EXAMINING 20th CENTURY FELT NOVELTY COMPANIES AND THEIR PRODUCTS
Advertising Flag Co., Chicago, IL
543 S. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL (ca. 1936-46);
415 S. Clark St. (1946 - 1967);
73 W. Van Buren St. (1968-70);
523 S. Plymouth Ct. (ca. 1971-79)
538 S. Wabash (ca. 1979)
1349 S. Wabash (ca. early 1980s)
3801 S. Ashland Ave. (1987-2016)
2800 W. 145th St., Posen, IL (2017- )
Maker’s mark: Limited use of “ADFLAG” abbreviation (or variant thereof) secreted within original artwork comprising felt pennants made throughout the 1950s.
Chicago, Illinois has been the home of several significant felt novelty companies over the decades: The W.C. Kern Co.; Chicago Pennant Co.; F. Sternthal; Triangle Pennant Co.; The G.B. Feld Co.; W.G.N. Flag & Decorating Co., just to name a few. All but the last of these have long since gone out of business. One additional company deserves mention here: Advertising Flag Co. of Chicago. They were responsible for creating some of the best felt pennants of the 1950s and early 60s--an era many collectors associate with highest quality American-made pennants ever produced. The best part is: they’re still in business today.
Mr. Smith Goes to Chicago
Advertising Flag Co., or “ADFLAG” as many today know them as, was founded in 1936 by Frank F. Smith. Frank was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the early part of the 20th century. He was an only child raised in large part by his aunt.
Apparently, Frank was a bit of an entrepreneur. In the early 1930s he moved to Chicago because the city was due to host a world’s fair. Officially called, “A Century of Progress International Exposition,” the exhibition celebrated the 100th anniversary of Chicago’s founding. It opened on May 27, 1933. Due to overwhelming demand it remained open through October 31, 1934. During this time, approximately 50 million guests attended the exhibition, making it one of the most successful world’s fairs ever.
Frank saw an opportunity in the windy city. He correctly predicted that millions of guests would travel from all over to visit Chicago during the fair’s run. Many of whom would want to take home a souvenir. Felt pennants had been popular novelty items since the turn of the century. In Chicago, Frank knew a market existed where he could peddle souvenir pennants commemorating the exhibition. So he left the city of three rivers and moved to Chicago.
And never looked back.
In 1941 the US entered World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Five years after starting his young company, Frank left. His country needed him. Frank served in the armed forces operating portable radar stations--a relatively new and vital war-time technology. While overseas, Frank left ADFLAG back in Chicago in the capable hands of a Mr. Crowder, his business partner, hoping to return one day after the war’s end.
In these early days, Frank was responsible for all of the artwork featured on their felt pennants. If you have an ADFLAG baseball pennant from the late 1940s or 50s, that artwork was likely drawn by Frank himself; and, it was made at the company’s Clark Street location.
Around the 1950s ADFLAG expanded their felt pennant line into professional football. By the 1960s they were making pennants for professional baseball teams of the National and American leagues; plus the National Football League and the newly formed American Football League; and a few college and area high schools. They were also still involved in the production of non-sports (i.e., promotional) pennants, the company’s bread and butter since its infancy.
Changes to the marketplace
By the mid-1960s, however, ADFLAG’s roughly 20-year run producing sports pennants came to an end. Three factors contributed to this outcome. First, the advent of licensing requirements pushed them out of the marketplace. As I documented elsewhere in previous posts, by the 1960s sports teams (and the leagues they belonged to) began aggressively protecting their intellectual property rights. Team names were copyrighted. Their logos trademarked. Novelty companies now required licensing agreements to continue using this property. And, that permission came with a hefty price tag. ADFLAG, and others in the business, began focusing on other products that were more profitable.
Second, the supply of American-made felt was diminishing. Domestic production of wool was on the decline by the 1960s. More and more textile producers were switching to cotton. Synthetic materials, such as rayon, were growing in popularity. For ease of production, stiff 100% wool felt had been a mainstay in the felt novelty industry. As the supply of it dried up it became more difficult, and more expensive, to make a felt pennant.
Third, by the late 1960s, felt novelty producers were required to begin using lead-free paint. Although federal law would not ban the use of lead paint until the 1970s, as early as the 1950s research became available that connected lead exposure with adverse health effects--especially concerning childhood development. At that point, felt novelty producers had been using lead paint for decades because it offered superior advantages, e.g., it was washable and more durable. Lead-free paint, in contrast, presented new production challenges. Chief among them was its opacity. When ADFLAG and others began using lead-free paints they quickly noted that the underlying felt could be seen through the graphics if it was a bright color. For example, if a producer desired to make a monochromatic pennant using white, lead-free paint for the graphics, when placed atop a red felt backdrop, the white graphics would appear pink. Obviously, this was a huge problem.
Of these three concerns, the advent of licensing was the primary reason ADFLAG stopped making sports pennants. Nevertheless, they adapted to the changing landscape and continued making pennants for several more decades. To get around the licensing barrier, they returned to promotional pennants of a non-sports nature. In the 1970s ADFLAG produced pennants for concert promoter Lee Smith that were frequently peddled outside Chicago Stadium. To obtain the supply of stiff felt they needed they relied more heavily on synthetic materials, which were more readily available by the 1970s and 80s. And, in the absence of lead paint, they began using primarily white felt because it could not be seen through the more translucent lead-free paint they were now obligated to use.
