US flag expert collects history, told in stars and stripes



PITTSBURGH (AP) — Into battle and outer space, outside homes and on covered wagons, the American flag goes wherever Americans go. Their stories are told in the flag’s stripes and changing field of stars.

Peter Keim has made it his business to know those stories — he collects the flags that Tuesday’s holiday, Flag Day, celebrates. Dr. Keim has an example of every version of the flag starting with 13 stars and continuing to the current 50 — with more than 660 stars to spare.

Although unmistakably stars and stripes, many of Dr. Keim’s flags were never official. With varying colors and numbers of stripes and stars, they might have been stitched together by people who didn’t have the fabric to make an official flag, or even the knowledge of what the flag was supposed to look like.

The U.S. never officially had a 14-star flag — it went from 13 stars to 15 in an act of Congress — or 16-, 17-, 18- or 19-star flags. In 1818, Congress passed a law stating that a star would be added to the flag on the Fourth of July following a new state’s admittance. In some subsequent years, multiple states were added, which means that flags with 39, 40, 41, 42 and 47 stars also got skipped.

But those flags exist — Dr. Keim has all of them.

“A state was admitted to the Union, and people were proud of it and they put a star on (the flag), and they weren’t going to wait until the Fourth of July to do it,” Dr. Keim said.

Dr. Keim, a physician who also served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, lives in Austin, Texas, but spends time with family in Pittsburgh. He has an extensive collection of books about the flag dating to the early 19th century. He co-authored a book, “A Grand Old Flag,” with his son, Kevin. He also gives talks and lends out his flags for exhibits.

He recalled watching people on the street react to an exhibit of his flags in the window of the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York City. One woman began to cry.

I remember thinking to myself, you know, it’s amazing how passionate people are about our flag,” Dr. Keim said. “And yet, very few of them know the history of it at all.”

For example, he said, few know that Betsy Ross did not design the first flag, or that before the 48-star flag was adopted in 1912, there was no official rule for how the stars were to be laid out. Dr. Keim has flags with stars arranged in the shapes of ellipses, larger stars, and even words.

He has found that the oldest information about a flag is often the most reliable.

“One of the challenges with books and recording a history is so often, if you’re looking at something that’s very old and you’re trying to research it in materials that are new, people have just extracted from the most recent book information, and (those books) did the same thing,” Dr. Keim said. “The authenticity and massaging of the information gets a little out of hand, and you end up reading something that wasn’t really written way back when.”

Even with Dr. Keim’s resources, it is often impossible to trace a flag’s particular history. But sometimes there are clues: a message, written on the hoist strip by a Union drummer, saying he carried the flag at the Battle of Bull Run. In the case of one 38-star flag, it was a name: Kirk Vonnegut. Dr. Keim was eventually able to get in touch with author Kurt Vonnegut and learned that his grandfather had owned the flag.

Other flags in his collection are more recent, such as a flag that was on board the space shuttle Atlantis when it last serviced the Hubble Telescope.

For Dr. Keim, learning about the flag’s history has made him more understanding of those who don’t share his beliefs about the flag, such as those who burn it in protest. However, it hasn’t changed the way he feels about it.

“I don’t think it’s changed the way I relate to it,” Dr. Keim said. “It’s helped me understand how I relate to it.”