By Mike Peed
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Flag Day: a curious little holiday that we might remember because it comes pre-printed on our calendars but that we will likely forget because it fails to earn us a day off. It arrives tomorrow -- June 14, as always -- and though it began in 1949 to commemorate the day Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as our national emblem, it is often, even to those who care about flags, an anticlimactic event.
According to Dick Libby, a retired Episcopal priest living in Annapolis and a flag fanatic if ever there was one: "Not a whole lot happens. You know, we just make sure we fly things."
For Libby, however, this year's Flag Day will mark the culmination of eight years of research into one of the very first Old Glories, a historic flag that flew over the Maryland State House in the winter of 1783, when Annapolis was the capital of the fledgling United States. When a replica of this flag is hoisted tomorrow at the State House, it will fix a reproduction error that hung for years. The new flag will be more faithful to its 1783 roots, its stars and stripes put right by Libby. His work, part luck and part pluck, will be remembered as one of the more compelling flag coups recently pulled off by an amateur researcher.
Congress moved into the recently completed State House in 1783, as the Revolutionary War was winding down, and Maryland's governor commissioned a new flag to greet his distinguished guests. John Shaw, a local cabinetmaker-factotum, took the assignment, which came with the vaguest of instructions from Congress: "Thirteen stripes alternate red and white . . . thirteen stars white on a field of blue."
The rest was left to his whim. The Shaw flag flew over the capitol when George Washington resigned as commander in chief of the Continental Army, and Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris. The British finally withdrew from New York, Congress moved on to Trenton after its nine months in Annapolis, and the flag was lowered, and lost to history.
"And here we are today with absolutely no flag to refer to," Libby explained last week, sitting in his living room, a binder thick with archival research on his lap. "There is not one single shred of fabric."
He had never heard of the Shaw flag when he and his wife, Kathryn, retired to Annapolis in 1999, but he had been afflicted for years with what he calls the "flag bug."
Libby owns more than 80 replica flags, including about 50 from the Colonial era. For decades, he has been a member of the North American Vexillological Association -- in his words, "the national group of flag nuts." When he and Kathryn lived in Rhode Island, Libby become so well-known for flying rare flags on his waterfront pole that neighbors took to inquiring, "Dick, what are we going to be flying today?"
"Basically, I'm always thinking about flags," Libby said. "I'm always dreaming about having more, always planning where I can fly the next one. I like colors, and I like symbols. Flags are very colorful, and they're moving symbols."
It was natural for such an ardent vexillologist to take note of the Shaw replica, commissioned for the 1983 bicentennial of the state's time as the nation's capital. It had been painstakingly re-created by state archivists, working from an entry in the "Day Book for the Intendent of Revenue" for the purchase of varying lengths of red, white and blue bunting. With the help of the late Grace Rogers Cooper, then a former curator of textiles at the Smithsonian and the author of a book on Colonial flags, they constructed a flag 23 feet long and nearly 10 feet wide, with 13 red and white stripes and 13 eight-pointed stars arrayed on a blue field. Scholars positioned that field (or canton, as it known in the argot) in the top-left corner.
And it was natural for Libby to become intrigued when one day he discovered, by happenstance, what appeared to be a mistake.
He was wandering through the 1774 Hammond-Harwood House, where his wife volunteers as a docent, when he saw "a little gem of a painting." A 1794 watercolor by a man named Cotton Milbourne, it depicts a view of the State House. About midway up the State House's dome, atop a pole supported by an odd platform that extends 90 degrees from the building, seemed to be some kind of early American flag.
"It's really quite lucky that I noticed it," Libby said.
He learned that Milbourne worked in Annapolis in the late 1700s. Connecting the dots, Libby surmised that the flag in the painting had to be the John Shaw flag -- with a major difference from its replica: The blue canton ran vertically, down the whole left side of the flag, and not, as the 1983 version had it, across the left corner.
Last year, at an art opening, Libby met Elaine Bachmann, the state archives' director of artistic property.
"We started chatting," Libby explained, "and Elaine said that her office was planning on re-hanging the John Shaw flag," which had been taken down for State House refurbishing. "Well, my head spun around about four times. I said, 'No, no, you don't want to do that. What you want to do is re-hang the right John Shaw flag.' And then, of course, her head spun around about four times.
"Once we discussed the Milbourne painting, bingo, we were off and running."
Libby began to scour the archives. He learned Milbourne had depicted his buildings accurately, from the seven still in existence. Why wouldn't the flag be accurate, too?
"If the artist were simply taking it upon himself to add a flag," Libby reasoned, "then most likely he'd have placed that flag on top of the State House dome. But he didn't. The flagpole sticks out from the middle of the dome."
Soon, Libby was climbing up that capitol dome, searching for remnants of history. As it turns out, scholars at the state archives were actually aware of the Milbourne painting back in 1983, when they performed the original research on the Shaw flag. Edward Papenfuse, Maryland's chief archivist, learned of it between the time he placed the order for the replica flag and when he received it from the manufacturer.
In a letter dated April 13, 1984, former Smithsonian scholar Grace Rogers Cooper wrote, "I did consider placing the field vertically, as the long dimension was exactly that of the thirteen stripes." She went on: "Did we not know about this painting before the project started a year ago? It might have made a difference."
"Can you believe that?" Libby says, eyebrows raised. "She was within an inch of figuring this out. All we had to do was take the canton and flip it 90 degrees. It drops right into place. Then, you just scoot some stripes over to fill in the space."
And that is precisely what the new replica of the Shaw flag looks like. Papenfuse gives all due to Libby: "This often happens in history. We have the tendency to think that history remains immovable and immutable. The truth of the matter is the more you learn and comprehend, the more you make new discoveries."
At tomorrow's unveiling, which is free and begins at 2 p.m., Libby will deliver the invocation. And he will recount the colorful back story.
And yet one day last week, after having spent the day discussing the Shaw flag, he seemed to have moved on to his next project.
"A block over, there's a flag in front of a house," he began. "It's just a little white flag with a red X on it. Now, I can tell you, that person's either from Alabama -- because that's what that flag looks like -- or he's got some reason to care about the cross of Saint George. I'm going to have to find out."