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Maritime flags (U.S.)

Last modified: 2015-04-25 by rick wyatt
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Signal For A Pilot

[Signal For A Pilot] image by Phil Nelson, 22 January 2000

U.S. signal for a pilot.
Source: Colton's Deliniation of Flags of all Nations, (1862)

Phil Nelson, 22 January 2000

Sizes of U.S. Ensigns (Historical)

The following dimensions are recorded in Treasury Department copies of receipts for flags purchased in Philadelphia in 1803 for USS Philadelphia and US Brig Siren (all in feet; for meters divide by 3.28): 22 x 38, 18 x 34, 17 x 32, 14 x 26, 7 x 13. (Vouchers filed by George Harrison, Naval Agent in Philadelphia, July 1803 and 20 August 1803, National Archives, Miscellaneous Material Relating to the American Flag, Folder 01).

Historical Notes: USS Philadelphia was a 130-ft-long 28-gun frigate that was run aground and captured at Tripoli in October 1803; later burned by a crew led by then-Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, in an operation that made Decatur an international celebrity (praise of Lord Nelson) and national hero. Siren was a 16 gun brig that also was involved in the 1803-1805 operations against Tripoli; later captured by HMS Medway (74-gun ship of the line) in 1814.

As I previously reported, USS Constitution had aboard (per her log, 7 June 1812) a 14 x 26 ft ensign and another of unspecified size.

The 1818 circular referred to a flag of 14 x 24 feet. The fly of the union is specified as 1/3 the fly of the flag. The existence of larger flags before and after this date show, by the way, that this was a benchmark to set proportions, not an indication that all US ensigns in 1818 were the same size.

A Treasury copy of a receipt for flags for USS Mississippi (a 12-gun sidewheel steam frigate built by Captain Matthew C. Perry of "opening of Japan" fame, and which had earlier served as his flagship in the Mexican War (1846-48) mentioned flags with the following fly dimensions (again in feet): 27, 24, 21, 15, 7, 6, 5 1/2, 5. (National Archives, Miscellaneous Material Relating to the American Flag, Folder 02)

Treasury copies of receipts for flags purchased for USS Powhatan (9-gun steam frigate) and USS Alleghany (10-gun sloop) in January 1853 mention flags of following fly dimensions (in feet): 25, 22, 19, 16, 14, 10, 8, 7, 6. Both these ships were in Matthew C. Perry's Japan expedition later that year, Powhatan serving as his flagship. These flags were probably bought expressly for that expedition, as the Powhatan procurement also includes the ensigns of Japan, Siam, China, and Cochin China. As a point of economic interest, the Powhatan's 19-foot flag cost the government $7.675. (National Archives, Miscellaneous Material Relating to the American Flag, Folder 02)

First known codification of flag sizes and specifications in a Navy Department directive, Charles S. McCauley and G. S. Blake, "Tables of Allowances of Equipment, Outfits, Stores, &c. Falling Under the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair" (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson, Public Printer, 1854). Ship ensign sizes are (in feet) 18.75 x 36, 16.75 x 32, 14.5 x 28, 13 x 25, 11.5 x 22, 10 x 19, 8.25 x 16, 7.25 x 14, 6.25 x 12, 5.25 x 10, and 4.25 x 8. Boat ensigns are 5.25 x 10, 4.75 x 9, 4.25 x 8, 3.75 x 7, 3.25 x 6, and 2.5 x 5. It will be noted that (1) the fly sizes increase in one-foot increments from 5 to 10, in two-foot increments from 10 to 16, in three-foot increments from 16 to 28, and in four-foot increments from 28 to 36; and that (b) the hoist dimension can be obtained by dividing the fly by 1.9--cf. the modern US flag ratio of 10:19--and rounding to the nearest quarter of a foot (3 inches).

Joe McMillan, 17 September 2003