The American flag evokes many things to many people. It is a simple yet brilliant work of graphic art, and its red and white stripes and blue and white stars have become an icon in American folk art. Jasper Johns painted the American flag because he was interested in playing with the familiar.

Just as everyone loves a parade — and what parade is complete without waving the flag? — everyone has a story to tell about Old Glory.

During the Vietnam War, demonstrators and peace activists burned flags, while hippies attending outdoor rock concerts celebrated the star spangled banner by wearing it.

The stars and stripes have been used to cover everything from coffins to picnic tables, college dorm room walls and holes — or pretend holes — in jeans. There are even jeans manufacturers named Old Glory and Faded Glory.

Many Americans consider such unauthorized uses of the nation’s symbol disrespectful. Desecration of the flag is against the law for government institutions but is protected by freedom of speech for individuals.

Following the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, the flag once again became a symbol of pride for those who had rebelled against it a generation ago.

Morven Museum & Gardens, a Princeton landmark that traces its history to the time of the nation’s first flag in Colonial America, is a natural venue for “The Stars and Stripes: Fabric of the American Spirit,” Friday, July 1, through Sunday, October 30, with an opening reception on Thursday, June 30, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The exhibit features 108 flags from the Pierce Collection of American Parade Flags and traces the history of our national emblem from its humble beginnings in 1777 into the 20th century. The title of the exhibit is the title of the book that retired banker J. Richard Pierce of Whitehouse Station wrote in 2005, based on his collection.

A good time to view the exhibit is Monday, July 4, when Morven is hosting its third July 4 Jubilee, noon to 3 p.m., with “The Past Masters” demonstrating gun smithing, home medical remedies, needlework, and ice cream making; the opportunity to sign the Declaration of Independence, meet “George Washington,” play Colonial games, and watch a dramatic presentation highlighting the lives of women who belonged to the Army during the American Revolution, performed by Stacy Roth. Live music will be provided by the Rock River Gypsies and visitors can sing “Happy Birthday America” and eat cake. Admission is free.

During a recent visit to Morven, a small scale model of the gallery space on the second floor had been assembled by Pierce in order to lay out the exhibit. Pierce had scanned each flag from his collection and reproduced them to scale to see where they would hang.

“We’ve been looking for a flag exhibit for a while,” says Morven managing director Clare Michel Smith. She and curator of collections and exhibitions Elizabeth Allan visited the Pierce Collection when it was at the Red Mill Museum in Clinton and agreed it was the perfect fit for Morven.

“Opening it near the Fourth of July makes sense since Morven was built by a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Richard Stockton),” says Smith. And with the 150-year anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, it is also timely — a good number of flags in the collection date from the Civil War.

But what really clinched it for Smith and Allan was seeing a tiny Bible flag. Bible flags are small flags made by family members that were used as bookmarks. The pieced and hand-stitched Civil War-era Bible flag that gave Smith and Allan the chills is about three inches wide, with sequins for stars and a tassel at the top. “To think of a soldier in the battlefield, with something his sister or mother made for him that he kept in the Bible — and that it actually came back with him,” says Allan.

Pierce says he’s been a political junky since he was 14; he loves history and says he is patriotic. He worked in banking for 34 years, and retired as a senior VP at United Counties Trust Company (now Wells Fargo) headquartered in Cranford. Today, he says, “I remained politically engaged.”

He and his wife, Barbara, enjoy attending antiques shows and auctions and are avid collectors. In 1991, he recounts, they were at a show in Pennsylvania, and a dealer friend “had a gorgeous flag hanging at the back of the tent,” says Pierce. “But it was too expensive. Unbeknownst to me, my wife made arrangements to buy it — she’s the one with deep pockets in the family — and gave it to me as a surprise.”

The couple hung the 30th wedding anniversary gift over the fireplace, and it was the beginning of the collection. Pierce went on to acquire more than 260 flags from antique shows, auctions, dealers, and even eBay between 2001 and 2008. He had a vision that someday he would like to exhibit the collection.

“To build a flag collection, you need to have dealers,” he says. “There are so many collectors who also have an interest in flags: collectors of folk art, textiles, Americana, even political collectors.” He has turned down many flags because they may have been too large to display.

