One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories is the flag that my grandfather flew at our home in Erie, Pennsylvania, during World War II.
Like most of our neighbors, he flew the flag daily, and he taught me to treat the flag with respect. It has always been a proud symbol for our family. Even though my grandfather's flag was an ordinary 48-Star Flag, no different than any of the millions like it that were made, it is one of my most treasured possessions.
For over thirty years I have collected antique Stars and Stripes. A serendipitous discovery launched me on this flag-collecting odyssey. My wife, Patricia, and I loved to collect antique American furniture and spent many weekends, with our children in tow, scouring antique stores, flea markets, and auctions throughout many states. In the summer of 1976, fate led me to a woefully attended flea market set up in a muddy field in rural Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where I encountered a woman selling dishes, glasses, and other unimpressive items for sale, arranged on a card table.
A grocery bag holding what appeared to be an old flag caught my attention. When I asked about its price, she stated, "fifty dollars." From what I could see through the semitransparent bag, one of the white stripes appeared to be stained. Knowing nothing else about the condition of the flag (or anything about antique textiles for that matter), I offered her forty dollars. She accepted.
Only later that day did I open the bag and discover the flag was hand-sewn with thirteen stars. How old was it? Who made it? Where was it made and flown? What was its history?
A few weeks later I purchased a tattered 38-Star Flag at an antique store in Pittsburgh, as well as several books on the history of the flag. I decided to curtail my furniture collecting and instead dedicate my time to building a collection that would tell the story of the Stars and Stripes.
Ever since, the search has occupied my time and energy — each flag, instead of making me feel the collection was more complete, propelled me to find even more. I have discovered, pursued, stumbled upon, traded, tracked down, and been given flags as gifts. I have found flags in basements, barns, New York City auction houses, on the Internet, through dealers, friends, and even in foreign countries. Today, the collection includes well over four hundred flags, dating from every period in our nation's history. Most of these flags were preserved and cared for by Americans from every station in life, reminding us that the flag is for everyone: immigrant or native or descendant of one of the colonists; Army private or Navy admiral; ordinary steelworker or even, in one case, an Italian princess.
As any collector knows, the thrill of the hunt, the unanticipated discovery, or the "eureka" moments, sometimes outshine the pleasure of the actual things we collect.
For flags, that is especially true, since some flags are particularly rare and difficult to find.
Soon after I began, I realized there was one basic rule for collecting American flags: count the stars. (And to take it one step further, rule two was to count the stripes.) As simple as this rule seems, flags were often described inaccurately because of simple counting errors. Several years ago, for example, I came across a 26-Star Flag for sale. Upon my inquiry, it was indeed confirmed as having twenty-six stars, representing Michigan, admitted to the Union in 1837, and official until 1845, when Florida became a state.
Even though 26-Star Flags are more common than others since they were made for eight years, and even though the seller did not have a photograph of the flag, I purchased it anyway.
The flag arrived and upon my initial inspection, my excitement heightened when I counted, "25, 26, and... 27." Yes, twenty-seven stars, dating to 1845, when Florida was admitted to the Union. Texas was admitted to the Union only ten months later on December 29, 1845, and the 28-Star Flag became official on July 4, 1846. Since this Florida flag was official for such a short period of time, it is extremely difficult to find, and the simple counting error provided an unexpected rare flag for my collection!
Even more memorable than these chance acquisitions are the people and stories that flags represent — they are, in my mind, what make each flag invaluable. Each one is a reminder that flags are far more than pieces of fabric, they are symbols of the most fundamental values we share, windows to people who came before us and whose lives added, through acts of modesty or great valor, to our national heritage.
One 30-Star Flag stands out. In 1995, I was visiting an antique market in Adamstown, Pennsylvania. Walking from booth to booth, I methodically asked the dealers if they had any flags. Seldom did they have anything other than what was on display. But that Sunday I was quite lucky when I stopped to talk to a dealer who featured old toys that were neatly arranged in glass cases. When I asked him the standard question, he said, after a brief pause, "I do have one old flag, but it is in bad shape." He opened one of the toy cases and lifted a small mechanical tin truck, revealing a cardboard box underneath. Written in heavy, script letters on the side of the box were the words "Civil War Flag." (Fortunately the side of the box with the writing faced away from the customers, many of whom were very avid and competitive Civil War collectors!)
Inside the box I found a delicate 30-Star Flag. To my amazement, the history of the flag was written on the inside of the box: "This Flag, my dear Mother was holding, belonged to her Father and laid on the coffin of his friend, Colonel Coyle, a young U.S. Officer of the Civil War, who was shot through the lungs and went to Paris for treatment. I think he died of a hemorrhage in my Father's arms . . . delivered . . . Daughter Dorothy . . . I should thank my beloved cousin, who has always cared for this Flag."
I have attempted to learn more about Colonel Coyle, but my efforts have been unsuccessful. Like many of the millions killed or injured during the Civil War, he left scant footprints. However, each time I display this flag, it resonates powerfully with the great and terrible sacrifices made during that war.
The events of 9/11, of course, deepened and extended the flag's meaning for Americans, including new generations of young Americans. I marked the 50-Star Flag that happened to be flying at our home that day with a special tag. The following year, I began my own simple tradition of flying that same flag on each consecutive September 11th to honor and remember those whose lives changed that day.
As I have traveled the country exhibiting flags from my collection and giving talks on their history, I have been struck by three things. First, very few Americans know much about our flag. Second, they become intensely interested in its history when they begin to listen to stories about the flag. Third, people are eager to display the flag, either to celebrate national holidays or as a daily reminder of the freedoms we enjoy. During exhibitions of flags from my collection, people frequently share stories with me about "their flag." Once a man told me about his 29-Star Flag with an unusual star arrangement and eagerly invited me to his home to see it. I accepted his invitation, and after telling me about the flag, he insisted I add it to my collection, since he wanted it to be enjoyed by people. Each time I include that flag in an exhibition, I am reminded of him and others who are so proud of the American flag.
Thirty years of collecting have resulted in a special opportunity to tell the story of the Stars and Stripes with actual flags. Each individual flag has its own story to tell, representing a particular time in our nation's history. All together, the flags tell a much larger story
Peter Keim, M.D
Copyright © 2007 by DK Publishing. All rights reserved.