History of Annin & Co America's Flag Maker
by Warren D. Jorgensen
From a mountain on Iwo Jima to the surface of the moon, from exotic ports of call to the North and South poles, from on top Mount Everest to the rubble of the World Trade Center, Americans and the world have seen, flown and saluted U.S. flags made by Annin & Co. for nearly 160 years.
The world's largest and oldest flag company, Annin & Co. and its 500 employees produce literally miles of stripes and a multitude of stars that go into 15 million U.S. flags a year. All are made in the U.S.A.—at manufacturing plants in Verona, N.J. (pop. 13,533), South Boston, Va. (pop, 8,491), and Coshocton, Ohio (pop. 11,682).
"Patriotism demands that an American flag has to be made in America,” says Carter Beard, who with his cousin, Randy, represent the sixth generation to help run the business, based in Roseland, N.J. (pop. 5,298). "We hire the best workers, train them and give them the best machines, and from that we get the highest quality flag.”
The company's roots go back to 1820, when Alexander Annin opened a small flag-making shop on the New York City waterfront, where ships bound for the four corners of the world did so under Annin-made flags. Annin's sons, Edward and Benjamin, followed in their father's footsteps and in 1847 founded Annin & Co., moving to a large full-service factory on New York's Fifth Avenue. The company enjoyed success from the start, especially with its American flags.
Woven into American History
In many ways, the company's story is interwoven with the story of America itself.
In 1849, Annin-made American flags were flown at the inauguration of President Zachary Taylor, starting an inaugural tradition that has continued through the inauguration of President George W. Bush.
"We made the flag that draped Abraham Lincoln's coffin (in 1865), something we are especially proud of,” Beard says.
By the close of the 19th century, regard for the Annins' product had spread, and the company's flags were hoisted at foreign expositions, world's fairs and at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.
Exploration and involvement in world affairs consumed America during the 20th century, and Annin was there. The company's flags were planted as symbols of success during Commander Robert E. Peary's expedition to the North Pole in 1909, Admiral Richard E. Byrd's expedition to the South Pole in 1930 and the National Geographic expedition to Mount Everest in 1963. It was an Annin-made flag that Marines raised atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945, memorialized in a classic Associated Press photograph.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and "Buzz” Aldrin stepped out from the Lunar Module and planted an Annin-made U.S. flag on the moon's surface, where it remains today. "We were a supplier to NASA . . . We officially submitted flags to NASA for the moon missions, and ours was picked,” says Beard, who was age 4 at the time.
The world's largest American flag—104 feet by 235 feet—was made by Annin for the J.L. Hudson Co. in Detroit in 1949 and was retired in 1976 to the Smithsonian Institution. It was Annin artist Newt Heisley who designed the POW/MIA flag, which was never copyrighted because the company decided the patriotic symbol belonged to all Americans.
Perhaps the nation's most recent memory of an Annin-made flag came after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when firemen raced to a nearby marina and grabbed a ship's American flag to raise over the rubble of the World Trade Center. The photographed moment became the iconic image of that tragic day. "Everyone here was extremely proud that it was an Annin flag,” says Beard, his voice mixed with pride and regret. "It was an emotional sight to see that flag being raised.”
Flag Maker to the World
Annin annually produces 30 million flags of all kinds. The company has made state flags that fly over every state Capitol in the nation, and appear in every parade where the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars or Boy Scouts participate. As the official flag maker to the United Nations, Annin manufactures each flag waving in front of the U.N. headquarters in New York City.
Despite technological advances, the Verona plant, built in 1916, remains the heart and soul of the company, where custom-made flags—American, state and any one of thousands of custom designs—are crafted by hand. There, seamstresses carefully sew stars and stripes, while highly trained embroiderers create meticulously detailed flag designs with foot-operated sewing machines. It's a slow learning curve, where training an embroiderer can take up to four years.
"I'm very proud of what we do here,” says Plant Manager Joe Vallone, as he watches workers fold a custom-made 30-by-60-foot American flag that took four workers 10 days to create. "There are machines that can do similar work,” he says, "but nothing like what you'll see when they're made by hand.”
Elisa Vaca, 61, of Bloomfield, N.J. (pop. 47,683), began working as a seamstress for Annin 35 years ago. Her pride and joy is a 60-by-90-foot American flag that often hangs from the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey. It is only displayed on special occasions and retracts into the bridge tower when not in use.
"I take my brother (to the bridge) to see it, and I tell him, ‘See, I made that,'” Vaca says. "It was so big, and up there it looked so small. I am very proud.”
Red, White and Blue
While standard American flags are sold in volume through the large chain stores, Annin's continued success lies in its nationwide network of more than 2,000 mom-and-pop flag shops, such as The Flag Lady in Columbus, Ohio.
"My mother said that Annin made the best-looking, longest-lasting American flags,” says Lori Watson, 47, who runs the Ohio flag shop started by her mother more than 30 years ago. "We made the choice to only sell Annin flags, and we've never been sorry that we did. We swear by their quality.”
But perhaps the greatest reason for Annin's success and longevity is the American people themselves, says flag historian Whitney Smith, founder and director of The Flag Research Center in Winchester, Mass. (pop. 20,810)
"Unlike the countries they came from, Americans have no national, racial, religious or aristocratic identity,” Smith says. "They came to regard the flag as embodying the symbolism of the country and its unity. It is the thread of our national life, and Annin has been there longer than anyone else.”
Visit www.annin.com to learn more.
Warren D. Jorgensen is a freelance writer in Tarrytown, N.Y.