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Museum of Idaho seeks to preserve 200-year-old flag and the story behind it

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Adam Forsgren, EastIdahoNews.com

IDAHO FALLS — A 200-year-old American flag on display at the Museum of Idaho recently underwent a round of preservation work to conserve its physical form. These conservation efforts are also aimed at preserving the important legacy associated with this specific flag.

Known as the Lawyer Flag, the artifact came to the museum through the Lawyer family in the early 1990s. It dates back to at least the War of 1812. The flag is made of home-spun, hand-dyed linen and cotton, fragile materials that weren’t necessarily designed for long life.

“It’s a very old flag,” Museum of Idaho curator Carrie Athay told EastIdahoNews.com. “That’s part of the need for conservation. It’s so old and it’s very fragile.”

The flag is fairly unique in its design. It’s much longer than it is wide and its thirteen stars are of different sizes, with five of its stars being much larger than the rest. Speculation seeking to explain the Lawyer Flag’s design has left an unclear picture regarding why the flag was designed this way.

“One speculation is that (the larger stars) represented the five trading companies that were in the country early in our country’s history,” Athay said. “(The flag) was examined at one point by the U.S. Department of the Army and we have documentation from that examination that says that they don’t really know what the configuration meant but it was probably made for a personal purpose.”

“We do think it was probably a Naval flag because it’s long and skinny, which was typical of naval flags,” she added.

Adam Forsgren, EastIdahoNews.com

What we know about the Lawyer Flag’s history is as fascinating as the mystery behind its design. The flag was part of the Lawyer family for quite sometime before 14-year-old Joseph Lawyer took it with him when he left for the Civil War. The flag accompanied young Lawyer as he took part in Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Analysis of the flag by the Smithsonian Institute in the 1970s revealed that it contains blood spatter, rendering its connection to America’s military history even more tangible. The flag’s connection to history may make it valuable to history lovers but it’s clear that the Lawyer always saw it as immensely important.

“When you think about things that have meaning to us and what we take from place to place, what do we hang onto, this (flag) is something that had meaning to the Lawyer family, something they held onto,” said Athay.

The story and meaning attached to the Lawyer Flag made it a part of the American legacy and something worth preserving. With that in mind, Athay used her conservational training to strengthen the flag and ensure it can be around for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

“I got to get up close and personal with it,” she said. “We took the flag out of its old frame and I removed the backing that used to be on it. I needed to create a new, conservationally-sound backing and then I needed to stabilize some of the areas that have begun to degrade significantly.”

The flag also received a new display case that frames it under conservation acrylic that provides protection from ultraviolet light that would cause further damage. All this was done to keep the flag around to tell its story and help give museum visitors a sense of connection to our nation’s history.

“We live in this time where there’s a sense of unease and there a lot of opinions and ideas floating around in our community,” Athay said. “It’s nice when we can focus on something that gives us a sense of connection and pride and a connection to something that’s bigger than ourselves. That’s why I’ve appreciated working on this flag and appreciated having it be part of our collection. It does give a sense of unity and togetherness.”

The Lawyer Flag will be a part of the Museum of Idaho’s “Way Out West” exhibit and can be seen when that exhibit opens later this winter. Visit the museum’s website for more information.

Adam Forsgren, EastIdahoNews.com
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