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Flag Daze

For all reasons, in all seasons, decorative flags are brightening Southland homes

June 09, 1996|DEENA HIGGS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Deena Higgs is an Irvine freelance writer

If Betsy Ross were alive today, she might be appliqueing beach scenes onto nylon instead of sewing the stars and stripes on cloth.

That's because decorative flags--festooned with everything from the Easter Bunny to autumn leaves--are the hottest house and yard adornment in Southern California neighborhoods. From the beaches to the bluffs, these festive, colorful banners are sending time-honored messages: "Smile," "Happy Holidays" and "Welcome to My Home."

"It's like growing a flower garden," said Seal Beach resident Patricia Hagerty, whose morning ritual includes picking up her newspaper and hanging out one of the 30 plus flags in her collection. "I do it just for the pleasure. We're all working, and with the economy the way it has been . . . it's nice just to have a little lightheartedness out there."

The flags have become so trendy, they've out-fluttered the ever-popular windsock as a way to brighten up a porch or front yard. Already, 10 of Hagerty's neighbors around her beach front community have joined in the flag-flying craze, creating some friendly competition.

"Everyone is vying just a little bit, but it's unspoken," Hagerty said. "It's like, who can find the most colorful flag."

Most decorative flags are made of nylon or polyester-cotton and range in price from the $12 drugstore variety to up to $125 for custom-made versions. Designs usually are appliqued or silk-screened with scenes from every major holiday (Christmas and Easter are the most popular), the four seasons, animals (cats are a favorite), sports, special events (birthdays, weddings, anniversaries), hobbies or lifestyles.

Hagerty's newest flag, which she'll fly all summer (except when her Fourth of July flag is flying, of course), is appliqued with an umbrella, a sand castle, an ocean wave and a beach chair.

First sold only in flag shops or in high-priced novelty stores, decorative flags now are commonplace in gift shops, large discount retail stores, even grocery stores.

"Every time we get them in, we sell them out," said Heather Wickwire, manager of Once Upon a Quilt, a home decorative store in Manhattan Beach. "We've had to reorder the line every two to three weeks."

Jan Mericle, owner of the Flag Shop in Whittier, which designs custom flags and sells the ready-made variety, said decorative flag waving is extremely common on the East Coast, especially in the New England states and in the Southeast.

"Whole neighborhoods are flying them there," she said. "It seems like it's gradually working its way to the West Coast. I've noticed quite a dramatic increase in sales [here] in the last two years."

Cathy DeCou of Irvine first saw decorative flags in 1982 while visiting family in Hingham, Mass., near Boston. She started collecting them, first for the seasons, then for the off-seasons, and quickly became known as "the Flag Lady" to her neighbors.

"They're cheerful." she said. "I just can't imagine unhappy people having flags out."

Today, DeCou has about 20 flags, including one in the likeness of her black Labrador retriever. She displays them in the front and the back of her lake-front home every day. DeCou said she has started to grow tired of the hobby.

Not so for Leah Cecere, who started a trend on Graynold Avenue in Glendale three years ago after some co-workers chipped in to buy her a Santa Claus flag.

"There were a few U.S. flags and a couple of windsocks in the neighborhood, but then I started [putting up flags] and my neighbors started, and now it's steamrolling in the area," she said. "It's a neighborhood game to see who is first to get their flag up for the holiday."

Quality is important to Cecere, who has a dozen flags in her collection. She doesn't mind paying about $60 for the higher-quality nylon flags.

"They don't fade, they don't get hard and stiff like some of your cheaper ones," she said. "But the benefit of getting the cheaper ones is that you can buy more often."

*

No one is quite sure where or when the decorative flag started flying, but it was popularized in the New England states and was widespread by the late 1980s. About that time a merchandiser for the Lillian Vernon Corp., a national mail-order novelty firm, spotted a homemade flag in the New York City suburb of Rye and pitched the idea in the company's catalog.

"It was a limited offering at first," said David Hochberg, vice president of public affairs for Lillian Vernon in New Rochelle, N.Y. "Now we have a flag for every major holiday. And it's so popular, we have a flag organizer to store your flags in so they don't get dirty or creased."

The catalog's most popular seller is the $19.98 "welcome" flag, bearing two hearts, a sun, a house and a pineapple (a traditional welcome symbol). The company sold 25,600 of them last year. Its second best seller is the stars and stripes banner (19,612 sold last year), followed by the autumn leaves flag.

Also becoming a mini-trend are lawn or garden flags, a miniature version of the decorative flags adorning houses, decks, lampposts and mailboxes.

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