URI textile experts examine old battle flag in Stonington, Conn.

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Flag to be displayed in August during town’s celebration of Battle of Stonington

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 17, 2014 – A centuries old flag that flew over Stonington, Conn., during a British naval attack went under the microscope at the University of Rhode Island not long ago. The prognosis: in good health, with promising years ahead.

That’s the conclusion of Susan Jerome, manager of URI’s historic textiles collection, who examined the flag for the Stonington Historical Society as the town prepares to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle.

The woolen flag, with 16 stars and stripes, holds a special place in the hearts of Stonington residents. Hand-sewn by women of the Stonington Congregational Church between 1796 and 1803, the flag flew over Stonington Point as the British fired cannonballs into the town for four days in August, 1814 while under siege during the War of 1812.

After the battle, the flag remained with the local militia and was eventually given to a local family. In 1895, it was donated to the historical society and displayed in a glass case at a Stonington bank for decades as a symbol of the town’s independence and refusal to surrender.

Concerns about its deterioration prompted the historical society to remove it in 2004. Jerome, a longtime Stonington resident, offered to examine it at URI, along with Renee Walker Tuttle, a graduate student in textile conservation, and Margaret Ordonez, a professor in the University’s textiles, fashion merchandising and design department.

They concluded that the flag, at considerable cost, could be restored at some point, much like the more famous Star-Spangled Banner flag, now displayed in the National Museum of American History. Today, the Stonington flag is carefully stored at the historical society’s Woolworth Library and will be on display next month for the bicentennial celebration.

Jerome and her colleagues worked with the fervor of forensic detectives during their analysis. Using a high-powered microscope in the Textile Conservation Laboratory, they found that the Stonington flag is made of hand-dyed, hand-spun wool. The thread is made of flax. Tiny holes suggest damage from insects – or possibly cannonballs, Jerome says.

The flag measures 12 by 18 feet, although the original flag was most likely longer. Over the years, worn-out sections might have fallen off or people might have cut off pieces for mementos. Giving a “piece of history” to a family was a common practice back then, Jerome says: “We don’t do that today.”

The flag’s uniqueness is indisputable. The women in the sewing circle added a 16th star and stripe to recognize Tennessee, admitted to the union in 1796. At that time, American flags were required by law to have 15 stars and stripes, Jerome says. In fact, the official flag design did not change until 1818 when Congress authorized a flag with the more manageable 13 stripes and 20 stars, one for each state.

“The Stonington flag is rare and sometimes called the ‘little sister’ of the larger Star-Spangled Banner,” says Jerome. “Stonington might have the only flag in the United States with 16 stars and stripes.” The Stonington flag is also believed to be older than the Star-Spangled Banner, which dates to 1813 and was the inspiration for the Frances Scott Key poem. (He wrote the poem that became the national anthem after seeing that flag fly over Baltimore during another British attack – one month after the Stonington battle.)

The Stonington flag is too fragile to hang, but will be displayed on a flat surface Aug. 8 and 9 at the Woolworth Library, 40 Palmer St., in Stonington as part of the celebration. Jerome, of course, plans to visit the red, white and blue that she examined with pride, affection and a gentle touch.

“We live so far away from what’s real in the past,” she says. “I think that’s why we have to preserve things from the past. They can teach us so much about our present and future.”

Click here for more information. Jerome recently wrote an article about the flag’s history for the historical society’s publication, “Historical Footnotes.”

Pictured above: Left to right, former URI graduate student Renee Walker Tuttle, Margaret Ordonez, professor in the textiles, fashion merchandising and design department at the University of Rhode Island, and Susan Jerome, collections manager for URI’s historic textiles collection. Stored in Quinn Hall, the collection has 30,000 items, from 18th century quilts, dresses and shoes to 19th century farmers’ clothes. “We have a wonderful pair of trousers from around 1820,” says Jerome. “The trousers have 28 patches and each patch is a different fabric. I can just hear someone saying, ‘No more holes!’ ” Photo courtesy of Stonington Historical Society.