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Weathered Revolutionary War flag to unfold its story​

July 7, 2015

Filed under Collections, Exhibits, Military History, Pennsylvania Icons, Pennsylvania Treasures

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The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has owned this flag, which will appear in the upcoming "Pennsylvania Icons" exhibit, since 1906. Matthew Quay, former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, donated the flag to The State Museum after purchasing it in 1879.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has owned this flag, which will appear in the upcoming “Pennsylvania Icons” exhibit, since 1906. Matthew Quay, former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, donated the flag to The State Museum after purchasing it in 1879.

After 239 years, this flag has certainly seen better days!

The flag belonged to the First Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Line between 1776 and 1783. Initially commanded by Carlisle native Col. William Thompson, the regiment was later led by Lt. Col. Thomas Robinson. A March 8, 1776 letter drafted by Lt. Col. Edward Hand describes the flag and its distinct appearance: “Every Regiment is to have a Standard and Colours. Our Standard is to be a deep green ground, the Device a Tyger partly enclosed by toils attempting the pass defended by a hunter armed with a spear in white, on crimson field the motto domari nolo.”  The Latin motto, “Domari nolo” translates to “I will not be conquered.” It is a phrase most fitting for the regiment that carried the flag, and witnessed some of the most crucial points of the war for American Independence, including the night Washington crossed the Delaware River in 1776 and the surrender of the British at Yorktown in 1781.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has owned the flag, which will appear in the upcoming Pennsylvania Icons exhibit, since 1906. Matthew Quay, former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, donated the flag to The State Museum after purchasing it in 1879 from living descendants of Lt. Col. Robinson. But the story doesn’t end there.

In 1974, the flag was in need of serious conservation. Between 1948 and 1963, the flag had been continuously displayed in the museum. Light had irreversibly damaged the color of the silk. Well-intentioned conservation repairs made to the flag in 1974 only exacerbated the damage. As part of the artifact’s restoration, the flag had been sandwiched between two layers of netting, stitched over with nylon threads in a zig-zag pattern, and then washed. The color of the silk faded immediately, and the residue coming off the flag was believed to be surface dirt. The invasive treatments were removed in 2004 and the flag was pressure mounted between sheets of plexiglass on a custom mount to prevent further deterioration.

Dye analysis performed on the flag during conservation revealed a wealth of information about the flag’s construction, and helped explain the fugitive nature of the colors over time. The origins of the dyes used in the flag’s silk illustrate the complexity of trade routes and colonial empires established by the 18th century. Tests revealed the presence of several natural dyes, including cochineal, indigo carmine and old fustic, a vegetable-based dye from a tropical South American mulberry tree used to make a yellow hue. Indigo carmine, derived from the Indian Indigo plant, is an acid-treated version of indigo that is water soluble, and makes application on fabric easier. When the flag was cleaned in 1974, the “dirt” that was removed was actually the natural indigo dye. Cochineal dye comes from insects native to the American southwest and South America, and produces a red hue. Curiously, two modern synthetic red dyes were also detected in the samples. It was later determined that these synthetic dye traces were probably from the conservation materials used in 1974.

The choice of the indigo carmine dye perplexed the conservators. Treated indigo is an unusual choice for a regimental battle standard that would almost certainly be used outdoors, since it is not as colorfast as untreated indigo. Does this mean the flag was purely ceremonial? Most likely not, since a silk flag at this time would have been incredibly expensive to use for show. Indigo carmine adheres to fabric easily, so if the standard used existing silk scraps then it could be dyed quickly.

The flag is an incredible testament to a defining moment in American history, as very few regimental standards survive the ravages of time. The motto painted on the flag “I will not be conquered” is an appropriate choice, indeed. CAP Curator Katie McGowan chose the flag as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure.

 

About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.

 

 

About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.