The Stars and Stripes as Folk Art
Flag Day is June 14, but don't even think of waving one of Jeff Bridgman's antique flags. Until recently, most people didn't consider antique flags folk art or even just plain art. But the public is waking up to the idea that these graphic, early American textiles are not just for history buffs. "I see a definite new trend, an increased awareness of antique flags as decorative objects," says Bridgman, both a collector and dealer. Today, flag design is set in stone, but in the 19th century there was no official design. Flags could have any shape, any pattern. As Bridgman's collection shows, they could be as fanciful or whimsical as the artist wished.
Bridgman is attracted to the decorative, but also to the rarest flags he can find. In his collection of more than 1,500 antique flags are perfect examples of some unknown artist's whimsical interpretations. One flag that's especially unusual is a Civil War period flag with 34 stars scattered in all directions ($7,800). Another is a political campaign flag ($58,000 made for the 1864 presidential campaign of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. According to Bridgman, examples made for Lincoln's two presidential campaigns are among the most valuable of all surviving antique flags. "Flags like this one are a once-in-a-lifetime find," he says adding that they are what collectors covet.
What designers want differs somewhat. They look for decorative antique flags or banners that add color, design, and texture to a room. A 1924 memorial beadwork textile ($16,500) made by a Wisconsin woman illustrating her husband's military service during WWI fits the bill. Think of it as mixed-media folk art with photos of the woman's husband in the center surrounded by "Columbo" (Columbus) on one side and " G. Washington" on the other. All three photos are placed behind an oval window and expertly stitched into the jazzy textile.
Bridgman, based in York County, Pennsylvania, says that until Barack Obama became President, most of his major clients were Republicans. That was then. Now he counts many Democrats among his followers, including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and his wife Mary Richardson, who display a collection of flags and banners in their Bedford, NY home.
If you're thinking of buying a grad gift this June, consider a small American flag from between 1876 and 1908 for as little as $400. Of course, if the graduate is from West Point or the Naval Academy, you had better go all out with something special, perhaps a battle flag from the 64th New York State Militia Company "C," a Civil War unit that was present at Gettysburg ($250,000). Details at www.jeffbridgman.com; 717-502-1281.