|By Celeste Baumgartner
HAMILTON, Ohio — When John Nieman was in the U.S. Air Force, he heard a talk about the meaning of the American flag. That stayed with him and, some time after he left the service, he began collecting American flags.
The owner of John T. Nieman Nursery has a cut-your-own Christmas tree operation. Those customers see his collection of antique flags when they gather inside for hot chocolate and cookies in the fall, and a couple have even contributed to the collection.
“Some of the flags go back pretty far,” Nieman said. “I have a replica of the 1776 flag, it’s a Centennial Flag from 1876. I was trying to find every one that had a change of stars – the number of stars and the number of states.”
Other flags have special meaning, such as a flag of 31 stars believed to have been carried on a March to Washington by Gilbert Bates, who was also the flag bearer for Buffalo Bill Cody, Nieman said.
There is a coffin flag, laid over the casket of a returning serviceman, and another that flew over a battlefield in Afghanistan at Camp Leatherneck. Christmas tree customers gave him those. Some of the flags are framed, while others hang bare on the wall.
“There were cheaper printed flags for parades, because they might be destroyed after the parade, and the better-quality, sewn flags, which might have flown over a ship. It depended on what they were made for,” Nieman said.
He pointed out a reference in the book American Flags: Designs for a Young Nation by Nancy Druckman, that the Continental Congress recognized the need for an American flag and passed the First Flag Act on June 14, 1777.
The act described the new flag thus: “Resolved that a flag for the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes alternated red and white with a union of thirteen white stars in a blue field to represent a new constellation.”
“Until 1912 the design of the American flag was in the hands of the American people – women, pioneers, patriots – for the people, by the people. What ensued was a rich and varied visual history, where the designs of the flag reflected the circumstances and events of each of the people who created them,” Druckman wrote.
“Sometimes there were two or three different patterns in the same year, a different pattern of stars,” Nieman added. “In 1912 President Howard Taft signed an executive order with rules for formal standardization of the flag.”
The flags hanging on Nieman’s walls demonstrate the variations in design, even for those with the same number of stars.
When Taft signed the executive order, it applied to the 48-star flag – the most recent addition then was New Mexico that year, Druckman wrote. The 48-star flag remained the official configuration for another 47 years; it was replaced by the current 50-star flag when in August 1959 Hawaii became a state and on July 4, 1960, when Alaska attained statehood.