. Out of thousands of men in Boston in 1768, Dawes was one of the very few to appear dressed wholly in domestic cloth. So if the Sons of Liberty’s only flag was made from ordinary cloth—which meant cloth shipped from Britain—then they might simply have lived with that contradiction. After all, it would have been imported before they called their boycott, right?

On the other hand, though some machine-woven cloth could have been in Boston before 1775, the great majority of cloth in that century was hand-woven. I think Thomsen’s finding about the flag’s weaving makes it less likely that the “Liberty Tree Flag” is as old as Liberty Tree.

TOMORROW: What those nine stripes could mean.

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