Samuel Wilder King stands tall, looking directly into the camera. The Hawaiian Delegate’s eyes twinkle with pride. His open hand gestures to one star on the U.S. flag behind him—the 49th star. This unofficial flag, made by Hawaiian women in 1935, showed the territory’s aspiration to become a state, including it as a star. In the 20th century, flags became symbols of Hawaii’s status in the offices of its Territorial Delegates.
Hawaii was an independent kingdom until the draw of sugar industry profits and rising political instability led the United States to annex it as an American territory. In 1898, the Hawaiian flag was lowered at Iolani Palace in Honolulu and the U.S. flag was raised in its place. Hawaii officially became a U.S. territory in 1900. In 1912, with the addition of New Mexico and Arizona as states, the U.S. flag had 48 stars, organized into six rows of eight stars. In the years afterward, as Hawaiians advocated for statehood, the idea of the 49-star flag took on aspirational significance. To Hawaii’s Delegates, a 49th star on the flag would mean that Hawaii had achieved statehood.
A 1926 photograph shows William P. Jarrett, Hawaiian Delegate from 1923 to 1927, in his office. In the image, Jarrett stands on a chair, gesturing at a large Hawaiian flag. Jarrett pointedly chose to display a flag from Hawaii’s own national history, rather than the 48-star U.S. flag, which had no star for the territory. It was the Hawaiian flag, with the same design as the flag removed from Iolani Palace in 1898. His office displays the bustle of congressional life: On the window sill, a stack of papers threatens to crash onto a clock, while a pencil sharpener perches above a full waste paper basket. A March 1926 calendar page from the Alexander & Baldwin company, proclaiming “sugar factors shipping commission merchants insurance pineapples Honolulu Seattle San Francisco” in all-caps, hangs askew on the wall. Although many objects are visible in the photograph, the flag overwhelmingly draws the viewer’s eye.
Nine years later, in 1935, Delegate King showed off an unofficial 49-star flag. At the time, King had been advocating for Hawaiian statehood, but to no avail. The flag was created by four young Hawaiian women of different ethnic backgrounds: Tamar Kahalelehua, Philomena Cabral, Rose Lam, and Constance Morrell. Newspapers chuckled over the idea of “island Betsy Rosses,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. The Washington Post wrote: “‘Tamar Kahalelehua’ doesn’t sound much like ‘Betsy Ross,’ we’ll admit, but [she] is performing much the same function that Betsy did long ago.” King used the flag as a visual prop accompanying his 1935 petition for statehood, showing how easily and neatly Hawaii’s star could fit into the nation’s symbol.
Describing the flag, the Baltimore Sun wrote: “The flag has forty-nine stars instead of forty-eight and they are arranged in seven lines of seven stars each instead of six lines of eight stars each. This, beyond doubt, will be the arrangement when Hawaii is admitted but there is as yet no official sanction for it.” Despite King’s political efforts and Kahalelehua’s handiwork, Hawaii remained a territory during the Delegate’s House service. A revenge killing known as the Massie affair and the Jones–Costigan Act, which classified Hawaii as a “foreign” market, wiped statehood off the table for the moment. (However, after sugar companies faced profit losses that only statehood could fix, the Jones–Costigan Act later drove support of statehood.) Hawaiian politicians continued to advocate for statehood into the 1950s. Delegate Joseph R. Farrington displayed his own unofficial, aspirational 49-star flag in his office, in the Old House Office Building. The Washington Post noted that visitors had been able to see the unofficial flag in his office from 1947 on.
World War II had changed the political landscape, because the attack on Pearl Harbor reverberated as an attack on the United States. Hawaiian statehood again moved forward in Congress. But to keep political balance in the Senate, statehood for Hawaii, which typically voted Republican, was linked to statehood for Alaska, which leaned Democratic. Democratic Senators, including Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, did not want to lose the party’s majority. King’s and Farrington’s flags ended up incorrectly predicting history—Hawaii did not become the 49th state. There was a 49-star flag, briefly, but the 49th star signified Alaska, not Hawaii. Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959, just months before Hawaii.
The dates of statehood threw flag makers into a quandary. After Alaska entered the Union, the industry created a swath of 49-star flags. According to the 1818 Act to Establish the Flag of the United States, a new state’s star must be added to the U.S. flag on the next July 4th. If both Alaska and Hawaii achieved statehood before July 4, the 49-star flags would be outdated before they were even sold. Flag makers fretted that their companies would be ruined if Hawaii achieved statehood too soon.
In the end, Hawaii was admitted as a state on August 21, 1959. The official 49-star flag appeared for only one year, from July 4, 1959, to July 4, 1960, when Hawaii’s star finally took its place on Old Glory.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1935; Baltimore Sun, February 9, 1936; Washington Post, March 28, 1953; Wall Street Journal, March 13, 1959; Atlanta Constitution, July 2, 1959; Act of April 4, 1818, ch. 34, 3 Stat. 415; and Ben Reed Zaricor, “Whose Flag Is It, Anyway?” The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord & Conflict, ed. Howard Michael Madaus and Whitney Smith (Santa Cruz, C.A.: VZ Publications, 2006).Follow @USHouseHistory