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Artifact Spotlight: The Unofficial 39 Star Flag

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

This flag came in to our office as part of a recent donation from the former owner of the M.J. Shields Building in downtown Moscow. Can you figure out why this flag is unique?

At first glance, this might look like a rather unremarkable 19th century American flag. In fact, with its notable signs of deterioration, I was initially hesitant to accession it into our artifact collection. Upon attempting to date the flag, however, I realized that we had a curious piece of history on our hands. With its 39 stars, this is actually not an official American flag!

In the late decades of the 19th century, the United States government admitted most of the western states in quick succession. Instead of issuing a new flag with the appropriate number of stars each time a state was admitted, the government would wait until July 4th to “update” Old Glory. For example, Colorado was admitted on August 1st, 1876 as the nation’s 38th state, but the 38-star flag was not unveiled until July 4th, 1877.

In the early fall of 1889, flag manufacturers were gearing up for the admittance of the Dakota Territory. A small number of producers bet that Dakota would be the only new state added before July 4th, 1890. As it turned out, however, North and South Dakota were admitted as separate entities in November of 1889. In fact the gamble taken by the makers of the 39-star flag had been exceptionally ill-informed, because Montana and Washington were also added during that month as the 41st and 42nd states. On July 3rd, 1890 Idaho was admitted, meaning that the next official American flag would have 43 stars.

The 39-star flag is, therefore, unofficial and rather uncommon. We are excited to add this unique piece of American history to our rich flag collection.

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