Washington statehood and the US flag – We’re Number 42!

Nov 12, 2023, 11:00 AM

These KIRO Newsradio folks don't run, especially when David Burbank and Colleen O'Brien are countin...

These KIRO Newsradio folks don't run, especially when David Burbank and Colleen O'Brien are counting all 43 stars on a replica of the 1890 American flag that first reflected Washington having become a state on November 11, 1889. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

You’ve probably always wondered, when Washington became a state 134 years ago this week – on November 11, 1889 – what effect did that “new star” have on the look and layout of the American flag?

Old Glory these days has 50 stars, with one each for each of the states, of course.

Throughout most of 1889, that number of states and stars wasn’t at 50 yet, and Washington was still just a United States territory. Any American flag that did fly around these parts probably had 38 stars, as there had been 38 states since Colorado joined the Union in 1876.

Then, in early November 1889, there was a flurry of new states admitted to the Union by President Benjamin Harrison as he made good on a plank in the Republican Party platform from the presidential election of 1888.

First came North Dakota – BOOM! – and South Dakota – BOOM! – on the same day, November 2, 1889.

Genuine vexillologist (or flag expert) James Ferrigan of Reno, Nevada, takes the story from there.

“We go, literally, in a period of four days, go 39, 40” – that’s North Dakota and South Dakota – and then 41, Montana, and then, boom, 42,” Ferrigan, a longtime member of the North American Vexillological Association told KIRO Newsradio.

“We got November 2, November 8, November 11 – boom, boom, boom! – we go from 39, 40, 41, to 42,” Ferrigan continued. “And that’s Washington.”

Even though Washington became the 42nd state on Monday, November 11, 1889, those 38-star flags dating to 1876 and 1877 were still the official flag of the USA and would remain so for another seven months.

Why? Because of federal legislation known as the Flag Act of 1818, the 38-star flag remained the official flag until the following July 4, the date specified for any changes to the number of states and stars in the preceding 12 months.

Still, James Ferrigan says, that likely didn’t stop people from adding stars themselves to existing 38-star flags to make more accurate, if not exactly official, 42-star flags. Pretty much everyone knew how to sew, and adding a star or two (or four) to a 38-star flag was an economical way to stay current.

However, don’t put away your sewing kit just yet.

As if all the craziness of November 1889’s four new states wasn’t enough, next-door neighbor Idaho became state number 43 on July 3, 1890. It was in the nick of time to force the new official flag the next day – July 4, 1890 – to notch up from 42 to 43 stars.

Oddly enough, there wasn’t any huge public debate about how that prime number of 43 stars would be depicted on the flag. Back then, the number of stars was dictated by federal law, but the design and layout of that constellation was up to each flagmaker. This didn’t change until 1912, when President Taft signed an Executive Order enforcing a specific layout.

But wait, back in July 1890, the Harrison-induced vexillological craziness still wasn’t quite over yet.

Just one week after Idaho became state number 43 and six days after the 43-star flag became official across the United States, wacky Wyoming became state number 44. But, as Flag Act of 1818 devotees already know, the 44-star flag didn’t become official until the next July 4th, in 1891.

James Ferrigan said that back east, where the big flag manufacturers were located, these rapid changes in the number of states might have created problems for factories trying to produce new flags.

However, he said it was a little different out here in the West. It was a little more DIY than the rest of the United States.

“Almost always, their stuff was homemade,” Ferrigan said. “They were so far away. Same with Nevada, where I am. There was not a lot of, how shall we say, official flags out here,” Ferrigan said. “They had to rely on the ingenuity of local seamstresses, or they were, as I like to say, they were ‘vernacularly made’ rather than professionally.”

One of the best examples of such vernacular craftsmanship is the 13-star “Petticoat Flag,” a nationally known artifact in the collection of Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI). And, for the record, the state flag of Washington wasn’t adopted until 1923.

No matter how many stars may appear on the American flag that you choose to fly, the important number to remember for this year’s 134th anniversary of Washington statehood is 16 because it’s just 16 years until 2039 and the Washington Sesquicentennial.

Mark your calendars now for what’s sure to be a big statewide celebration of 150 years. We’re sure to have all the details right here on KIRO Newsradio and MyNorthwest.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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