Northwestern York County flag expert: ‘I was interested in my nation’s heritage’
York County’s Jeff Bridgman is a former Americana dealer who has become an expert in antique American flags. Background post: To see the American flag in a historic York County moment, see: York County’s own Civil War – Part I .
From obscure Franklin Township comes a well-known expert on antique American flags.
Operating out of his northwest York County workshop, Jeff Bridgman is considered the top dealer in antique flags in America.
So what does he think about Betsy Ross’s place in history?
She made some early flags, but it’s unlikely that she made the first one, he told the York Daily Record/Sunday News’ Jennifer Vogelsong.
In a sidebar, Vogelsong reported:
Bridgman said the more likely candidate is Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey senator and signer of the Declaration of Independence who was head of Congress’ U.S. Navy Board. He frequently designed flags for ships and submitted a bill for designing the U.S. flag after Congress passed the Flag Act of 1777. Bridgman said Hopkinson requested a cask of federal wine as payment for his services, but never received it.
The newspaper’s main story from Nov. 11 follows:
When Jeff Bridgman was growing up, he collected marbles, bottle caps, Matchbox cars and anything that had to do with J.R.R. Tolkien. He tagged along when his mother went antiquing and became fascinated with rare and unusual items.
“I was the kid who, in fourth grade, when the teacher brought in abacuses that were all Chinese except for one, I had to have the Japanese one in the bunch.”
After college, Bridgman tried to convince his mother to start an antiques business. He soon realized it was more his dream than hers, so he frequented yard sales and auctions, buying items he liked and could afford, then trying to resell them and double his money. “That’s the general guideline,” he said. “But in practice, it doesn’t work.”
For years, the Franklin Township resident worked full time as a healthcare administrator. But when he wasn’t at work, he poured his time into antiques – attending shows, buying and selling as much as he could. He specialized in early Americana and folk art, a less lucrative segment of the antiques business, but one that held more appeal for him. “I’m generally patriotic, and I was interested in my nation’s heritage,” he said.
In 1998, eight years after he started, Bridgman made enough money to quit his job and make his passion his profession.
Then, one day, while attending an antique show in Nashville, he spotted two little flags with circular star designs that looked similar. “All at once, it hit me that I knew nothing about early American flags,” he said. “I didn’t even know the most basic things.”
He started asking around and discovered that few other Americana dealers did, either. “I said to myself, ‘My God, they’re fantastic pieces of folk art and they’re our flag. What’s more American than our flag?”
From then on, his focus was flags: 13-star flags, sewn flags, parade flags, political flags.
He learned to identify them by their star count and layout, overall design, size and material, and has become the foremost dealer in antique flags. “There’s no question about it, right now, he’s the major dealer in the country,” said Richard Pierce, a collector of parade flags in Hunterdon County, N.J., who has bought from Bridgman for years. “He has good sources for obtaining good flags.”
Bridgman travels the country, attending dozens of antique shows each year. He contracts with conservationists to work on the pieces he buys, preserving and presenting them for posterity to enjoy. A couple work in his Franklin Township workshop, but most complete projects off-site.
Mary Kaldany, a textile conservator at The Textile Conservation Workshop in South Salem, N.Y., has worked on several flags a year for Bridgman during the past five or six years. She does minor cleaning and repair work, occasionally mounting and framing the flags for him.
“You need to know what type of fabric it is, whether the dyes bleed in water or other solvents, and you have to respond to how brittle the fibers are,” she said. “If you’re not careful handling them, they could break.”
Bridgman’s customers are mostly New York City hedge-fund managers and real estate magnates, although he once sold a mid-19th-century U.S. Navy ship flag to Jon Bon Jovi and a folk-art checkerboard to Woody Allen.
His personal collection consists mostly of Abraham Lincoln campaign flags he has purchased over the years, one of which he believes bears the signature of the former president himself.
“It went through the hands of several important people without them realizing it,” he said. “I wasn’t going to look into it either because I just presumed it wasn’t (real).”
But the period handwriting and the way insect damage has eaten away at part of the signature have him convinced it’s not a forgery.
The more Bridgman has learned about the American flag, the more he’s convinced it’s an important subject for people to know about.
“A lot of people don’t even know that the flag ever looked different than it does today,” he said. “For something we love so much, we should probably understand more about it. We’re taught so little, and (a lot of) what we are taught isn’t true.”
Did you know?
· Congress passed The Flag Act on June 14, 1877 to establish an official flag for the newly independent nation. This is why we celebrate Flag Day each June 14.
· Before 1912, there was no standard design for the American flag.
· During the 19th century, it was common for political candidates to place their names, faces or slogans on American flags
· When hung vertically, the union, or block of stars, on the American flag should still be displayed at the top left corner.
· The Flag House in Baltimore www.flaghouse.org is dedicated to one specific flag – The Star Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that became our national anthem.
Tips for buyers
As a lifelong collector of antiques and Americana, Jeff Bridgman offers these tips for the novice collector or enthusiast:
· Buy one really good thing you love rather than several mediocre items. Your collection might be smaller, but it will be of higher quality, and you’ll enjoy it more.
· Take time to research what you’re buying and inspect the item in person. This will help you steer clear of scams.
· Buy an item because you like it, not for its resale potential. This way, if it never sells, you’ll be happy to keep it.