The Officially Unofficial Kind of Illegal 47-Star Flag Comes in for Repairs

September 8th, 2011 by Kate Nelson

On April 4, 1818, Congress enacted the Flag Act of 1818, setting forth a rule that no new stars could be added to the flag until the Fourth of July immediately following a state’s admission to the Union. Thanks to that once-a-year-and-only-once-a-year mandate, New Mexicans hoping to share their pride at becoming the 47th state were essentially forced into committing their first illegal acts as U.S. citizens.

And flag manufacturers, only too happy to supply the demand, made their day by stitching together 47-star flags in willful disobeyance of that 1818 law.

In celebration of New Mexico’s centennial, the History Museum will commemorate that dip into the dark side with 47 Stars, an exhibit of the officially unofficial 47-star flag. (Actually three of them, shown in rotation to reduce the strains of being on display.) From January 6 through November 25, 2012, the flags will join a collection of long-term exhibits about statehood and a tongue-in-cheek front-window installation marking our entrance into the Union.

Here’s the news nugget: This week, Rebecca Tinkham Hewett, part of the crackerjack conservation team for the Museums of New Mexico, began prepping the smallest of the three flags for display.

She started by pinning it to an acid-free board covered with fabric and will next stitch it to the fabric around the flag’s edge and in a network pattern within it to ensure it doesn’t sag when the board is hoisted to a wall in the museum’s Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now exhibition. The statehood section within that exhibit already includes:

·        Audio re-enactments of arguments for and against New Mexico’s entry into the Union, produced by aural historian Jack Loeffler.

·        A photo of the 1910 Constitutional Convention.

·        President Taft’s proclamation of statehood and the pen he used to sign it.

·        The top hat worn by William McDonald to his inauguration as New Mexico’s first governor.

What makes the flags officially unofficial? Just 39 days after New Mexico became a state on January 6, 1912, Arizona stepped up to the statehood plate on February 14, 1912. By virtue of coming in second, Arizona would receive its just due on July 4, when the official flag of the United States was to switch from 46 to 48 stars. In the meantime, patriotic New Mexicans wanted a flag of their own , and eager U.S. flag manufacturers came up with the unofficial 47-star flag.

How the three flags ended up in the museum’s hands involves a whole lot of out-of-state miles. The 34½-by-72¼” flag Tinkham Hewett is working on was delivered to the museum in 2001 by a Mrs. James Hetzler, office manager of a church in St. Louis. While cleaning out a closet, she found the flag and figured it was left by a since-disbanded Boy Scout troop. The medium-sized, 43½-by-93½” flag was donated by a Fredrich Liberet in 1988, who said it had been passed down by his great-great-grandfather. And the largest, 65-by-115¾” flag arrived in 2000 from a woman who said it had belonged to her father in Drexel City, Penn.

Made of a plain-weave wool, the small flag is missing a few stars on the side visitors won’t see. On the side they will, a few of the stars show slight stains. Tinkham Hewett isn’t certain what made the stains, but said she won’t take pains to remove them.

“It’s earned these stains,” she said. “It’s part of the evidence to a life an object has had. To remove them takes away that evidence, part of its history.”

Come Jan. 6, Tinkham Hewett’s careful work will come to fruition, helping the museum bring the centennial to life.

“Conservation concerns have kept us from bringing our 47-star flags out of collections for public view,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the History Museum. “But the Centennial was too good of an opportunity to pass up. By letting visitors see these artifacts in specially designed display cases, we hope they’ll become engaged in the amazing story of New Mexico’s struggle for statehood.”

4 Responses to “The Officially Unofficial Kind of Illegal 47-Star Flag Comes in for Repairs”

  1. NM History Museum News Blog » Blog Archive » We Pledge Allegiance to Our 47-Star Flag Says:

    […] Penn., who said her father had owned it. Getting it into condition to be displayed came courtesy of conservation work done by Rebecca Tinkham Hewett and Cindy Lee […]

  2. Dan Elke Says:

    Hello: One of my Uncles gave me a flag to donate to the Jordan Area Historical Society in MN. It was the Casket flag for another uncle who was in the Korean War and died in 1956. Upon preparing it (getting a flag box) for donation I noticed that it had a square stitched in the spot of one of the stars and the two of the stars did not match the color of the other 47. It was not until then that I became aware of a 47 Star Flag. In any event I believe that all states should have the availability to boast their pride and that an amendment should be put in place that protects the availability for all States to have their own personal representation of Statehood. I appreciate your post and have gained new appreciation for all of my uncles and hope that those future generations will also appreciate all that past generations have done to make us the country that we are, even if many people refuse to see how great our country and past generations are. Thank you

  3. JimMcLoughlin Says:

    Is it possibel to purchase a 47-Star Flag??

  4. Kate Nelson Says:

    You’ll see them come up occasionally for auction. Check on eBay for a start.