Something weird happened to Jeff Bridgman and his business in 2008—in fact, two weird things. In the midst of a global economic collapse, he had his best year ever, and in December, he made a large sale to a Democrat. “To the best of my knowledge, it was the first time I’d ever made a major sale to a Democrat,” says the genial owner of Jeff R. Bridgman Antiques, who specializes in American flags and political campaign textiles. “I never had any Democrats before, but all of a sudden, since Obama got in office, whoa.”
For all the Democrats who symbolically took back the flag in the last election, at least a few are also taking it literally. Still, despite the political associations with many of the things Bridgman sells, it’s not politics that drives his business. To see an exhibit of his flags and banners is to experience not patriotic fervor but something else: a quickening of the heart, a kind of giddiness over objects where history, design, imagination, and industry converge. The hand-crocheted World War I era flag, for instance, or the 1860s flag from a Civil War border state, whose six-pointed stars may indicate that the maker was Jewish and whose configuration—thirteen stars grouped within a larger field—might signal a sympathy for the thirteen which originally voted for secession.
Bridgman, who looks like a scaled-down version of Roger Clemens, complete with goatee, has essentially cornered the market in flags, except, he says, there was never any market to corner: specialists were all but nonexistent, and potential buyers, limited. For several years he worked closely with Dr. Jeffrey Kenneth Kohn, a psychiatrist turned flag scholar. “Ken taught me a tremendous amount,” Bridgman says. In a way, his story is a model of old-fashioned American business ingenuity, minus the cynicism that so often infects it. He started small; he’s largely self-taught; he understands his customers. He’s also that romantic ideal, the itinerant salesman who thrives without showroom or shop. He’s even from Pennsylvania, the home of Betsy Ross.
Ross is a subject on whom Bridgman can shed some light. The lovely notion of her stitching the nation’s first flag with a circular pattern of 13 stars is just that: a notion, a myth given life by her descendants, some of whom made and sold flags to visitors in a wing of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. “The story has been totally romanticized,” Bridgman says. “Betsy Ross did make early flags, some of the first—but we do not know what they looked like.” He has never found any flag with that configuration—inevitably known as the Betsy Ross—that predates the 1890s.
He speaks about flags with a combination of affection and low-key authority, and the tags that he writes for each item he sells are riveting and rich in detail. He may sound as if he has been living with flags his entire life, but he began dealing with great ones only about a decade ago. A genetic predisposition could explain his interest. Bridgman grew up in rural central Pennsylvania, near the New York border. His father, a mathematics professor at Mansfield University, was an avid student of history. “We went to historical sites like Gettysburg and Saint Augustine for vacation,” Bridgman says. His mother collected American furniture and Americana. High-priced antiques were out of her league, but there was a knowledgeable local dealer who taught her a lot and, Bridgman says, “I got dragged along.”
In 1990, during a break in graduate school when he switched from economics to health-care management, Bridgman launched his business. He began haunting yard sales, buying anything with even a whiff of Americana, including Depression glass, that he thought he could sell. He doubled his money on fifty-cent items. “And furniture,” he says. “I’d buy something for twenty-five dollars, refinish it and sell it for seventy-five. That was a big score.”
About 1992, at the urging of a friend, he moved up to shows. “I didn’t know anything about it. I picked the first one, in Carlisle, because I liked the ads,” he says. He dealt largely in furniture and quilts, buying better ones as he moved up and gaining knowledge along the way. When he began making enough money as an Americana dealer, he quit his health-care research job and went to more and more fairs. At one in Nashville, he happened to see two small framed, nineteenth-century printed flags. “I didn’t buy them, but I was struck by them and the price. I thought they were cheap for something so graphic,” he says.
So why did this keen-eyed patriot not snap them up? “I was uneducated and I didn’t want to interrupt the dealer’s business,” Bridgman says. Three weeks later, at a pier show in New York, he did buy a flag, which he remembers vividly. “It was a thirty-eight-star in a circle pattern printed on cotton,” he says. “It was shrink-wrapped on foam core, like a bad print. But I thought, what if you got a good period frame and figured out how to frame it, and sold it as folk art and history?”
It was a Eureka moment. Bridgman bought a nineteenth-century heavy mahogany painted white frame and stripped it. A local framer stitched down the flag on cotton backing, and Bridgman mounted it in the frame, which he fitted with UV-protected glass that he kept at some distance from the flag itself. He sold it immediately.
Though he still sells nineteenth-century Americana-game boards, weather vanes, and painted furniture—flags are the lion’s share of his business. “It’s American folk art in its purest form. It’s almost completely ignored, and no one understood the most basic things about it,” he says of the field.
“I like oddball things, quirky things, like a star configuration I’ve never seen before,” Bridgman says. What he looks for first, he says, “are graphics. Graphics, specific history, age, and size. When they come together it’s a masterpiece.” He points with the pride of a parent to a yard-long 1856 parade flag that bears advertising that reads Frémont and Freedom, the first Republican Party presidential candidate, with the stars set in the shape of one large star. “That’s a Rolls-Royce pattern; it’s pre-Civil War; the size is perfect, and it’s an interesting campaign.” Since flags have almost invariably spent time outdoors, they are rarely in perfect condition. “Condition is not number one,” Bridgman says. “It’s not even number five.”
Graphics may count most with him, but his customers seem to be interested first in size. Though Bridgman has flags that range from the size of a large postage stamp to more than eight feet in length, customers want something in between, usually something that will fit nicely over, say, a fireplace. “My biggest audience is New York financial people,” he says. “They’re typically patriotic, with an interest in collecting and the incomes to be able to support it.” What his buyers aren’t interested in, he says, is other kinds of antiques; they just want flags.
Bridgman still goes to about twenty shows a year, but does most of his business from his home base in York County, Pennsylvania. He no longer has to scour the countryside in search of inventory; people bring things directly to him. His depth of knowledge gives him the confidence to buy a flag from a photograph, and buy he does, sometimes as many as twenty-five flags a week. “I’m a sick buyer,” he says, laughing at himself. “I’m a loose cannon. I buy everything.” He now has an inventory of roughly 1,400 flags in the barn next to his house. “I forget the really expensive things I own. I’ll find something I haven’t seen in three years and it cost ten grand.” Given how strongly he feels about the flags, it’s a wonder he can bear to part with them. “I do have an emotional attachment” he says. “But it’s not hard to sell when you have 1,400 of them.”
Images: Flag, American, 1864. Cotton and ink, 14 by 18 inches. This flag features thirty-six stars, thirty-five of which are arranged to spell the word “FREE” while the single star outside the pattern represents Nevada, the thirty-sixth state. It was made for the 1864 presidential campaign of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson and was signed by Lincoln. Private collection. Jeff R. Bridgman in his house in York County, Pennsylvania, in a chair attributed to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, c. 1760-1780, and covered in fragments of a large medallion suzani from Samarkand, Uzbekistan, c. 1790-1810. On his lap is an American flag with thirty-seven stars in a rare starburst pattern. Nebraska was the thirty-seventh state to join the Union in 1867 and the thirty-seven-star flag was generally used until the addition of Colorado in 1876. Photographs by Amanda Eberts.