Special Report

How the Flag Came to be Called Old Glory

New research may settle a family feud over the origins of an American icon

(Hugh Talman / NMAH, SI)
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This does not mean the Peabody flag is illegitimate. Captain Driver would have had more than one flag: Ship captains carried ceremonial flags, storm flags and flags designed to be visible from very long distances. Driver family memoirs and other records contain references to a “merino” flag owned by the captain, a storm flag, and then there was the flag that was draped over his coffin. The Peabody flag surely has a story in its own right. “We’re looking at where it resided, the history of it and then, at the object itself, asking, ‘What are you telling us?’” Jones says.

Paula Richter, curator for the Peabody Essex, is awaiting the outcome of the analysis before she offers an opinion. “It does seem like there is a growing consensus that the Smithsonian’s is the actual Old Glory, but it’s interesting to think about the relationship [of the two flags] to each other,” she says.

Also intriguing is the fact that the Peabody Essex Museum’s card catalog contains other “remnants” of flags purporting to be pieces of Old Glory, gifts from various donors. These may well be pieces of Old Glory—“souvenir” patches that were cut away, a common practice with treasured Civil War banners. There is no evidence of “souveniring” of the Peabody flag. But Jones believes that other items from the Peabody Essex catalog may match the weave of the Smithsonian flag.

Each vestige, even the most fragmentary scrap, is potentially meaningful. “Pieces of those flags are held sacred,” Jones says. "They embody a common experience."


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