The economy may be flagging, but sales of the Stars and Stripes are not.
In Baltimore, the flag can be seen waving just about everywhere -- at service stations, concession stands, office buildings and homes from Dundalk to Roland Park -- in support of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf and a country at war.
The story, according to flag retailers, distributors and manufacturers, is much the same across the country.
Local distributors of flags are reporting such a dramatic rise in orders since the first day U.S. and allied forces dropped bombs on Iraq that some are backlogged for months and others have topped sales projections for the entire year in just three weeks.
It's giving a little promise to an industry that was expecting flat sales for the year because of the recession.
Maryland Canvas & Awning Co. in Joppa said it received a shipment of 144 flags on Monday of last week and was sold out by the end of the week.
F. W. Haxel Co. at Pearl and Lexington streets said it has sold 2,000 outdoor flags since the war started, a 300 percent increase over sales last year at this time.
The Flag House, a museum on East Pratt Street that was once the house of flag-maker Mary Pickersgill, reports that its museum shop sold $84 worth of flags Saturday and 76 flags since Jan. 16.
"That's a big deal to us because we're a small operation and a museum," said administrator Mary Helen Nippard.
"The use of the flag is in excess of what I saw during the Bicentennial," said Vernon Huebschman, vice president of flag distributor F. M. Stevenson Co. on West Baltimore Street. "Fortunately, in 1976 we had had 200 years to prepare for it. We knew it was coming. This has caught us off guard."
With distributors and retailers clamoring to meet the demand from their customers, the six national manufacturers of U.S. flags are finding themselves short of the nylon, cotton, dye, employees and working capital to keep up with demand.
"It's a crisis in the flag industry right now. All manufacturers are in the same boat," said Daniel Connors, spokesman for Annin & Co., a large flag manufacturer based in Roseland, N.J.
There are no U.S.-flag manufacturers in Maryland except for the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup, but it supplies flags only to state and local governments and non-profit groups, said Stephen Shiloh, acting general manager of State Use Industries, the prison industry division of the Department of Correction.
Distributors say they have gotten flag requests from convenience stores and entrepreneurs who have never sold flags before but who want to get a piece of the action.
"A fly-by-night guy in San Francisco offered to send me a $400,000 certified check as a down payment for every flag I could get him," said Hugh Warner, owner of Frederick-based United States Flag Service. "If I could get my hands on as many as I need, I could retire."
Distributors say a good 3-by-5-foot outdoor nylon flag costs about $31 and that a 5-by-8 foot flag of the same quality goes for about $66.
But some retailers are boosting the price. One distributor in Maryland said "a cheap set" he sells for $9, which includes a printed flag, a pole and string, is going for $55 in some stores.
In an effort to weed out opportunists, many distributors say, they are refusing to deal with first-time commercial customers.
Local distributors forecast yesterday that if the war ends by spring, they will still feel its effects on flag sales through the end of the year.
And manufacturers are also working on a "welcome home" flag for when the war is over, Mr. Warner said.
"The war has brought America a lot closer together, and you can tell that by the increased sale of the flag," said Philip F. Haxel Jr., president of distributor F. W. Haxel Co.
"People remember what happened to our troops in Vietnam, and they don't want the same thing to happen again."