The city's protector of 'Old Glory'

Baltimore Glimpses

August 01, 1995|By Gilbert Sandler

ALL OF those folks in Washington who are eager to adopt a constitutional amendment on flag desecration run into problems defining what such an amendment would cover. For example, would bathing suits featuring the stars and stripes be considered a desecration of the country's symbol?

They should have lived in Baltimore in the 1930s when a certain no-nonsense, respect-for-the-flag zealot was very much a public figure.

Her name was Ella Virginia Houck Holloway. She was born at 10 Front St. in 1862 (next door to the Shot Tower). She said this fortuitous fact of geography explained why she always wore a tall (about 18 inches high) black shako hat, which made her stand out in a crowd. When she died in 1940, obituary writers recognized her as an authority on the proper use of this country's flag. She also was instrumental in having Congress adopt the "Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem. At one time, she was chairman of the Committee for the Correct Use of the Flag of the United Daughters of the War of 1812.

When it came to flag desecration, Mrs. Holloway harbored no doubts. She fiercely condemned and loudly deplored using a likeness of the flag on articles of clothing, and such items as purses, ashtrays, fountain pens, belt buckles, shoulder patches and lapel pins. She was especially incensed at the use of flags on birthday cakes, candies and ice cream molds. (God alone knows how she would have reacted to seeing the flag burning.)

In 1938, at a Rotary Club luncheon here, she described how respect for the flag once "averted a panic at sea in the midst of a storm." She said in her remarks: The third-class passengers on ++ the steamship President Harding fell to their knees in prayer on the storm swept deck of the liner, when 60-foot waves disabled the craft. According to her story, the chief steward's mate walked among them and said, " 'You are sailing under the American flag. The ship cannot sink.'

"It didn't," Mrs. Holloway told her audience. With that mystic observation, she allowed the audience a few moments of silence to draw the same moral from the story that she had.

She firmly believed that every adult and child should start the day by saluting the flag -- before breakfast. "The flag could be hung in the dining room," she explained, "or in the parlor. [Saluting] would start adults and children with a fresh patriotic stimulus." She lectured everybody she saw on the proper display of the flag: "When beholding the flag, raise your eyes, give the proper salute and pledge your allegiance and loyalty. Each time you do you become a better and stronger citizen."

She walked the streets of Baltimore, inspecting store windows and inside displays of merchandise for what she thought were disrespectful uses of the flag.

The proposed flag amendment, which has already been passed by the House, reads, "Congress and the states shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

That leaves those on both sides of the issue the vexing problem of defining "desecration." Too bad Mrs. Holloway isn't around. She'd tell them how to define it.

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