“I’m not really a flag collector so much as a collector of what I consider to be American artwork at its best,” says Tom Connelly, who started acquiring flags 25 years ago. Currently, he has about 20 on display in his Ardmore home. “There are others scattered around the house—some in storage in the basement and others on loan to family and friends,” he says.
Connelly’s collection has been a part of many publications and books, and he’s been asked to serve as an expert speaker on the subject of flags. In honor of Flag Day on June 14, we pick his brain for Old Glory trivia.
MLT: What’s the real story of Betsy Ross?
TC: Though it can’t be positively proven, Francis Hopkinson of Philadelphia took the idea of creating a flag to a seamstress, Betsy Ross, who crafted it by hand.
MLT: What fabric were the original flags made of?
TC: Some very old flags are made of linsey-woolsey, a costly English material composed of linen and wool. Silk flags are rare, too. Early American flags were commonly made of linen and cotton.
MLT: You must’ve come across some very unique flags.
TC: My favorite is the 1889 North Dakota flag that sports 39 stars. Another is the shield banner that purportedly was suspended above George Washington when he was sworn in at Federal Hall, New York, as the first U.S. president in 1789. I still own it. A popular one is the Grand Union Flag—I call it the mother of the Betsy Ross flag—which has a British Union Jack where the stars should be. Often referred to as the Continental Colours, it was used early in the American Revolution. Though I owned it once, it remains in Philadelphia.
MLT: You downsized your flag collection. Why?
TC: I’d collected approximately 120 flags, but because of their large size, I literally couldn’t move them out of my house. I had to do something, so I sold 100 at Sotheby’s in 2002. I have 20-plus flags now—many of museum quality.
MLT: Do you ever have any regrets about selling your flags?
TC: Only one. The 1896 “Bible Flag,” commemorating Utah’s entrance into the Union as the 45th state—and, more importantly, memorializing a young soldier fighting in France during World War I. He wrote his POW story directly onto the flag, which was tucked neatly into the family Bible he took abroad with him. The soldier probably only paid $1 for the original flag.
MLT: How should we treat the United States flag?
TC: The flag or banner is honored in America—unlike the flags of [some] other countries. It may never touch the ground. It’s displayed from sunrise to sunset, never in inclement weather, and never at night—unless it’s lighted. It [should be] raised briskly and lowered ceremoniously. Old flags must never be burned, buried or thrown away, but retired properly.