By: John Dorfman
“If you’re a modern art collector, you can squint your eyes and say, ‘Jasper Johns,’” says John Monsky. He’s referring to the array of antique American flags that festoon the walls of his Manhattan apartment. And it’s true: Flags make a strong graphic statement and have great Pop art appeal. But Monsky, who is general counsel at an investment firm and an avid history buff, is most excited by the stories woven into these pieces of cloth. He collects what are known in the trade as “political textiles”—not only flags but banners, kerchiefs and quilts that were used, mainly during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, to communicate political messages and promote campaigns for public office.
In their heyday textiles were omnipresent on the American political scene. Part of the reason is practical: Unlike paper, cloth can be crumpled up and then spread out again without damaging or obscuring the text or pictures, and once a cheap, reliable method was developed in the mid-18th century for printing from plates or blocks on cloth, it was only natural to use textiles to get the word out. For example, George Washington’s farewell address was printed, in full, on silk in 1796, topped with a portrait copied from a Gilbert Stuart painting. In the republic’s early days the equivalent of Shepard Fairey’s indelible (and controversial) Hope image for the Obama campaign would have been printed on thousands and thousands of handkerchiefs.
Especially in the 19th century, the American public had a bigger appetite for massive political pageantry than today, and textiles played a major part. One favorite activity was the “pole-raising.” During Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 campaign, Republicans in Henry County, Iowa, constructed and hoisted up a 100-foot-tall, tapering pole flying an American flag 15 by 8 feet in size, inscribed with the names of Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin. Before the planned rally local Democrats chopped down the pole, which the Republicans countered by raising another one 20 feet taller. That one stayed up.
Monsky is particularly proud of a flag in his collection that is very much like the one that must have flown over Henry County 149 years ago. On his example, Lincoln’s name is given as “Abram,” which, the collector explains, shows that it was made very early in the campaign, probably for the nominating convention. At that point Lincoln was such a dark horse that half the journals of his own party spelled his name wrong.
A very different sort of political vision went into the making of another flag in Monsky’s collection. He calls it the Gangs of New York flag, because a facsimile of it was featured in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film of that name. It was made to rally anti-immigrant nativists during the 1850s, and the text reads, “Native Americans, beware of foreign influence.” The “N”s are written backwards, “to indicate ignorance of proper English,” Monsky says.
Another textile that tells a story is a cotton bandanna printed in 1825 for John Quincy Adams’ inauguration. The understated, repeating floral pattern is interwoven with medallions that contain the words “His Excellency” alternating with the name of the new president. That is interesting, says Monsky, in light of the fact that Adams’ father, John Adams, had advocated that the office of the presidency be endowed with aristocratic-sounding titles. “Here is John Quincy, trying to be royal again,” notes Monsky. The piece, which is the only known surviving example, is also interesting from a textile manufacturing point of view. The white-on-blue pattern was made using an “antidye” technique, whereby the pattern was first applied using a chemical that repels dye, and the whole cloth was then immersed in blue. The blue dye used in those days had a tendency to fade, which makes the excellent condition of this bandanna all the more remarkable.
The year 1840 marked the beginning of modern-style campaigns complete with mudslinging and spin, and Monsky has the textile to prove it. Running against the incumbent, Martin Van Buren, the 68-year-old war hero William Henry Harrison was mockingly portrayed by a Baltimore newspaper as a doddering oldster who would rather wait out his days in a log cabin drinking cider from a barrel than lead the country. The Harrison campaign cleverly adopted the image and turned it around. A silk kerchief shows Harrison in his putative cabin as a jovial man of the people, inviting the public in for a cheering glass of the hard stuff (see illustration on page 24).
The jewel in the crown of Monsky’s collection is a circa 1776–77 linen kerchief that is generally accepted to be the first political textile of the United States. In two shades of red on a white background, it depicts George Washington on horseback, surrounded by flags, cannon and pieces of ammunition, with an inscription that refers to the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army somewhat idiosyncratically as “foundator and protector of America’s liberty and independency.” This textile, printed by John Hewson of Philadelphia and most likely commissioned by Martha Washington herself, marks the first time that Washington was conceived of as the founder of a new country. Monsky calls it “a picture of America’s birth.” There are only four examples of this kerchief remaining, and three have a brown stain in the same spot, indicating that at one time they were stacked together. “It’s one of the few times when a stain is good,” Monsky says.
Generally speaking, flags are the most coveted of political textiles. The campaign flag flourished as an art form until 1905, when Congress made it illegal to superimpose images or verbiage on Old Glory. And in 1912 President Taft approved legislation that standardized flag design. Thus ended a long tradition of folk-art creativity, and thus was born a collectible category.
Only in the past decade or so has there been a “significant increase in value” for flags, says specialist dealer Jeff Bridgman, who is based in Mansfield, Pa. However, Wes Cowan of Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, which holds sales featuring textiles twice yearly, points out that now is a good time to buy, because several major collectors dropped out of the field in recent years. The highest-end material can sell privately for over $100,000, though the auction record is $83,600 for a Lincoln portrait flag at Heritage in Dallas in 2007. Other than the exceptional, flags sell in the four to low-five figures, and kerchiefs can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars, depending on subject matter. Christie’s and Sotheby’s sell flags and other political textiles in their Americana sales, but the best buys are to be had at regional auctions.
Fakes are definitely an issue, Bridgman cautions. “The best defense is knowing exactly what the printing on a flag is supposed to look like,” he explains. “You can get the ink tested, but that’s no guarantee, because someone could use old stencils and old ink.” In short, you have to have seen a lot of textiles and know their iconography and peculiarities of language, in order to spot “wrong” pieces.
It’s this sort of immersion in history that fires up the collectors, as well as the thrill of the hunt. “It’s a little bit of time travel,” says Monsky. “A lot of collectors are closet historians, or would have been historians except that they went off into business.” By owning these objects they combine aesthetic satisfaction with historical fascination, while doing their part to preserve our country’s heritage of political discourse, rhetoric and symbolism.