The Solon Perkins Flag, recently conserved at Museum Textile Services, underwent a long and arduous journey to arrive at our studios. By tracing this path we learn about the history of the flag, the man, the city of Lowell, Massachusetts.
This flag is one of two Cavalry Guidons referred to in a letter written by Major General Benjamin F. Butler of the 8th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia. The soldier's mother, Mrs. Wealthy Perkins, was given the flag by the estate of General Butler. (Butler, who outlived Perkins by 30 years, went on be a congressman, Governor of Massachusetts, and presidential candidate in 1884. He is also the namesake of the B. F. Butler Post 42 of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was established in Lowell in 1868.) A letter from Butler to Wealthy Perkins was published in the Lowell Daily Sun on December 15, 1894, in an article stating that the flag and Butler’s letter were, “to be put in Memorial Hall.”
From a 1919 Lowell Sun article we learn that the Perkins flag was at that time displayed on the wall above Middlesex Bank President F. P. Gilly. After several more years at the bank, it returned to the Knapp home. According to Charles Knapp’s wife Mary Sawyer Knapp, it was they who, “carefully preserved [the flag] by mounting under glass in a beautifully hand-carved frame.” In 1929, Mrs. Knapp invited Trustees of the Lowell Memorial to view the flag with the aim of donating it to the new Lowell Memorial Auditorium, constructed 7 years prior. The flag was installed at the Auditorium on November 12, 1929.
It is not known how long the Solon Perkins Flag was displayed in the Hall of Flags at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium but its condition at the time it was rediscovered holds some clues. It hung across from a set of large doors which let in light and dirt from the busy street. There is also a return vent nearly the width of the frame located directly below where the flag was hanging before its removal. Although the tattered condition of the flag may not have changed much since its early 20th-century framing, the combination of dirt and its ragged appearance likely moved trustees to retire it from display.
Discovery of the Perkins flag must be credited to Steve Purtell and Gus Kanakis, who saw it in the basement propped against a wall behind a piano. They brought it to the attention of the Greater Lowell Veterans Council, who began the search for conservators for both the frame and the flag.