Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Backwards Flag?

The Lanford Album Quilt
Cargo Collection, Birmingham Museum of Art
Circa 1900?

Every time I post a picture of a patchwork flag I hear from those wondering if the maker ( block inscribed O.W.W.S. here) had reversed her flag to show distress. Another concern is that my picture is backwards, which it is not---O.W.W.S. wrote her S the correct direction.

1900 perhaps?
The field on the flag is on the right, an image found quite often in antique quilts.

From a quilt sold in an online auction from Massachusetts.

Silk flag in a crazy quilt about 1890

Many times the starry square is on the left as in this 1864 block in an album by
Mary Nevius Potter of New Jersey.

Crazy quilts often had small silk flags tacked down and embroidered.
If they were identical on the back and front you might tack them down either direction.

Quilt attributed to Martha Meeker, Connecticut

Directionality seems rather arbitrary. Quiltmakers showed the flag as viewed
from both sides.

Before the 1910s there was no "backwards."

So why do we think it's backwards?

My guess is a movement about 100 years ago to make "Flag Etiquette" into law. The American Legion, a new group of veterans of the European war, advocated many rules. The above advice for proper display is from one of their magazines in 1922.
 On the list of "Don'ts" in that article they tell us:
"Don't sew the flag onto a sofa pillow."


I collected these patriotic pillow covers for years and let me
tell you a lot of stitchers and commercial companies ignored that rule.

Library of Congress
The American Legion Women's Auxiliary was founded in 1919.
These groups emphasized teaching flag etiquette in schools.

Rules from an Oklahoma teachers' periodical in the early 1920s.
"The flag must not be used in whole or in part as a costume...."


Another rule people were only too glad to ignore.

"nor may it be used as a toy, fan, parasol, paper napkin or sofa cushion."

The are no penalties for using a flag as a paper napkin or putting it on a pillow.

So who were the arbitrators who wrote so many rules?
The American Legion, still active, tells us:
"On Flag Day, June 14, 1923, The American Legion and representatives of 68 other patriotic, fraternal, civic and military organizations met in Washington, DC for the purpose of drafting a code of flag etiquette. The 77th Congress adopted this codification of rules as public law on June 22, 1942."

Other patriotic organizations supported rules, advocating legislation of flag etiquette. In 1924 the Daughters of 1812 published a pamphlet encouraging laws prohibiting "printing or letters on any kind of Flag."

Political flag of the 1840s

Flag desecration?

Ohio Daughters in the teens

The Daughters of the American Revolution have been handing out Flag Code leaflets at least since the 1920s. During World War I the DAR lobbied to get an "Iowa Flag Law" enacted. One goal was to remove a  floor design depicting the American flag in the state capitol building in Des Moines.

Floor under the rotunda

Apparently they succeeded in 1915 as there is a large glass circle on the floor today (recently replaced) and no memory of any flag today.


More outrage occurred at the Iowa State Fair that year when a quilt with a woven flag design was exhibited.  The state Attorney General's office declared it a violation and shipped the quilt back to the man who made it (a penitentiary inmate---apparently a hopeless recidivist.)

From an album quilt in the Pat Nickols Collection at the Mingei Museum

So why do we think the field on the right is wrong?

I guess it's because those of us raised in the nationalistic post-World War II classroom were eager to follow the rules. And there were people eager to make them up.

Mary Maxtion, Greene County, Alabama
Cargo Collection at the International Quilt Museum


  1. My father was a kind and gentle soul. He was liberal to a fault except when it concerned the flag. I remember stitching one of those little printed flags into a doll quilt when I was around 10. He made me take it out and we put it back on the stick and we placed it on a Civil War soldier's grave in our local cemetery. From that time on, every time I see one of those little flags, I make sure it is standing upright and not touching the ground. His rule was, if it was made as a flag, it could only be used as a flag. I could embroider or applique any flag image I wanted as long as it wasn't intended to be an actual flag. Thanks for bringing back that memory.

  2. I thought it was an actual flag that isn't to be sewn onto things. Using printed, stitched, or sewn images were OK. Maybe that's newer thinking? That said, I still cringe when I see flag designs as underwear or toilet paper or on the soles of shoes/boots. I suppose freedom of speech dialed back some of the original rules? And sometimes you have to make design choices - if you want 2 flags crossed, like the Margaret Meeker attributed quilt, one has to be backwards for the design to work. And if there is a US flag with another, you need to decide which "rule" to break, either the US flag needs to be backward or on the right. And then, we can't discount a seamstress laboring away at a flag design, finishing it only to discover the way it was sewn is backward, and forging ahead with it. Not that *I've* ever sewn things that come out backward to think of this... ahem ;-)

  3. Flags painted on the sides of aircraft are "backward" as they are representing a flying flag. I found this: "It's not backwards! U.S. federal regulations state that when our flag is on a vehicle (such as an airplane or government vehicle) the star field must be positioned toward the front of the vessel.

  4. Nancy - that reminds me - I've seen flags painted on railroad engines. One side is "correct" the other is "backward" so it looks like they are flying as the train moves down the tracks. Then once in a while, it all goes wrong when the train is going the opposite direction from the front of the engine.

  5. Just chiming in with my thoughts. When a Flag is draped over a US veteran’s casket, the blue field is positioned so that it lies over the left shoulder. Always. It’s folded into a triangle in remembrance of the the tricorner hats the Revolutionary soldiers wore. And supposedly, when the flag is folded after being taken down, the stripes are hidden and the stars show to represent night’s arrival.

  6. Great blog post on flags, Barbara! Coincidentally, the New England Quilt Museum will be showing an assortment of flag quilts and quilts with flags, from the museum collection in January.