What he likes most about the flags are the stories they tell and the configurations of the stars. “I like thinking of that person at that moment, and what they were thinking,” says Pierce. “I want people to learn, and that’s why I wrote the book and give talks.” Pierce will give three talks at Morven in the fall (see listings page 35).

“Richard was not just collecting the flags but also the long-forgotten thoughts, feelings, and memories that were woven into the fabric of each flag he added to his collection,” writes Jeffrey Kenneth Kohn, an antiques dealer, in the introduction to the book.

“To me, the flag is the symbol of our individual freedoms, traditions, and national unity,” says Pierce, who served in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves after earning a degree in political science from Rutgers in 1961. His mother had been a homemaker, his father a machinist for RCA, and they raised him in Orange.

Interestingly, many of the flags in the collection contain writing on them, such as “Philadelphia International Exhibition”; “We Mourn Our Chief Has Fallen,” from a series of paper mourning flags printed for onlookers to wave during Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession; and other messages. The stripes serve as rules in a notebook for such thoughts.

In the second half of the 19th century, politicians printed their portraits and campaign slogans on the flag. To win voter support, they brought attention to political issues of the day. “Candidates for public office believed that by identifying themselves with the flag they would be viewed as patriotic in the eyes of the electorate,” writes Pierce.

Today this practice is in violation of the Federal Flag Code, which prohibits the placement of any writing, pictures, or designs on the flag or the use of the flag for advertising purposes.

The Flag Code also prohibits a flag from touching the ground. If it is flown at night, it must be illuminated, and when the edges become tattered, the flag must be repaired or replaced.

If it is so badly worn that it can no longer serve as a symbol of the U.S., it is to be destroyed “in a dignified manner.” The American Legion regularly conducts flag-burning ceremonies, usually on June 14, Flag Day.

As every American school child learns, the original flag in 1777 had 13 stars and 13 stripes for the original 13 colonies. Beginning in 1818, a star for each new state was added on July 4, following the year of statehood. There have been 27 official flags of the U.S., with the 48-star flag in existence for the longest time period, when Arizona was added in 1912 until the additions of Alaska, in 1959, and Hawaii in 1960. The 50-star flag, ordered by President Eisenhower, has been the standard for more than half a century.

Most of the Pierce collection is from before 1912. “That was the most interesting to me because the star configuration changed — they could do whatever they wanted,” says Pierce, showing me one with a double C pattern from 1837-1840, and one with an eagle from the 1860s. “With the Louisiana Purchase, the West opened up. The eagle was an important symbol to Indian tribes, so the settlers presented the eagle flag to the Indians as a token of peace.”

Other patterns the stars took were a double medallion, diamond, pentagon, square, and even a star.

The nation’s 100th birthday inspired a renewed patriotism that swept across the country, with cities and towns hosting parades.

A decade after the end of the Civil War, “the centennial was a period of national celebration, with the flag as the primary symbol of American idealism and national pride,” writes Pierce. “It was a time when flag designers, limited only by their own imagination, created flags with a variety of different star patterns.”

In one window-size flag, made of cotton, silk, wool, and paper, 38 stars form a pattern to spell out 1776-1876. Each star has tiny spokes that help create a glimmering effect.

Other centennial flags have words printed on the stripes as a tribute to the nation’s progress.

Many of us learned in school that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag, but this turns out to be a myth. The original design was inspired by the flag of the British East India Company and, possibly, George Washington’s family’s coat of arms.

A century after her death, Betsy Ross’s grandson started the story that she created the first flag, based on stories an aunt had told him when he was a little boy. In truth, Ross was a seamstress from Philadelphia who made flags for the Navy, but she did not make the first one.

In 2008 experts from the Smithsonian Institute wrote in “The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon” that this story helped promote Ross as a patriotic role model for young girls and a symbol of women’s contributions to American history.

“No one knows who made the first flag,” says Pierce, but Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a federal judge who lived in Bordentown, is credited with the design.

The flags in the Pierce collection need special care for preservation — the silk breaks down and separates — so they may be pressure mounted with acid-free archival materials. Cotton may be sewn to acid-free mat board.

Among the more recent flags in the collection is one from 1942 to 1945, made on oilcloth. It shows two soldiers riding motorcycles, and it says “Put us down for Harley Davidsons when we get back!” and is, indeed, an ad for Harley.

A chronology of the American flag shows which years different states were added and the dates the flag was updated. There is a memory board where visitors can write their recollections of American flags.

