September 23, 2001, Sunday
By JULIAN E. BARNES
In a corner of the Annin Flagmakers flag factory here,
19 miles from where the World Trade Center once stood, Kishawn
Carter, 24, a New Jersey native, works beside Samy Yousef,
45, an immigrant from Egypt, talking about Osama bin Laden,
the Middle East and war.
While they talk, they use wooden blocks to tap yellow plastic
tips on the top of black 10-inch plastic poles, then drop
the completed staffs into a box. Thwack. Click. Thwack. Click.
Over and over, at the pace of 200 an hour, Mr. Carter assembles
one small part of one small flag. Two weeks ago, Mr. Carter
considered his job boring and monotonous. Now, snapping together
two pieces of plastic feels like an act of patriotism.
''The country needs flags,'' he said. ''The more I can put
out, the better. It makes me feel good to be in a line of
work where I can help out, at least in a small way.''
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the oldest flag factory owned
by the oldest and largest flag company in the United States
has tripled production. Managers have extended production
by more than two hours a day and added a Saturday shift.
All 8 workers laid off in August have been called back, bringing
the work force to 228. And many employees have gained a different
perspective on their work.
Americans started buying flags hours after the attacks.
Wal-Mart sold 116,000 flags on that Tuesday and 250,000 on
Wednesday, compared with 6,400 and 10,000 on the same days
a year earlier. By Friday, Sept. 14, Wal-Mart was running
out, but still sold 135,000.
On the afternoon of Sept. 11, calls and orders to Annin,
a 180-year-old company still owned by descendants of its
founding family, began swamping the company's headquarters
in Roseland, N.J., about six miles from the Verona factory.
Retailers desperate to get through began calling Joseph Vallone,
the manager of Annin's Verona plant, where by late Tuesday
the number of calls had topped 70 an hour.
On Wednesday, Mr. Vallone gathered his workers, and after
a moment of silence, he told them he would be asking them
to work different jobs, to be flexible and to put in overtime.
''We are going to be asked to make a lot of flags,'' Mr.
Vallone told workers. The employees applauded.
Mr. Vallone took workers from teams that make nautical flags,
golf course pennants and made-to-order state and foreign
flags and started them making tens of thousands of 4-inch-by-6-inch
American flags. As he did so, he recalled his father's stories
of working in a General Motors plant in Linden, N.J., immediately
after Pearl Harbor.
Joseph Vallone Sr. was a tool-and-die maker. When war was
declared, he put aside the metal stamps used to make Buicks,
Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs and began retooling to produce Grumman
F-4F Wildcat fighter planes. Making the warplanes was one
of his proudest accomplishments; he was buried with a model
of the Wildcat.
Now, at the flag factory, the son feels some of the same
energy his father talked about. ''It's a wartime atmosphere,''
he said. ''This is much bigger than the bicentennial or the
Persian Gulf war. There is a different feeling; it's more
Annin's plants in South Boston, Va., and Coshocton, Ohio,
have switched to making only American flags. The factory
in Oaks, Pa., which usually makes most of the American flags,
has added shifts. Before the attack, the company made about
20,000 3-foot-by-5-foot flags a week; now it is turning out
Annin's competitors are doing much the same. Valley Forge
Flag in Womelsdorf, Pa., whose flags fly above the Capitol,
is producing 40,000 3-foot-by-5-foot flags a week, up from
10,000. Production of 4-inch-by-6-inch flags has doubled
to 200,000 a week. At Eder Flag Manufacturing in Oak Creek,
Wis., the demand is 10 times what it was during the gulf
''The volume now is unprecedented,'' said Brad Evans, the
operations manager. ''I can't cover my orders. As soon as
we make the stuff it is gone.''
In the days after the attack, Eder's small retail shop was
besieged. The police were called to control traffic and to
stop people from parking on the lawn, and the wait for checkout
stretched to two hours. In the five days after the attack,
Eder Flag sold three million cloth flags and flag-shaped
lapel pins to retailers and consumers.
Some 2.3 million American flags were imported last year,
almost all of them from China and Taiwan. But many retailers
will sell only flags made in America, and many Americans
will pay more for a flag with a ''Made in the U.S.A.'' label.
Some companies, like Emerson Flag in San Francisco, had
largely abandoned the American flag business because of labor
costs. But they are now converting their factories so they
can make more.
Timothy O'Donnell, the managing director of Emerson, said
demand for flags during the gulf war dropped as soon as that
short conflict ended on Jan. 17, 1991. But he predicts that
this time demand will continue for at least three months.
''I think everyone wants a flag,'' he said. ''There are
still a lot of homes that don't have flags.''
Last week, on the fourth floor of the factory here, workers
were assembling the corner pieces of 12-foot-by-18-foot flags.
A metal press fell heavily on a 9-foot-square piece of blue
nylon, fixing 50 white stars on a corner of a giant American
flag. Seven seconds later, as a worker lifted the lid, the
machine released a burst of exhaust that hung in the air
like a sigh. Then a seamstress stitched five lines on each
star to hold it permanently in place. The 9-foot-by-9-foot
field was sent to another factory to be attached to red and
white nylon stripes.
Although the technology has changed, the basic art of flag
making is similar to what Edward and Benjamin Annin practiced
in a Manhattan loft when they started making signal flags
for sailing ships in the 1820's. The Annins incorporated
their company in 1847, and two years later the company made
an American flag that flew at the inauguration of President
Zachary Taylor. Annin says it has provided flags for every
inauguration since. In 1914, the company moved out of New
York City to the four-story factory here.
As the years passed, the company grew. Annin made flags
for Robert E. Peary's trek to the North Pole, for the United
Nations and for the 1964 World's Fair. In September 1988,
Vice President George Bush, then the Republican candidate
for president, stopped at Annin's plant in Bloomfield, N.J.
Mr. Bush had been criticizing Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic
nominee, for vetoing a bill making the Pledge of Allegiance
mandatory in schools, and the stop was intended to emphasize
Mr. Bush's patriotism.
Annin faced huge demand during Mr. Bush's presidency, when
the United States went to war with Iraq. But demand is far
greater now, company officials said.
''We are falling behind,'' Mr. Vallone said. ''The huge
demand is exceeding our ability to produce.''
Annin's employees come from 20 different countries, and
many of them speak little or no English. But like the people
lining up to buy flags, Annin's workers have felt a surge
of patriotism in the days since the terror attacks.
''I have made American flags here for 17 years,'' said Bernadette
Chalet, 62, an immigrant from Lebanon. As she spoke, tears
formed in her eyes. ''We love America because it is safe
Mr. Yousef, the Egyptian immigrant working with Mr. Carter,
is one of 29 people at Annin who are either of Arab descent
or are Muslim; he came to the United States two years ago.
He usually works on a computer, tracking orders as they move
through the factory but has stepped in to help assemble the
flag staves, a less prestigious job.
He is not too proud to cut, sew and staple, especially after
the attack, he said. It is, he suggested, one small way to
give something back to his adopted country.
''I feel very bad for what happened,'' he said. ''I left
my country to come here. This is my dream, living in America.''
Correction: September 26, 2001, Wednesday
An article on Saturday about the surge in demand for United
States flags misstated the ending date of the Persian Gulf
war, which brought a decline in demand. It was Feb. 27, 1991;
Jan. 17 was the start of the United States' air campaign.