Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Friday, February 1, 2013

"Flags of California History Project" Revisited One More Time

    One of the great things about pursuing historical topics is that the subjects are rarely exhausted. Just when I thought my California Flag Project was complete, I rediscovered one more historic banner, begging to be reproduced and blogged about. There are enough books written on the Gold Rush to fill a small library but near the top of the list of "must reads", is the celebrated Shirley Letters written by Louise Clappe.

The Shirley Letters
1949 Edition

     "The Shirley Letters" were first published in a San Francisco periodical called The Pioneer, starting in January of 1854. They continued as a series of 23 letters written by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe to her sister, under the pen name Dame Shirley. Louise Clappe had followed her husband Dr. Fayette Clappe to California in 1849 in pursuit of his heath and their fortune. By 1851 the Clappes found themselves in the remote mining camp of Rich Bar on the American River at the height of the "Rush". Dame Shirley's accounts of life in a mining camp, rank as one of the most incomparable documents of that rustic and wild society. Thanks to Shirley's keen powers of observation, it's also an invaluable primary resource for reconstructing mining camp culture.

An Undated Lithograph of Rich Bar
on the Feather River

     In "Letter Eighteenth", from her log cabin on Indian Bar, July 5, 1852, she writes:
"Dear M:- Our Fourth of July celebration, which came off at Rich Bar, was quite a respectable affair. I had the honor of making a flag for the occasion. The stripes were formed of cotton cloth and red calico, of which last gorgeous material, no possible place in California is ever destitute. A piece of drilling, taken from the roof of the Humbolt, which the rain and sun had faded from its original, somber hue, to just that particular shade of blue, whcih you and I admire so much - served for a Union. A large star in the center, covered with gold leaf, represented California. Humble as were the materials of which it was composed, this banner made quite a gay appearance floating from the top of a lofty pine, in front of the Empire, to which it was suspended."

The Canton Finished

      So now I had my challenge. What did Dame Shirley's 4th of July flag possibly look like?  In previous letters, she remarks about the overuse of red calico for finishing the interior walls of the temporal, ramshackle canvas and stick shanties that passed for boarding houses, saloons and restaurants. For my flag's red stripes, I decided to use classic mid-19th century cotton prints (from my wife's stash) and plain muslin for the white. To reproduce the canton, I dyed a piece of canvas light blue, simulating the faded scrap Shirley had secured from the roof of the canvas covered building named the "Humbolt".

My Version of Dame Shirley's Flag
Finished Dimensions 60" x 48"

    What set this project apart from my previous flag replications, was the lack of visual clues. In order to manage the conjectural elements, I relied on my basic knowledge of flag history. When considering the time constraint of making a flag for the occasion, I feel that Dame Shirley may have just painted the stars on the canvas, rather than sewed them on. Even though she doesn't mention the full field of 31 stars (official after July 4, 1851), a lone, gilded star would have been a little odd. For my rendition, I chose to run the painted stars in circles, surrounding the dominant "large" star in the center. This arrangement was very popular in antebellum America. Her mention of "gold leaf" came as no surprise as it's a documented fact that even in remote camps, the saddest excuse for a building, might still sport a beautiful sign, supplied by a journeyman signpainter. She no doubt secured some "leaf" from a local craftsman to decorate that dominant, proud star. I used pigmented shellac for the white stars and 23 karat gold leaf for the center star. When assembling the elements by hand, I used a running stitch and decided not to turn any of the seams. All in all, I think it turned out swell and can now takes its place in the collection as an honest reconstruction,  celebrating the lost folk traditon of homemade flags.

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