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Flag makers in the spotlight as Congress gets ready to discuss Washington, D.C., statehood

Several designs for a U.S. flag with 51 stars are already on the launchpad.
WASHINGTON, DC, MARCH 20: The district government has placed 51
The Washington, D.C., government placed 51-star flags along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol and around the White House on March 20 in advance of a statehood hearing.Astrid Riecken / For The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The battle to get Washington, D.C., admitted into the union as the 51st state has been waged for two centuries, but adding a 51st star to the U.S. flag would take less than 60 minutes.

So says Carter Beard, president of the venerable company Annin Flagmakers, a six-generation family firm that has sewn some of the most famous U.S. flags in history.

“We could do it in about an hour,” Beard said when asked how long it would take to add a star. “We call in a ‘running change,’ and the redesign part of the process can be done quickly. It’s manufacturing the new flags that takes time.”

Statehood, which has long been the dream of many residents in Washington, is once again being debated for the nation’s capital, and another Flag Day is upon us.

If it turns out statehood is in the cards, the new U.S. flag could look like the banner Mayor Muriel Bowser unveiled two years ago, when she planted 140 of them on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the U.S. Capitol ahead of a congressional hearing on statehood.

It has three horizontal rows with nine stars, three horizontal rows with eight stars and the blessing of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who has — as she has done every year since she took office in 1991 — introduced a D.C. statehood measure.

Eleanor Holmes Norton with 51-star flag
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., presents a U.S. flag with 51 stars, commemorating the possibility of adding Washington, D.C., as the 51st state, in her Capitol Hill office on Feb. 18, 2020.Thomas McKinless / CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images file

“I defy you to find a flag that looks all that different from the flag we had when there were 48 states,” Norton said. “Simply adding a star will not have a cosmic change on the flag.”

What did she think of Bowser’s flag?

“I loved it,” Norton said, laughing. “But it was not because the flag stood out in any way.”

Beard said company's partner, Embroidery Solutions of South Carolina, has already sent it three configurations with 51 stars that could be used to produce a new flag. But he’s not banking on that happening this year, not even with the Democrats in control of the House, the Senate and the White House.

Many Republicans oppose statehood for Washington — and for Puerto Rico — because any congressional representation would almost certainly be Democratic. Norton is not allowed to vote on the House floor, but she can vote on procedural matters and in congressional committees. Washington residents have no representation in the Senate.

“If D.C. were to become a state, Democrats would gain two reliably liberal seats in the U.S. Senate,” Emma Vaughn, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, recently told The Guardian. “They cite various reasons for why they want D.C. statehood, but the truth is that these extra Senate seats would be a rubber stamp for their radical, far-left agenda.”

The House in April passed a D.C. statehood bill with a record number of co-sponsors and the endorsement of President Joe Biden.

Still, it’s a long shot in an evenly divided Senate, given the 60-vote hurdle needed to overcome a filibuster. Even without the filibuster, key Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia are not on board with making the district the 51st state.

So Beard isn’t revving up to start producing U.S. flags with 51 stars — or 52 stars, for that matter — any time soon.

“Don’t forget, they’ve talked about admitting Washington and also Puerto Rico for years, and nothing happened,” Beard said. “So we are following what’s going on and we’re ready to make new flags, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Betsy Ross and two young girls on the left, showing an American flag to George Washington standing at center, and three other men standing on the right, possibly the Hon. George Ross and Robert Morris, and an unidentified military officer.
Betsy Ross and two young girls show an American flag to George Washington, center, and three other men, possibly George Ross, Robert Morris and an unidentified military officer.Thomas Dowler / Library of Congress

Change has been a constant for a flag that had 13 alternating red and white stripes and 13 white stars in a circle on a blue background to symbolize each of the 13 new states in the Union when it was unveiled in June 1777.

Since then, the design has been modified 26 times as more states joined the union, most recently on Aug. 21, 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state.

“My father, who is now retired, was around in 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states,” Beard said. “He remembers that as a crazy time. Lots of people wanted the new flags right away. I imagine if we went from 50 to 51 states, some people would want the new flags right away.”

Annin and U.S. history are deeply intertwined. The company produced the first flag the Marines raised at Iwo Jima (the flag in the Lou Lowery photo, not the one in the famous Rosenthal photo), some of the American flags flying on the moon and the flag that was draped over the coffin of President Abraham Lincoln.

A U.S. Marine from the 5th Division of the 28th Regiment stands guard atop Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands of Japan as others hoist the American flag during World War II, Feb. 23, 1945.
A U.S. Marine stands guard atop Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands of Japan as others hoist the U.S. flag during World War II on Feb. 23, 1945. It was the first flag raised by the Marine Corps at Iwo Jima; a second, larger one was raised later that day.Louis R. Lowery / U.S. Marine Corps via AP file

The standard 3-foot-by-5-foot flag, which is made of nylon, requires about six minutes of labor to produce, said Beard, whose company supplies flags to Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot and over 300 other Annin dealers in all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C.

The design of the current 50-star flag, which made its debut in 1960, started off as a history project for a 17-year-old Lancaster, Ohio, high school student named Robert G. Heft, who died in 2009.

Using his mother’s sewing machine, Heft spent about 12 hours stitching together a 50-star flag, only to get a B-minus for his efforts. His teacher, however, said he’d give Heft an A if Congress chose his design.

Two years later, Heft got that A after President Dwight D. Eisenhower — acting on recommendations from a small committee he established to review the submissions — selected his design out of the 1,500 or so entries.

“I never thought when I designed the flag that it would outlast the 48-star flag,” Heft said in a 2007 interview with The Grand Rapids Press in Michigan.

Heft’s design was essentially “a conservative modification of the existing flag,” Peter Ansoff, who heads the North American Vexillological Association, said in an email. “There's no way to know, of course, but I suspect that the process would be similar for a 51-star flag.”

Vexillology is the study of flags.

From purely a design standpoint, Beard said, he’s a fan of the Japanese flag.

“A lot of people say the Japanese flag is very striking,” he said. “It’s a simple design with the red circle on the white background, and everybody knows right away which country it represents.”

Asked what his favorite flag is — besides the Stars and Stripes, of course — Beard replied, “Those were the ones I made when my kids were born.

“I had one that said ‘It’s a boy’ on a blue background and another that said ‘It’s a girl’ on a pink background,” he said.