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Vol. LXV, No. 26
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
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American Flags Tell a Wealth of Stories In Exhibit Opening at Morven This Week

Anne Levin

“Short but sweet, our acquaintance,” wrote Louis I. Newman, a passenger aboard the German liner SS Amerika in 1909. “Best wishes” was the simple signature of Mrs. J.B. Lince of Des Moines, Iowa. These quaint remembrances of a voyage at sea are written not in a souvenir book or a passenger list. They are scrawled across the front of an American flag.

The commemorative banner is among more than 100 on display at Morven as part of “The Stars and Stripes: Fabric of the American Spirit,” an exhibit opening Friday, July 1, at the historic house’s museum. Morven will also be the setting for an annual Fourth of July Celebration on Monday from noon to 3 p.m.

Culled from the Pierce Collection of American Parade Flags, the show traces the history of the national emblem from its 1777 beginnings into the mid-twentieth century, and tells many intriguing stories along the way. It was these little slices of American life, in part, that compelled retired banker J. Richard Pierce to amass his collection over the past two decades.

“I had a vision many years ago of exactly what I was trying to create,” said Mr. Pierce, who lives in Hunterdon County. “It was all of the different configurations of stars, and the stories that these flags tell, that fascinated me. I knew that some day I wanted to exhibit them. I think it’s important for people to learn some history and see how these flags have changed over the years. I guess it’s my love of history, this country, and what the flag represents. It’s our symbol. It represents every freedom we have.”

Mr. Pierce’s interest in flags dates back as far as he can remember. As collectors, he and his wife knew many antique dealers. They were roaming through a shop in Chadds Ford, Pa., in 1991 when they noticed an American flag hanging on the rear wall. “I loved it, but I thought it was too expensive,” Mr. Pierce recalled while overseeing the hanging of the Morven show last week. “That was in May. In September, my wife gave it to me, professionally framed, for our thirtieth anniversary. And that was the beginning.”

As time went on, Mr. Pierce began acquiring flags that were small enough to be framed and hung on a wall. He retired from banking in 1996 and began focusing on his collection, writing the book that gave the Morven show its title in 2005. The exhibit has been shown elsewhere, most recently at the Red Mill Museum in Clinton. It was there that Beth Allen, Morven’s Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, first saw Mr. Pierce’s treasures.

“We had wanted to do something on flags and had looked at different collections,” Ms. Allen said. “None were right for us. We wanted the actual flags, and they had to be the right size. When I walked into the museum in Clinton and saw these flags on the walls, it just took my breath away. I knew, this was it.”

A tiny flag, folded up in a bible and used as a bookmark, made a big impression on Ms. Allen. “That just sealed the deal for me,” she said. Mr. Pierce has his own favorites in the show. A flag with an inscription by an eight-year-old girl tells of a visit to her Vermont town by Charles Lindbergh. “I look at that and I can just imagine how thrilling it was for this little girl,” Mr. Pierce said.

A flag from the country’s centennial is another that intrigues Mr. Pierce. “Look at these muted colors, and the meticulous work that went into sewing on these little stars,” he enthused. “You can just sense the fervor that was the centennial.”

Mr. Pierce pointed out a 36-star flag from the 1888 presidential campaign of Benjamin Harrison. The “s” in “Harrison” is reversed. “I love that,” he said. “It’s a printing error. That makes it human.”

Morven’s historic house setting is a fitting showcase for the collection. “When I came here, I could see right away that this would be a gorgeous venue,” Mr. Pierce said. “I could picture it immediately in my mind. We started with one room, but finally decided to use all four galleries.”

The exhibit, which runs through October 30, includes flags from the mourning period after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, flags from Pearl Harbor, and other key moments in American history. During the show, Morven will present three related lectures: “Evolution of the Stars and Stripes” on September 15, “Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War” on September 22, and “Civil War Remembrances” on October 13.

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