Naval Flag Making Establishment – New York Navy Yard.
By Lillian E. Zeh.
Little known to the outside world, there is in the Brooklyn Navy Yard a picturesque and interesting department in which many skilled needlewomen are kept constantly at work - namely, the Naval Flag-Making Establishment. To supply the hundreds of vessels, ranging from the great battleships down to the tiny bunches, with their prescribed quota of bunting, requires the constant manufacture of many thousands of flags. To cut out, sew, and complete these, Uncle Sam maintains an extensive plant going at full blast all the year round, and employing nearly half a hundred skilled needlewomen and a few men. The Flag Room is on the third floor of the Bureau of Equipment Building. On entering the large room, the visitor's first impression is a blaze of color. Rolls of bright bunting are heaped up, waiting to be cut, while long lines of electrically driven sewing-machines, with women operators, are reeling; off and putting the finishing touches to American and foreign ensigns of many different hues and patterns.
Last year this flag factory cost the Government $60,000; $43,000 of this amount was for material alone, and $17, 000 for labor. The number of flags turned out during the year was 50,000, including 300 distinctive and special kinds. A good idea of the number of flags that must be carried by a single ship can be gathered from a large pile, shoulder high and 15 feet long, just finished for the new battleship Connecticut. About one-half of the lot is composed of the foreign flags, encased in thick paper bags. The name of the country is stenciled on the bottom. The remainder, including the flags for ordinary use, signal sets, the international code, etc., are not wrapped, but tied in round bundles and lettered. The pile contains 250 different flags, the regulation number every ship of our Navy has to carry, the material and making of which cost Uncle Sam just $2,500 for each ship. This sum, multiplied by the number of ships in the service, foots up to many thousands. It is necessary to equip them for all forms of ceremonial and official occasions, saluting and signaling, both at home and in foreign waters. With an extensive array of flags stored on board, the ship is prepared to meet all high-rank officials of any nation who may come aboard, or into whose waters the vessel may enter while on a cruise, and to observe the proper etiquette. The foreign complement contains forty-three flags, each 25 feet long and 13 feet wide. Certain of these are full of animal shapes, curious designs, and marine landscapes. They are, therefore, difficult to make, and require a surprising length of time to finish.
This flag manufacturing establishment is under the supervision of Mr. Thomas Maloy, officially termed Master Flag-maker, and Miss M. A. Woods, Quarter Woman Flagmaker. Besides critically inspecting the finished output, these officials also test all the bunting. This comes from Lowell, Mass., in lots of several thousand yards at a time. One day a sample lot of bunting is soaked and washed in soap and water. The next day the same process is followed with salt water. It is then exposed to the weather for ten days, thirty hours of which time must be in the bright sun. This is for the color and fading test. The last test is for tensile strength. For this test a strip two inches wide of the warp is placed in the machine, and must withstand a pulling strain of 65 pounds, while two inches of the filling must sustain a 45-pound strain.
The flags are cut out from measurements arranged on chalk-mark lines and metal markers on the floor. Large strips and certain designs can be more conveniently stitched in this way. Daily this checkered section of the floor is covered at all hours with several different flags, with the men and women cutters at work. The final sewing is done on the machines by the women. Each machine is swifly run by a small electric motor. Some of the women excel in sewing on the stars; others are skilled in finishing certain other parts of the flag. Nearly all have been many years in the establishment. The pay runs from $1.20 to $2 a day.
The thousands of white stars used on the flags are cut out by an ingenious machine, specially devised for this purpose, operated by electricity. Only a few years ago, the stars were cut out by hand. Now a plunger, fitted with steel knives the shape and size of the star wanted, with a single down stroke cuts out from 50 to 100 stars at a time. Pressing the foot on a pedal operates the machine. Some eight different sizes of stars are used, each having a special cutting die. Running the machine for only an hour a day, furnishes enough stars for several days.
Two men sew on the flax raven heading and the wooden toggs to the finished flags. Afterwards the heading is stamped with the name of the ensign and date of contract.
The largest flag made is the United States ensign No. 1, which is 36 feet long by 19 feet wide, and costs $40 to turn out. The President's flag requires the longest time of any to
Make as it takes one woman a whole month to finish it. This consists of a blue ground with the coat-of-arms of the United States in the center. The life-sized eagle, with long, outstretched wings, and other emblems, are all hand-embroidered and involve the most patient work. This flag is made in two sizes, 10 feet by 14 feet, and 3 feet by 5 feet. The embroidery silk used on this and other designs costs $9 a pound.
The foreign flags are the most showy and difficult to make. This is notably true of the flags of the Central and South American republics, two of the most tedious being those of Salvador and Costa Rica. The former has for a centerpiece a regular landscape consisting of a belching volcano and a rising sun, set in a varied design of draped banners, cactus branches, cornucopias, and a swastika, or symbolic design, in the ground of a rayed diamond, with the date of the independence of the nation inscribed at the top. Costa Rica has two ships in full sail on each side of a dividing chain of mountains rising from the sea, with the' morning sun just appearing in the background. The whole is surrounded with draped flags, with staffs surmounted with spears, battle-axes, swords, trumpets, etc. From 100 to 200 different pieces are used in these different ensigns, all of which are patiently sewed on by hand. A separate corps of hand embroiderers do nothing but this kind of work, and it occupies the time of one woman sixteen days to complete the Salvador design. The cost of making the Costa Rican flag is $45; that of Salvador, $52.50, the most expensive foreign emblem made. The flag of Siam, containing the big white elephant costs $38. Another record-breaker in point of trouble to make, is the Dragon flag of China. This huge mythological monster is the prominent feature of the Chinese standard; and its fantastic scaled body, with claws and open mouth, is worked out on a yellow ground in blue, green, and white. Over 100 separate pieces form the grotesque figure, ten feet long. Twelve to fourteen days are taken to finish this flag, which costs $51.75. The cheapest foreign flag made is the Moorish, which costs $21. Each ship is entitled to a new supply of flags every three years, though some flags wear out in less time.
Originally published in The Technical Magazine. October 1906.