History 3'x5' Sewn and Embroidered Bennington Flag
The Bennington Flag is one of the oldest and best-known American flags in existence, a distinction it shares with its contemporary, the Stars and Stripes which flew over Ft. McHenry in 1814 and inspired our national anthem. The Bennington Flag is instantly recognizable for its unusual design features: the "76" in the blue field, seven-pointed stars, and the use of white stripes for the outer bars rather than red. As the earliest known flag made entirely of cotton, it is an important document for the history of textiles in America. Family tradition suggested that this flag was used in the Battle of Bennington. However, several factors argue against this. First, the extremely large size of the flag suggests that this was probably a stationary flag, raised above a fort, headquarters, or armory, rather than a small portable battle stand. Since the Bennington Flag was glued into a bronze and plate-glass frame almost immediately after its arrival at the museum in 1926, scientific analysis of the fibers was not possible until after it was removed for conservation in 1995.
Textile conservators determined that the fabric was composed of single-twist cotton threads and that the sewing thread was double-twist cotton, indicating an early 19th-century date of manufacture. The low number of plys in the thread is characteristic of this early period of cotton milling technology. The use of dyes to color cotton fabric was also in experimental stages, which no doubt contributed to the renegade color of the flag's blue field and red stripes. There are no existing 18th-century American flags made of cotton, since this fiber was not readily available in America until after 1800. Cotton sewing thread was not manufactured commercially until the 19th-century. Eighteenth-century documentation, bills, invoices, and descriptions, and examination of all the surviving flags from this period indicate that they were made of silk, linen, or wool bunting. While eliminating a Revolutionary connection for the flag, this discovery does reinforce the family tradition that Nathaniel Fillmore presented the Bennington Flag to his nephew Septa Fillmore shortly after the outbreak of war with England in 1812. Nathaniel, a veteran of the Battle of Bennington, may have been responsible for the creation of the flag. His patriotic dedication on the eve of a second war with England was no doubt expressed by the "76" included in the field design, a commemoration of the Declaration of Independence and the earlier victory over the English. The Bennington Flag remained in the possession of the Fillmore family, passing from Septa Fillmore to his nephew Philetus P. Fillmore who displayed it outside his home in Aurora, Illinois during the 1776 Centennial celebration. Franklin Bosworth Fillmore, a nephew of Philetus and the next owner of the flag, moved it to Monticello, Minnesota. He carried the Bennington Flag at the head of the parade of the Grand Army of the Republic held in Minneapolis in 1887. A souvenir hunter vandalized the flag at this event, removing one of the stars and the top white stripe.
Bennington Museum director John Spargo learned of the flag in the early 1920s. After searching for several years, he located it in the G.A.R. Room in the Chicago Public Library, where it had been placed by its owner, Maude Fillmore Wilson. The Bennington Flag has lost much of its original red and blue coloring over almost two centuries of exposure to light and unfavorable environmental conditions. Early nineteenth-century fabrics were dyed with a variety of natural substances, such as madder (red) or indigo (blue) from plants, or cochineal (red) from an insect. These natural dyes are very susceptible to fading and damage from exposure to light, particularly the ultraviolet rays found in sunlight and artificial light. In 1995 and 1996 the flag was conserved at the Textile Conservation Center, Museum of American Textile History in Lowell, Massachusetts. Removal of dust and dirt which had accumulated over time revealed remnants of the elusive red and blue dyes. The fragile fibers have been stabilized to help ensure preservation of the Bennington Flag. The Flag has been encapsulated in a plexiglass box to protect the fabric from dirt, dust, and rapid changes in temperature and humidity. Light levels on the flag are kept low to reduce further loss of color.