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Circa 1865 Grand Luminary Flag Conserved and Celebrated

By Rikki N. Massand l July 16, 2021

The cherished community resource, reading and reflection space, Mary Jacobs Memorial Library, is the new home of the circa 1865 Grand Luminary flag, which was dedicated in a ceremony on Saturday, June 12. Rocky Hill Borough officials followed an extensive two-year effort involving professionals and local volunteers.

A flag ceremony at the Somerset County Library branch in Rocky Hill.

A key first step for Rocky Hill came in 2019, as its grants committee secured a conservation grant from the Somerset County Cultural and Heritage Commission. This special 36-star US flag was found folded up in a crate in the attic of the Freeman family home in Brick. The Freemans, whose ancestors lived in Rocky Hill in the 1800s, contacted Rocky Hill resident Anne Woolley, who is former president of the Van Harlingen Historical Society.

During the ceremony, Borough Councilwoman Connie Hallman thanked Woolley and the Van Harlingen Historical Society for trekking to Brick to get this flag nine years ago, and for “recognizing that this precious flag would be a welcome addition to Rocky Hill.” “A flag of this size and stature is a big responsibility for a small town,” Hallman said. “We are grateful that, for the time being, the flag safely resides in our beloved library. Hallman introduced “an instrumental partner” in the municipal effort, Borough resident and Princeton University art historian Pamela Patton.

The antique Grand Luminary American Flag is now on display at the Somerset County Library branch in Rocky Hill.

The rare flag is as old as Rocky Hill Borough, Patton said. The borough was settled in 1701 and incorporated as a municipality in 1890. The flag is a wool and cotton textile that’s more than 155 years old, and it is extremely fragile. It is susceptible to insect damage, to acidic materials, UV radiation and to changes in temperature and humidity. Some of those conditions threatened it in its original state, in particular the light it was exposed to (in Council’s meeting room) and the changes in temperature in the borough hall.

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“It became important to clean this flag, stabilize it, and then have it framed and displayed in a way that would preserve it for future generations,” Patton said. With the Grand Luminary Flag now in the Mary Jacobs Library, the constant temperature and humidity level will keep it safer, and placement in the upstairs meeting room limits its exposure to light, helping reduce its chance of color changes. Patton explained the process of engaging professional assistance from textile conservator Jakki Godfrey of Boro 6 Art Conservation in Jersey City, and a teacher of fine art conservation at New York University.

Many dignitaries attended the ceremony, including US Congressman Tom Malinowski, who said the flag “tells the story of the growth of America and how all the stars and stripes come together to make a unified country.” “When we take the Pledge of Allegiance it isn’t an empty ritual. We are saying we Pledge Allegiance to the Republic for which it stands, which is supposed to be INDIVISIBLE with Liberty and Justice for all. When we take the Pledge, we should remember just how fragile these principles are, and that they need to be constantly fought for and preserved.”

US Congressman Tom Malinowski with Rocky Hill residents Alden, 10, and Claire Battaglia, 8.

Malinowski gave a history lesson harking back the 1860s in New Jersey, when President Abraham Lincoln traveled through New Jersey and stopped at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on his way to Washington, D.C. to be inaugurated. There, they unveiled for the first time the U.S. flag with 34 stars as Kansas was added to the Union.

Lincoln gave a speech and it became clear to that audience that at the moment, the risk remained that we could be subtracting stars from the flag, as Southern states threatened to leave the Union. Lincoln gave a defiant, optimistic speech about how confident he was that we’d only continue to add stars to the flag. He said, eventually there would be 500 million happy Americans. “We know what it took in just the last few years, fighting for and preserving those principles.

“If the flag stands for something—your efforts here to preserve this flag, restoring and preserving it, should stand for the work we have done since Lincoln’s era and especially in the last few years. We will be reminded of this every time we visit the library.”


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