NEW YORK – American Independence “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more,” according to John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. While the future U.S. president was right about the celebrations, he was wrong about the day.
As it happens, the vote for independence from Great Britain was unanimous on Tuesday, July 2nd. That’s the day that John Adams envisioned for his “pomp and parade.” When the Declaration of Independence was officially ratified on Thursday, July 4, that became the de facto day that we now celebrate with “bonfires … illuminations” and collectibles.
Declaration of Independence
Naturally there are gift shop copies of the full Declaration of Independence complete with signatures of all 56 signers. Yet, a full text of the Declaration is available in many 19th century printings. Some hand-printed editions published as early as 1824 may start at $15,000, but later highly decorated 19th century versions sell for $300 or so.
If you’re able to find the original historical yearbooks like the Annual Register series that began under the editorship of the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke in 1758, you’ll find a first early printing of the full Declaration of Independence along with notes and comments from Philadelphia.
Nothing says July Fourth like Old Glory, the flag of the United States. There are any number of flags and flag styles to collect from the very small to the rather large and any number of star patterns. When Independence was proclaimed in July 1776, though, a flag wasn’t even thought about until about a year later. Even then, the flag design that was approved was intended as a naval standard, not a national flag, which was a relatively new concept.
The entire resolution authorizing a flag is just 31 words: “Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Nothing about how the stars were to be arranged, how many points they should have or whether the stripes were to be horizontal or vertical.
Because the resolution was vague, manufacturers designed unusual patterns using stars with different number of points. Before the Centennial of 1876, a complete flag is relatively hard to find. Most were handmade for display at home while others were government or military standards. After 1876, the presence of the U.S. flag became more ubiquitous.
What makes a U.S. flag fun to collect is the star pattern. Since 1795 a star was added for each new state every July Fourth after the admittance of the state. This means that the flag has changed 28 times, the most of any national flag. There was no set star pattern until 1912, with the most unusual star patterns becoming the most collectible.
Most flags before World War II were made of wool bunting, but there are some of silk, cotton, muslin and even a combination of fabrics. Flags are handsewn, silkscreened, machine sewn (stripes after 1850s; stars after 1890), and even block printed.
Most small, late 19th century hand-held flags are easily available for $30 or less and can be removed from the stick for easier display. Flags need to fit in an acid free frame, so collectors prefer smaller flags. Very large flags, no matter how old are difficult to display, but are great as a school show-and-tell, and as a patriotic addition to a neighborhood or civic program. Banners, or “pull downs” as they are known, are also quite decorative and collectible in any condition, especially with unusual star patterns.
Another great symbol of the United States is Uncle Sam, the gentlemanly figure usually decked out in red, white and blue coattails and top hat. Although mentioned in a line of Yankee Doodle, the satirical song sung by the English to harass the Colonials during the Revolutionary War, popular tradition suggests it was a nickname given to Samuel Wilson, a meatpacker for the troops during the War of 1812 in northern New York state. His meat barrels bore the markings ‘U.S.’ and because of his patriotic dedication was nicknamed Uncle Sam.
Today, the Uncle Sam character is mostly associated with a red, white and blue cast-iron mechanical bank and an image created by artist Montgomery Flagg for his World War I recruiting poster “I Want You.” Uncle Sam can also be found in so many other variables such as an Andy Warhol painting, advertising tins, World War II morale posters and pamphlets, Red Cross benefits and even as an ad to help fight forest fires.
The American bald eagle has been the most recognizable symbol of the country since its adoption on June 20, 1782 as the Great Seal of the United States. In full display, the eagle holds 13 arrows in the right talon to dramatize the commitment to fighting for freedom and democracy while finding peaceful solutions first symbolized by the olive branch and its 13 branches and berries.
Folk artist John Bellamy carved patriotic eagles for ships and home decoration from about the 1850s to 1900 that are especially prized by collectors and is one of many artists utilizing the majestic bald eagle in patriotic works. The detail apparent in the fierce eyes and almost three- dimensional carving of the feathers and talons holding flags, arrows and ribbons attest to the majestic bird’s powerful image.
Fireworks, Postcards and Noisemakers
The use of fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July began at the first anniversary in 1777. One such celebration was described by the Evening Post in Philadelphia as having “ … a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with 13 rockets) on the Commons … ” China, then and now, is the preeminent fireworks manufacturer and their patriotic-themed fireworks labels are highly collectible because as paper labels, they weren’t expected to survive the event.
When graphic design took a decidedly industrial leap in the late 19th century in Germany, the ability to produce more colorful illustrations with raised letters and embossed images helped make the penny postcard an immediate sensation from about 1900 to 1920. The one major postcard artist of the era was American Ellen Clapsaddle, who produced many of the dazzling holiday and patriotic postcard illustrations that are highly collected today. Look for ones with her added signature below the illustration to make them even more valuable.
Family gatherings deserve noise on the Fourth of July, too. Cardboard noisemakers, fanciful pinwheels and loud horns weren’t expected to survive the holiday. Any early items that did survive are highly collectible and sought after, especially if they are in very good condition.
There are also many vintage patriotic-themed items such as posters, civic holiday programs, parade items, buttons, tin items, flag-themed fans, decorations and so much more that can be collected and displayed all year long.
With this many vintage collectibles to display and admire, it’s no wonder that even John Adams believed that patriotic fervor should be “ … from this time forever more.”