“We preserve those memories in a book that will go into our archives,” says Allan, who joined Morven as curator of collections and exhibitions in February, 2010, just in time to hang “The Kennedys — Family Portrait: Photographs by Richard Avedon.” And the word “hang” is not used as a metaphor; she literally climbs the ladder to suspend the framed works from gallery wire.

Born in Mission Viejo, CA, Allan grew up in Colt’s Neck. Her mother is a social worker and her father works in publishing as a project director. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, in 2006, she went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh in the history of art, theory, and display (“It’s really museum studies and art history,” she says). Allan worked at the Hirschl and Adler Galleries in New York as assistant in the decorative arts department before coming to Morven, where she enjoys telling stories in exhibitions, such as that of the American flag.

Morven Museum & Garden, the former home of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton and former gubernatorial residence, completed the first two phases of a three-phase restoration plan in 2004. The poolhouse is slated to open on Sunday, September 25, along with an outdoor sculpture exhibit. Restoration of the poolhouse will preserve the period when Robert Wood Johnson lived here. Clare Smith, who has been at Morven since 2000, has seen the washhouse restored as offices and the interior restored into a museum. “During the time it was a residence, kitchens and bathrooms were added, and so we’ve restored it to its 1850 state,” she says.

The State of New Jersey owns the property, and Historic Morven Inc. operates it. “The Battleship New Jersey, the Old Barracks, and Morven were all line items in the state budget and removed,” says Smith. “It’s been a tough year.”

In order to generate revenue, a new policy has been implemented to allow the rental of the facility for corporate events. “It will be rented in a steward-like manner,” says Smith. “The biggest part of the collection is the home itself.”

Smith was born in Amityville, NY, and raised in Huntington, NY. Her father was a mechanical engineer, and her mother a homemaker and, later, a school administrator. Smith graduated from Bucknell in 1976 with a degree in math and went on to earn a master’s in business administration, which makes her the ideal director of a non-profit cultural institution in financially challenging times.

In fall, 2012, Morven plans an exhibit that will show views of all 21 counties of New Jersey in watercolor, oils, and lithographs, including the Jersey Shore and the Battle of Trenton, as well as shipwrecks off the coast of New Jersey and other catastrophes.

As for the power that the flags in the exhibit has to affect visitors, curator Allen says: “It’s amazing that something that’s just a piece of fabric can elicit so much emotion,” she says, “and that people can get so up in arms because it’s so meaningful.”

Stars and Stripes: Fabric of the American Spirit, Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Thursday, June 30, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Opening reception for an exhibit of 100 flags from the Pierce Collection to American Parade Flags, a tribute the America’s national symbol. The Flag Act specified only that the flag of the United States be 13 stripes, alternating red and white, and that the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field. A variety of configurations and patterns will be on display though October 30. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.

July 4 Jubilee, Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Monday, July 4, noon to 3 p.m. Sign the Declaration of Independence, commemorate the 13 colonies at a bell ringing ceremony, demonstrations of colonial life by the Past Pasters, meet George Washington, live music, refreshments, and a dramatic presentation by Stacy Roth highlighting the lives of women who belonged to the Army during the American Revolution. Free.

The museum will be open for guests to see “The Stars and Stripes: Fabric of the American Spirit.” Admission to the museum is $6. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.

Flag Lectures

Thursday, September 15: Evolution of the Stars and Stripes. This lecture brings together and recounts many stories that characterize the spirit of America and honors the flag that symbolizes individual freedoms and national unity. It is intended to provide a distinctive insight into the history of the American flag as well as a greater appreciation for our national symbol of freedom and the spirit of patriotism.

Thursday, September 22: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. This lecture celebrates the greatness of our 16th president and pays tribute to the man who preserved the union when it seemed almost certain that it would not, or could not, survive. Abraham Lincoln would not allow the Confederacy to divide the country, and while his determination cost him his life, his resolve earned him the eternal gratitude of all Americans.

Thursday, October 13: Civil War Remembrances. This PowerPoint presentation takes a detailed look at a variety of flags from the Pierce Collection that have an historical connection to a specific event or personal story associated with the Civil War. Flags celebrating parades, reunions, and war heroes whose names are part of American military history are discussed with emphasis on the stories they tell and the lives they touched.

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