Update: The Know Nothing flag sold for $25,000.
What you see: A Know Nothing American flag, dating to December 1858. Freeman’s estimates it at $25,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Lynda Cain, vice president and department head for American furniture, folk and decorative arts at Freeman’s.
Let’s start by talking about who the Know Nothings were. They were founded in 1849 and were a nativist party – anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, largely due to Irish immigration. Ireland experienced a famine, and there were no jobs, so they moved to American cities. It was an anti-immigration movement.
There’s an interesting letter from Abraham Lincoln about the Know Nothings. It’s from 1855, and it reads: “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.” The Know Nothings were a well-enough known party, though they kept it kind of secret. If anyone asked about their agenda, their members would say, “I know nothing.” [Hence the name.] They didn’t want new people, people who had different faiths. They didn’t want to change.
How would the Know Nothings have used this flag in the late 1850s? I don’t know for sure. I think maybe it was made for group meetings, secret meetings, or for someone’s personal use. But it’s small, a very small thing – only 19 inches by 23¼ inches. It looks like it was pinned up on something. It was not hung on a building. It was rather discreet. Nobody wants to stand up and say, “I hate people.”
The Know Nothing flag is small enough to tuck inside a coat? It’s small. It’s not something to be raised on a pole.
Here in the 21st century, we think of the design of the American flag as being fixed and inviolate. I get the impression that wasn’t the case in the 19th century, when this Know Nothing flag was made. The makers have clearly taken liberties with the basic American flag design–they’ve replaced the canton [the blue field that appears in the upper left] with an image of George Washington … This whole patch [with Washington on it] was cut out of a length of printed fabric and appliqued on the stripes. It functions as the canton, and it serves its purpose beautifully.
There are 13 embroidered stars above the eagle’s head on this Know Nothing flag. Is that meant to be a reference to the original 13 colonies? Yeah, I think they’re envisioning some sort of purer time that never was. Again, it’s comparable to the present longing for some idyllic past that was not idyllic for everyone and not as idyllic as it seemed.
Redesigning the look of the American flag would not have been offensive in 1858? Not until 1912 was there a flag act that started to regulate things – 48 stars and 13 stripes. This … I don’t think it’s a public piece. It’s private, or for a small group of like-thinking individuals.
The Know Nothing flag has 17 stripes. Does the number of stripes have any special significance to the group or its ideology? Or does it just happen to have 17 stripes for reasons known only to the person who stitched it? Very interesting. I don’t know why. I don’t know if that meant something to the Know Nothings.
The Know Nothings put a portrait of George Washington on the flag. Why did they hold Washington, of all the founders, in such high esteem? According to legendary flag collector Boleslaw Mastai, the Know Nothing Party “professed a veritable cult for George Washington.” They took partial quotes from a Washington letter of April 30, 1777, which he wrote in the wake of an assassination plot involving members of his own guard: “You will therefore send me none but Natives, & Men of some property, if you have them – I must insist that in that in making this Choice you give no intimation of my preference of Natives, as I do not want to create any invidious Distinction between them & Foreigner … ”
George Washington is shown with his hand on the hilt of a sword. Did that have particular meaning to the Know Nothings, or is that just how the company who printed the textile wanted Washington to look? You often get that, even in formal portraits. It’s not uncommon for portraits of the 18th century and the early 19th century to show [leaders] with swords to allude to their military past.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how the Know Nothing flag was made? It’s all hand-sewn. They cut out a patch from a length of printed fabric, and appliquéd it onto the stripes.
The initials “JWL” are embroidered on the Know Nothing flag. Do we have any idea who JWL is? We don’t.
The flag also has a date on it–December 1858. Is it unusual to see a dated flag? Yes, it is unusual. We do have a couple of flags in the sale that were made by or presented to people and often, there are inscriptions on them. It’s a little different to embroider [the date], but it’s not unknown.
Does the December 1858 date have any special meaning to the Know Nothings? I don’t think so. I think it’s just when they made it [the flag].
I see what looks like scorch marks in places on the flag. What are they? There could be a number of things that cause that. Sometimes it happens if it’s folded for a long time. Something could have been spilled on it. Perhaps it was nailed to something metal and rust transferred onto the fabric.
How rare is this Know Nothing flag? I don’t know of any others. It comes from a very important flag collection, the Mastai Collection.
Have any others appeared at auction? The first Know Nothing flag at auction was this one, in 2002, when the Mastai collection sold at Sotheby’s. It was passed [it failed to sell at auction] and was sold later, within a year of the auction.
What is the Know Nothing flag like in person? It’s very colorful and bright. The reds are very vibrant. The Washington patch is a trifle faded, but not horribly. It makes an impact.
Why will the Know Nothing flag stick in your memory? Because I’ve never seen anything like it. Everybody heard about the Know Nothings in history class, but I’ve never seen a living, breathing artifact associated with the group.
By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction. Follow her on Twitter at @SGSwritereditor.