Hanging on a nondescript 97-year-old brick building on Freeman Avenue is a sign—red, white, and blue, of course—that reads: The National Flag Co. You might not notice if you weren’t looking for it. Maybe a relic from a long-gone West End business.
Open the red door beneath the sign, though, and you’ll find a thriving company inside—a small lobby with a patriotic umbrella holder at the top of a short flight of stairs. A service counter and a small flag museum, open to the public in non-COVID times. And a roughly 18,000-square-foot factory, where nearly a million flags and banners are made and distributed every year. It’s technically a small business, The National Flag Company, but one with a major national footprint that’s been around a whopping 151 years—one of the oldest independent custom flag makers in the United States.
For 117 of those years, a member of the Schaller family has been working here—first George Schaller, who started as a stock boy at a previous location in 1903 and worked his way up to president—the American Dream personified. Next in charge were Art Schaller Sr. and his son Lawrence. In 2005, Art Schaller Jr. took over and has been running the company ever since. Now his son, Artie, is a co-owner and next in line for the president’s job.
It’s unusual enough these days to find a family business that’s been around so long, let alone one making something as old school as flags, largely by hand, right here in the United States. But for the Schaller family, the National Flag Company is more than business as usual or a local treasure. It’s also something of a vocation.
Flags and flag-making are ingrained in me,” Art says. “They’re in my blood.” As a toddler, he used to visit his dad at work, at the National Flag offices; as a teen, he and his siblings “counted inventory, did odds-and-ends jobs, and even tarred and coated the roof a few times in the old building on Flint Street.” He “thought about” being a police officer in high school, but ended up starting full-time at National Flag in 1979; to date, “this is the only job I’ve ever had,” he says. Ditto for Artie, who came on board full time in 2008 but who had “always worked here in the summers.”
Art’s wife (Artie’s mom) works here too, but Schallers are by no means the company’s only employees. In fact, among the first things you notice walking on to the factory floor are two walls—one full of thank-you notes (letters from school kids, clients, and visitors) and another with photos of every National Flag employee, 27 people in all. Though some are still on furlough due to the pandemic, the average length of employment for these skilled artisans is between 17 and 20 years—at one end of the spectrum are a handful of University of Cincinnati DAAP students; at the other end are Dan Earls, who’s operated the company’s 115-year-old printing press for 45 years, and Connie Phelps—“one of the best seamstresses in the nation,” says Artie—who’s been at National Flag for 20-plus years and spent almost a week this summer embroidering one 5-and-a-half-foot by 9-and-a-half-foot graduation banner.
“People take pride in their flags,” says Artie Schaller. “Working in an industry that’s all about representing your customer’s passions is an honor.”
In addition to custom American flags, National Flag has produced nylon, polyester, and cotton flags and vinyl banners for clients such as professional sports leagues, the Olympics, restaurants, military organizations, cities, colleges and universities, the Vietnam Veterans (POW / MIA)—even an organization called Honor and Remember, which presents custom, hand-embroidered commemorative flags to families of fallen military heroes. “People take pride in their flags,” says Artie. “Working in an industry that’s all about representing your customer’s passions is an honor.”
Meantime, running a family business means doing a little bit of everything. Early on, Art worked on the printing press; he also knows how to sew. And Artie can probably give factory tours blindfolded. Either way, National Flag is “small enough to be detail-oriented,” says Art, “and big enough to handle just about any job that comes our way.”
They have a digital printer on site for vinyl banners, but many of the custom applique or completely sewn flags made here each year come together in a century-old, hands-on process, says Artie. Staffers use paper patterns to trace a logo and/or words onto fabric, then hand-pin the logo onto the flag itself; later, other team members stitch on the logos using sewing machines and then hand-trim away any excess fabric. The process can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 80 hours per flag, depending on the level of detail involved. For big jobs—think tens of thousands of miniature American flags that will eventually be threaded onto hand-split wood dowel rods—the team fires up that 115-year-old printing press, a metal behemoth that takes three people to run and an hour each to warm up and clean, but can produce up to 30,000 handheld flags in a day.
In 2020, it’s impossible to talk about any business without touching on the effects of the pandemic. When the state of Ohio mandated business closures, “we shut down March 23 and laid off the entire factory,” says Art. He and Artie still came in to fill orders but the usually humming factory floor was eerily quiet. In April—normally National Flag’s busiest month by far, in preparation for graduation banners, spring training banners (they count seven major league ball parks as clients), Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July—business was at a virtual standstill. To date, they’ve brought 17 employees back to work.
Thankfully, the National Flag Company is no stranger to hard times; consider the year it was incorporated, 1894, when the United States was in the middle of its worst economic depression to date and suffering through massive railroad strikes, plus organized unemployed worker protests. Still, before 2020, Art was considering retirement; now, he says he’ll stay on to help guide the company through this rough patch.
It’s no official barometer, but the Schallers say American flag sales definitely increase when the nation faces tough times. The first time Art noticed it was in 1981, during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The second time was in 1990, during Operation Desert Storm. The company’s busiest time ever was immediately after September 11, 2001. Not only did National Flag sell out of American flags in three days; the Schallers and their full staff needed eight months just to replenish stock.
Interestingly, this current year—pandemic, protests, and all—has seen an “uptick” in both flag sales and flag pole installations over last year, says Artie (National Flag acquired an installation company in 2006). National Flag also “got quite a few orders over the pandemic with notes saying the customer wanted to support small business or a local company,” says Artie. Customers know “they can save money shopping at a big box store,” he adds, but “quality of product is our top priority.”
Clients aren’t the only ones impressed with the Schallers; National Flag was unexpectedly named in a Dayton-area flag maker’s will as her successor of choice (they acquired her company in 2004). And in 2019, Art’s peers gave him the National Independent Flag Dealer’s Association’s Betsy Ross Award—“the industry’s highest and most prestigious honor,” says Art, who promptly “dedicated it to all the employees of the National Flag Company, past and present.” In a patriotic moment of his own, he notes how proud he is “to be involved first-hand in a manufacturing facility that produces the American flag, one of the most recognizable symbols in the world and the official symbol of the U.S.A., which in my opinion,” he adds, “is the greatest country on earth.”
It’s also telling that, before Art even mentioned the award, he shared instead a story about a newly naturalized U.S. citizen who came into the National Flag Company headquarters with his wife, looking for an American flag to fly here, in the man’s new home country. The man was excited about everything he saw at National Flag. In fact, he loved the display flag so much, he asked if he could buy it. They said yes.
Could he buy the pole it was on, too? And the stand? Yes, and yes again. He even wanted to buy the umbrella holder in the lobby and the “patriotic flag belt” Art was wearing (sorry—not for sale). Looking back, says Art, smiling, “That was something else.” A bright spot in 2020 and a strong reminder of what that American flag—and his life’s work—means to so many people, the world over.