American Flag: A Living Symbol

Soldiers Past
The Korean War Memorial is seen in the rain on Veteran's Day in Washington, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
For many people, the Stars and Stripes can stir emotions like nothing else.

Flag collector Ben Zaricor has some 500 historic American flags. And he says the fact that a flag may be 140 years old is no reason not to run it up a flagpole. Sunday Morning Correspondent John Blackstone reports.

"An old flag that's very relaxed being on top of a flagpole, I mean, it's made to do that," says Zaricor. "That's where it belongs. It belongs there and in our heart."

The flag from 1865 has the stars arranged in the shape of a star, one of the many different designs of the early Stars and Stripes.

Florida resident Ruth Scully was sightseeing in San Francisco and stumbled across one of Zaricor's flags. She knew immediately the old flag was a sight to see.

"I mean, that's beautiful," she says. "I'm so impressed that there's someone in this world that cares enough to preserve things."

And Zaricor is preserving flags on an enormous scale, although his flag archives date back before the Civil War. It includes the largest flag from the time of the Civil War still in existence.

"It's in great shape and it's flyable," says Zaricor. "We'll be able to fly."

Now, Ben Zaricor's flag collection is on exhibit at the Presidio in San Francisco. But in his collection, the earliest Stars and Stripes almost certainly did not have 13 stars in a circle.

"To sew an exact circle is one of the most difficult things that you can do," Zaricor said.

Instead, flag makers during the revolution kept the stars in straight lines. "We do know that this four-five-four pattern is a revolutionary pattern," he says.

There were, in fact, many flag patterns and few rules about how the stars and stripes should be arranged.

"We do not as a country have a keeper of the flag like a lot of other countries, where the government owns the flag," says Zaricor. "Most people believe they own the flag. No one owns the flag."

Zaricor's collection shows flags as diverse and eccentric as Americans themselves. Like the flag meticulously created from stamps by an injured World War II veteran in the hospital. The stars are postmarks from all 48 states.

Zaricor's affection for flags began when he was a boy. "I can remember making flags out of bedsheets, my mother's bedsheets. And then sneaking off to school and running them up on the flag pole before the sun came up," he said.

In the 1960s, he began to think more about the meaning of the flag, amid the turmoil of politics in the Vietnam era. "Each side was trying to get the flag to represent something for which they stood for," he said. "This flag does not belong to any one interest group. It belongs to all the people, whether it's the left or the right."

His collection includes a variety of flags such as a 17-star abolitionist flag, where the slave states have been excluded from the Canton; the first national Confederate flag, where the slave states excluded the free states; and a flag that flew over the battlefield at Appomattox after the surrender
of Robert E. Lee.

For Zaricor, the flag is at its best when it unites rather than divides. He saw that after Sept. 11.

"The people started expressing themselves through their flag again, in many ways that we hadn't seen prior to 9/11," says Zaricor.