U.S. Flags, Made in America

Annin and Co. is the nation's oldest and largest manufacturer of American flags. The company's products have been used at every presidential inauguration since Zachary Taylor took office in 1849, on expeditions to both poles, and on the Apollo moon landing.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

American flags are one of the many products made in China these days, but not all of them. On Wednesdays, we focus on the workplace. And on this Fourth of July, we go to the oldest and largest manufacturer of American flags.

NPR's Thomas Pierce recently paid a visit to Annin and Co.'s plant.

THOMAS PIERCE: When Annin and Co. first opened its doors, it mostly made signal flags for sailing ships on the Newark City Waterfront. That was 160 years ago. Today, it has three factories - the largest in South Boston, Virginia. Inside, it looks a little like a Home Depot, only it's filled with clattering printing machinery and long spools of red, white and blue fabric.

To work on the giant unfinished flags, seamstresses use ropes and pulleys to move them along the factory floor. Some of the workers wear headphones to drown out all those sewing machines stitching in unity.

(Soundbite of sewing machines)

Ms. PATRICIA RUSSELL (Sewer): I'm sewing the stars on a part of the star field. This is the bottom right here, and this size, 15 by 25, has a bottom and a top.

PIERCE: Patricia Russell feeds blue fabric as big as a bed sheet through a machine. Fifty white stars have been ironed and steamed on, and now she finishes the job with thick lines of white thread.

(Soundbite of sewing machine)

PIERCE: The plant employs 180 people, and she's part a team that works solely on star fields. Then it goes to the next group where the shorter stripes are added. Whenever she sees a flag now, she can't help but wonder whether it came from her factory here in South Boston.

Ms. RUSSELL: And when I see, I say we must have fixed that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUSSELL: But it may not be all of them, but you know.

PIERCE: Maybe not all, but close. Bill Kelehar is the plant manager in South Boston.

Mr. BELL KELEHAR (Plant Manager, Annin and Co., South Boston): We're the largest one in this country. I would say that we probably make 60 percent of all the U.S. flags that you see in this country.

PIERCE: And for that matter, the flags that you see in the history books. An Annin flag has flown at every presidential inauguration since Zachary Taylor in 1849. When Lincoln was assassinated, an Annin flag was draped over his coffin. The business is still going strong, despite the fact that over $5 million worth of American flags were imported in 2005, mostly from China. That's partly why Annin teamed up with other leading flagmakers to certify flags manufactured completely in the U.S. Bill Kelehar says the demand for U.S.-made flags is high.

Mr. KELEHAR: They want a U.S. flag that's made in the U.S., as well as it should be. Thank goodness that the U.S. citizens don't want a U.S. flag that's made overseas.

PIERCE: Flags sales spiked after 9/11, then slumped a bit. But the company says sales are rising again as natural wear and tear requires people to replace flags purchased in the wake of the attack.

Ms. KERRY WILSON(ph) (Annin and Co.): (Unintelligible) put them on that side and get them to the warehouse.

PIERCE: Annin also makes the giant flags you see over car dealerships and stadiums. Kerry Wilson adds mailing labels to the big cardboard barrels they used to ship them. Each barrel contains a flag that's 30 by 60 feet, and the nylon ones can weigh more than 180 pounds. Moving them could be a challenge, but Wilson laughs and says they get even heavier.

Ms. WILSON: That ain't - that's the nylon. The (unintelligible) was something to see. The top (unintelligible) we do like this, man, that's a whole different story.

PIERCE: With the labels, the barrels are ready to be shipped out with all the others - big and small, nylon, cotton and Tough-Tex, a polyester blend - the flags are bound for all over. The company's flags have wound up in some interesting places over the years. When U.S. soldiers raised the flag above Iwo Jima in World War II, that was an Annin flag. And then in 1969, Annin says they went where no flag had gone before.

Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): We came in peace for all mankind.

PIERCE: When Neil Armstrong planted one on the moon.

Unidentified Man: Yes, indeed. They got the flag up now. And you can see the stars and stripes on the lunar surface.

PIERCE: For NPR News, I'm Thomas Pierce.

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