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