A Banner Season for Stars and Stripes
 
João-Pierre S. Ruth

When flagmaker Annin Flagmakers was founded in 1847, President James K. Polk was in the White House and the U.S. was at war with Mexico. Since then, an Annin-made Old Glory has flown at the inauguration of every U.S. President and has been planted on the moon by the Apollo astronauts. But there has rarely been a demand for Annin flags to match today's, which has created a 10-month backlog of orders at the Roseland-based company and has caused at least one of its five plants to operate nearly 24 hours a day.

"People are angry and want to manifest their feelings in a positive way," says David White, executive director of the National Flag Foundation, of the wave of patriotism that has swept the U.S. since the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. "We haven't seen an outpouring like this since the attack on Pearl Harbor."

In normal times, "We make 30,000 flags per week," says Annin vice president Randy Beard. "Now we are producing 100,000 units."

But neither Annin, the world's largest flag maker, nor rivals like Pennsylvania's Valley Forge Flag can come close to meeting the overwhelming demand. Retailers are selling out overnight and begging flag makers to rush new orders. According to the National Flag Foundation in Pittsburgh, 50 million American flags are normally sold each year. The current demand is expected to double sales to 100 million flags this year.

Meeting the demand has put new pressures on Annin. The stress of filling orders from retailers and receiving constant public attention has been wearing down the patience of the privately held company. Annin closed its Verona plant to visitors last week to keep intrusions from slowing production.

At the same time, Annin extended the shifts at all of its plants and rehired laid off sewing-machine operators to boost its labor force to 675 workers. Sewing American flags "is a skilled position," says David Dreher, manager at the Annin plant in Oaks, Pennsylvania. "We can't just hire people off the streets."

The flood of orders has forced Annin and other flag makers to halt production of all but American flags. "If you want to try to get an NFL team banner made, forget it," says White. Workers at the Oaks plant toil weekdays from 6 a.m. to to 3:30 p.m. and then start piling up overtime. (The regular Saturday shift is 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) A constant hum and vibration from the sewing machines drones through the plant as 125 employees labor to put out more flags. Production has increased 66% at the plant as workers have stayed on to keep the sewing machines going.

The plant is a sea of red and white as bolts of material are unloaded from company trucks and run through a slitting machine to create stripes for the flags. These are stitched together by automatic sewing machines, inspected and cut into two different lengths. Short sets of red and white are then sewn to star-bearing fields of blue and joined to the longer sets. The process creates a vast quilt made up of scores of flags that are then cut apart. Finally, the ends of each flag are stitched and brass grommets are inserted so the flags can be raised.

The feverish activity contrasts with the relatively slow pace of U.S. flag production in recent years. According to White of the National Flag Foundation, U.S. flag sales grew from about $60 million to $100 million over the past decade. The suggested retail price for a 3 ft. by 5 ft. Annin flag with sewn stripes and embroidered stars: $35 a pop.

White believes the current boom will strengthen domestic flag makers in their competition with imported American flags, which account for about 10% of the U.S. market. "Many flags sold on the street are imported from China, Korea, Taiwan Singapore and Japan," says White. Miniature novelty flags are particularly apt to be imported.

Annin is one of five major flag manufacturers in the country. All are private, family-owned companies. Annin's current owners, the Dennis and Beard families, are descended from brothers Benjamin and Edward Annin, who started the company 154 years ago in New York City. It relocated to Roseland in 1916. Other key players in the industry include Valley Forge; CF Flag of Huntsville, Alabama, and America's Flag Source in Wilmette, Illinois.

Annin flags are woven into American history. The company's products were carried on Commodore Robert E. Peary's 1909 pathbreaking expedition to the North Pole as well as on the Apollo moon missions. The 60-ft. by 90-ft. American flag that flies from the George Washington Bridge also came from an Annin factory. Annin provides all the flags flown at the United Nations Building in New York City.

In normal times, the demand for American flags is basically seasonal. The hot flag selling season normally lasts from May until the end of July. Patriotic holidays such as Veterans Day also drive up sales for flags. But the fall and winter months are typically slow seasons, which made the recent demand more of a surprise. "Manufacturers weren't ready for this at all," says White.

He expects flag sales to slacken in December as winter and the holiday season arrive. "I think this display of patriotism will be sustained, but we'll see a dip around the holidays," White says. That has been true in past years, at least. But if the events of September 11 really have changed America, as so many commentators assert, the strength of demand for Old Glory could continue to surprise.

 
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