Tag Archives: Flags

A Vexillogical History of Salem

What am I writing about? Flags for the July 4th weekend of course: I had to look up that word and thus am using it, despite the fact that it is somewhat intimidating and I could easily have chosen something easy and alliterative like flags of our forefathers. But once I discover a new word, I want to use it, so here we are: vexillology is the study of flags, and like many other aspects of life (including food, drink, architecture, industry, and myriad forms of material and intellectual culture) Salem’s flag history is so notable that you can almost tell its history through flags: we have a famous colonial flag defacement, a Revolutionary symbol, many claims of “first flags” in foreign ports, a notable expression of Civil War resistance, and lots of other interesting flags which illustrate particular trends and times. Salem’s vexillogical history is a a variation on the device used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his Grandfather’s Chair, which told the tale of the “Endicott Flag” in vivid detail.

A fanciful view of Endicott ordering the defacement of the English Ensign by cutting out its cross of St. George, Ballou’s Pictorial, 1855; Some flag illustrations from So proudly we hail : the history of the United States flag (1981) by William R. Furlong and Bryan McCandless.

Flag history is often “patriotic history” which of course is a contradiction in terms, so there is a lot of lore and legend that needs to be cut out, just like St. George’s cross. It’s best to stick to the primary sources. John Winthrop reported that on 5 November 1634, “At the court of assistants complaint was made by some of the country (Richard Brown of Watertown, in the name of the rest) that the ensign at Salem was defaced, viz. One part of the red cross taken out. Upon this, an attachment was awarded against Richard Davenport, ensign-bearer (who was ordered to cut out the cross by John Endicott), to appear at the next court to answer. Much matter was made of this, as fearing it would be taken as an act of rebellion, or of like high nature, in defacing the king’s colors; though the truth were, it was done upon this opinion, that the red cross was given to the King of England by the pope, as an ensign of victory, and so a superstitious thing, and a relique of antichrist.” Certainly Endicott was not alone in these sentiments: popery and the cult of the saints were right at the top of the “traditions” or relics which were the focus of intense Puritan opposition in both old England and New England. The “crossless flag” did not really take root, but symbols like the pine tree began to appear on banners in the next century, both within and without the cross, eventually inspiring the famous “Appeal to Heaven” flag of Washington’s Cruisers. There were so many interesting regimental flags used during the American Revolution, but the only one I would find with ties to Salem is that of Major Israel Forster of Manchester-by-the-Sea: there are several extant examples, one in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum (see above) and the other which sold at auction in 2014. There are no references to the Forster flag in the PEM’s digitized catalog and collections, and I’m also curious about a flag with one star and many stripes which was long displayed in the Essex Institute’s Plummer Hall: I don’t know why it is often so difficult to find objects that were in the old Institute in the new PEM!

The Historic Forster Flag at Doyle’s auctions, 2014; 1915 postcard featuring the “mysterious” flag in the Essex Institute.

The history of the recognition of the American flag seems very intertwined with that of Salem’s maritime history: all the old-school maritime historians assert that the first time the US flag was spotted in many Asian and African ports was on a Salem ship. This would be a great topic for an academic paper, perhaps even a dissertation: you can certainly assess how important flying the flag was in all sorts of contemporary images, like George Ropes’ Launching of the Ship Fame (1802). The flag you see here, with its circle of stars, represents a common configuration in the nineteenth century up to the Centennial, but there was no standard, official design for the (expanding) stars and stripes until 1912 so there were all sorts of interesting arrangements up to that time. The Fame flag is very similar to that in a watercolor painting memorializing the American prisoners of the War of 1812 who died in the massacre at Dartmoor Prison in 1815, among them nine Salem sailors. About a decade later, a young Salem sea captain was gifted a flag by a group of Salem ladies for his first overseas voyage in command: this was William Driver, who made his Salem fortune and then retired early to Nashville, where his brothers operated a shop. He brought his flag with him, displayed it proudly until the onset of the Civil War, and then hid it in the attic until Union troops captured the city. His “Old Glory” became the symbol of resistance and triumph, both during and especially after the Civil War. What comes after is a bit more complicated, because there are actually two Old Glory flags: a large banner in the collection of the Smithsonian which is generally accepted as “official” and a smaller one in that of the Essex Institute/Peabody Essex Museum. It is quite clear, however, that a Salem-made flag was at the center of both storms at sea and on land.

George Ropes, The Launching of the Ship Fame, 1802, Peabody Essex Museum; Memorial to the victims of the Dartmoor Massacre, Dowst Family, Skinner Auctions; “Old Glory” at the National Museum of American History.

A few sought-after 13-star flags with Salem provenances have surfaced over the past few decades, including one which belonged to shipmaster Parker Brown and the so-called “Hancock & English” flag from the Mastai Collection, a period flag which was modified by the addition of the 1880 presidential candidates which once graced the cover of Time magazine (July 7, 1980: second from right in top row, below). There was a considerable expansion in the commercial use of the flag over the second half of the nineteenth century, and it was a favorite banner for Salem’s entrepreneurial merchant/photographer/author Frank Cousins, who featured flags and political souvenirs in his shop, and advertised his wares with flag posters and trade cards. From the Centennial on, it’s all about parades as well, which called for a variety of festive flags. Salem excelled at one particular form of July Fourth celebration in the twentieth century—bigger and bigger bonfires—and flags were always on top of these impressive constructions: this has always struck me as a bit problematic as presumably they would burn. A blaze of glory, perhaps.

13-star Salem flag, Heritage Auctions; Frank Cousins Bee-Hive flag, Bonsell Americana; 1896 parade flag, Cowan’s Auctions; July Fourth Bonfire, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.


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