So proudly they hail: Decorative flags bloom No middle ground: If you hate banners, you hate them. If you love them -- and it seems more and more people do -- you can't get enough.

April 22, 1996|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

If you're into grapevine wreaths, Williamsburg blue and Chemlawn, you're more likely to have one.

If you're into John Waters, probably not.

Love 'em or hate 'em, decorative banners have taken hold. In a culture where stress is a given and busy schedules make strangers of neighbors, they go beyond mere decoration. The brightly colored flags have become fixtures, sending messages to the world from the households they adorn.

"It may not be a fad," said Nijole Benokraitis, a sociologist of pop culture at the University of Baltimore. "It's a way of coming home to something soothing and cheerful, something you can control in a world that's pretty depressing. It may be something like the screen paintings in Baltimore. It says something about you."

Which could be good or bad, depending on your perspective.

Take the Catonsville woman who offered an embarrassed explanation for the blithe flag, decorated with a heart and a house, hanging by the front door of her cottage-style home.

She did not want to be identified.

"I am really not a banner person," she said. "My in-laws gave us this, and the only reason I put it out was because they were coming for Easter dinner."

"I think people who are politically or personally more conservative would be more likely to buy them," Professor Benokraitis said. "People who wouldn't be caught dead with them are more cynical." A person like herself, who lets the crab grass grow in the back yard, is not a likely buyer, she guesses.

At her elegant home in Roland Park, Kimberley von Paris offered no apologies last week after installing a flag at each side of her entrance. One displayed a gigantic pineapple -- the traditional welcome symbol. The other, a golf ball on a tee, reflects the sports passion of Ms. von Paris and her husband, G. Richard Gray. Even their toddler, Hunter, carts around plastic putters.

"It's kind of like junk jewelry," she said. "Plus I think it adds some identity, and it makes me feel good when I come home. It's a cheerful hello."

Sugary as Hallmark cards, more tasteful than bumper stickers, the flags are like Lay's chips, it seems. No one can have just one.

Flag fanatics buy them for every season and conceivable holiday, and change them accordingly. Through the year the parade changes from wafting images of bunnies, watermelon slices, autumn leaves and snowmen to those of favorite pets, hobbies, vacation spots and sports teams.

The 4,000-some flags Betty Lages keeps in stock at Flags, Etc. in Ellicott City carry other images, too -- dinosaurs, beehives, lighthouses and pianos.

Telling world, 'Look at me!'

"It sort of tells the world, 'Look at me -- I'm celebrating!' " she said.

Mrs. Lages' love of flags grew from her childhood interest in stamp collecting. And, just like stamp collecting, it can get dangerously addictive.

She recounts hearing about one woman who contacted a flag manufacturer to order a different flag for every day of the year. The decision-making requirements of such a purchase would have to be daunting. Not to mention the cost.

A large, good quality flag starts at about $50 and can exceed $140. Add about $25 for a pole and brackets.

So who's buying? It's not just a girl thing. Into Flags, Etc. last week walked Rudy Liskovec, who had decided to buy his wife a cat flag for their anniversary, instead of the "bunch of junk" he usually gets. Accompanying him was his father-in-law, visiting from England. Before leaving with his purchase, Mr. Liskovec already was talking about the dog flag he would buy on his return. His father-in-law walked out with a British flag.

"Some people just fly the U.S. flag, and that's OK, too," Mrs. Lages said.

David Greenwood is a hybrid sort of flag collector. The retired Baltimore County science teacher and assistant superintendent owns a 15-star American flag, a standard U.S. flag, a Maryland flag, a Dundalk flag, a Christmas flag, an Irish flag and a "welcome" flag.

His family flew a flag at its Dundalk home nearly every day when he was growing up, recalls Mr. Greenwood. Now he and his wife, Sueanne, do the same at their home in Rodgers Forge. Flags are so popular in their neighborhood, the community association even designed a Rodgers Forge banner, which is on sale for $32 as part of a fund-raiser.

"It makes the neighborhood look nice," Mr. Greenwood said. "It adds a little color."

Unexpected rewards

And the potential benefits? Consider what happened after Mr. Greenwood installed his Marine Corps flag out front last year, right around the Nov. 10 anniversary of the Corps.

Arriving home from an errand, he discovered a paper bag sitting by the front door. Inside was a six-pack of Tun Tavern Lager (Tun Tavern being the Philadelphia site where the Marines organized) and a note from a stranger, who, Mr. Greenwood learned from the message, was also a former Marine.

"Thanks for flying the colors," it read.

Pub Date: 4/22/96

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