Old Glory tells a story

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Jeff Bridgman/American AntiquesThis 34-star flag made in the "Great Star" pattern, was made by hand in New York for a volunteer regiment heading to the Civil War. Collector Jeff Bridgman is selling the rare flag for $34,500; it can be seen in Aspen.

ASPEN – Since 1998, Jeff Bridgman has been learning about a unique niche in American history one stitch at a time.The antique dealer who specializes in Americana and folk art was captivated when he saw two antique, hand-sewn American flags at a show 13 years ago. Their beauty and the history behind them opened a world that he hadn’t explored before.”I was blown away by the fact that I didn’t understand about these things,” Bridgman said. “I thought ‘if there are more of these, why aren’t people buying them for art and history?'”Three weeks later he purchased his first early flag. Since then he has immersed himself in buying and selling the Stars & Stripes – and sharing the stories of the roughly 1,000 flags he has in stock at any one time.Bridgman, who is based in Pennsylvania, is displaying some of his coolest flags July 1-10 at the Aspen Antiques & Fine Arts Fair at the Aspen Ice Garden. A centerpiece of his Aspen display is a torn and frayed beauty. It has 34 stars arranged in the “Great Star” pattern – where the smaller stars form a larger star. One star larger than the other 33 is the centerpiece. The flag was entirely hand-sewn and made of cotton. It came from upstate New York in Oswego County and was handed down among generations of two families. The word among the families has always been that it was made by women of the area when a local, volunteer unit marched off to fight in the Civil War.It’s rare that flags like that were saved through the decades. “Most of them get tossed,” Bridgman said.Before the Civil War, the national flag was used sparingly, Bridgman said. Troops in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 weren’t authorized to carry the Stars & Stripes. They were more likely to carry the federal standard flag and a regimental flag. The images of George Washington marching in battle with the American flag is “a myth,” he said, although he did pose with it in some portraits.The military shifted gears in the Mexican-American War and started carrying the Stars & Stripes. And during the Civil War, it was almost guaranteed that the women of townships would get together and sew a flag for the boys going off to war.The great thing about early American flags is there were so few rules beyond the red and white stripes and the blue canton. The star pattern was open to the creators’ imaginations. (The standard pattern was legislated in 1912 with 48 stars after Arizona became a state, with alterations made for Alaska and Hawaii.)Bridgman views flags of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century among the greatest creations of American folk art because there are so many interesting star configurations, often home made.The 34-star flag in the Great Star pattern was produced between the time Kansas was admitted to the union at the 34th state on Jan. 29, 1861 until West Virginia was added as the 35th state in June 1863.Bridgman calls the Civil War-era Great Star flag the “Rolls-Royce” of designs. It’s both rare and desirable among collectors. He said the tattered flag is no detriment. It reflects the flag’s use outdoors and, possibly, in battle.Bridgman is asking $34,500 for the flag. He figures the type and amount of damage adds roughly $10,000 to the price.His website,, makes it clear that the best antique flags don’t come cheap.”If you are a bargain shopper, I must warn you that you have come to the wrong place,” the website says. “But if you are looking for extraordinary form, outstanding surface, early condition, and confidence in authenticity, you have arrived at a destination that I encourage you to consider.”Bridgman said the recession didn’t hurt the antique flat business. Overall numbers were down during the heart of the recession, he said, but values continued to climb.”It’s something about flags that makes it different,” he said. “It’s more like Corvettes and guns.”He brought at least 125 flags to the Aspen Antiques and Fine Arts Fair. He estimated 30 to 40 are from the Civil War era.He also has around 20 styles of the 38-star flag that reflect Colorado’s statehood in 1876. He naturally brought several of the Centennial flags to the Aspen show because they are popular with full-time Colorado residents and second homeowners.Bridgman focuses on flags made prior to 1880. “After 1879, it became a lot more generic,” he