I always wondered why pennant manufacturers produced such an abundance of white felt pennants in the late 1960s, 70s, and early 80s. I just assumed one maker thought it looked good, and others copied this trend because it sold. Apparently, not. This trend occurred industry-wide and was necessitated by changes in the paint available.
By the 1990s ADFLAG made their last run off felt pennants: promotional pennants for chocolatier World’s Finest Chocolates. From that point to the present the company exited the felt novelty business altogether to focus exclusively on the production of flags.
Although they don’t make sports pennants anymore, ADFLAG is still involved in Major League Baseball. Today ADFLAG manufactures all of the flags found atop flagpoles at several big league baseball stadiums, including AT&T Park in San Francisco, Oriole Park in Baltimore, and most notably: Chicago’s Wrigley Field. (Even the “W” flag--a best seller of late!)
In the latter half of the 1960s ADFLAG left their Clark Street location. They would relocate some four times across the next two decades, all the while staying within Chicago’s city limits. In 1987 they purchased a large warehouse property in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood located at 3801 S. Ashland Avenue. They called it home for nearly 30 years.
In January of 2013, while occupying the Ashland Avenue site, the building next door caught fire. The five alarm blaze triggered one of the largest responses by the Chicago Fire Department in recent times--nearly 200 firefighters spent days tackling the flames. Although ADFLAG’s building next door was saved, the resulting smoke and water damage was so intense that much of ADFLAG’s flag making material on hand was destroyed. Nevertheless, after a lengthy restoration of their premises, they re-opened for business by spring of that year.
In 2017 ADFLAG sold their Ashland Avenue site and left Chicago for the suburbs of Posen, Illinois. But not before celebrating their 80th anniversary! Now operating at 2800 W. 145th St., the company continues to be a leading manufacturer of commercial and specialty American-made flags.
In 1976 ADFLAG President and founder Frank Smith passed away. Frank had run the company for its first 40 years. His son, Randolph “Randy” Smith, took over as President; and son-in-law Robert H. Olson became Vice President. Randy had been working for his father at ADFLAG since 1971, and Robert's employment began in the mid-1960s. As President and Vice President, Randy and Robert ran the company together for the next five decades.
In 2016, after 45 years at ADFLAG, Randy Smith finally retired leaving the company in the hands of his nephew (Frank’s grandson), Michael Olson, who now serves as ADFLAG’s President. Robert Olson remains with the company on a semi-retired basis.
Today the company continues under its third generation of family ownership. For more than 80 years ADFLAG has exemplified some of the best qualities of American entrepreneurship. Humility, especially in those early days. Expansion, when the market permitted it. Creativity, from its human capital. Adaptability, when conditions necessitated change. And even resilience after disaster struck. And for 80+ years, they have survived on American labor, using American-made materials.
ADFLAG is an American success story that simply doesn’t happen often enough.
[Writer’s note: I’d like to thank Michael Olson for taking the time to share his company’s rich history with me, which made writing this post possible.]
There’s a good deal of similarity between ADFLAG’s sports pennants and those produced by their biggest competitor of the day: Trench Mfg. Co. (For more on them, see my previous post: pennantfever.weebly.com/blog/category/trench-mfg-co .) This makes sense if you stop and think about it. Throughout the late 1940s, 50s, and early 60s, Trench dominated the pennant market. Anyone seeking to steal some of their business, or simply gain access into the market, would be wise to follow their successes. And throughout the 1950s, it appears ADFLAG did just that.
I covered Trench’s stadium pennants extensively in my last post. In sum, the Buffalo-based pennant maker produced a stadium pennant for all National and American League baseball teams beginning in the mid-1950s. They were huge sellers for Trench and would remain so through the 1970s.
When your competition offers a new and unique product that’s in high demand, you have to respond. Sometimes you make a more affordable product. Sometimes you make a superior product. Either way, to the extent permissible, you have to copy some aspects of your competitor’s product. ADFLAG appears to have done all three, and at different times, as concerns Trench’s stadium pennants.
By the mid-1950s, when Trench’s stadium pennants first hit the market, ADFLAG quickly realized they had to come up with an answer. And, fast. In that rush it appears ADFLAG largely copied Trench’s designs. Below are two examples that illustrate this point. Note that the stadium artwork is virtually identical, but-for one big difference: Trench’s “TMC” monogram has been removed on the ADFLAG version (Look carefully. On the Cincinnati/Trench pennant, their mark appears in the bottom right corner of the stadium, above my “T”. On the Brooklyn/Trench pennant, it’s in the bottom right corner just outside the ballpark.) Additionally, the text comprising the team city and name has been replaced by ADFLAG’s distinctive font.
But ADFLAG would evolve. By the decade’s end it appears they began producing stadium pennants featuring their own original artwork. At first glance you might mistake the following two pennants for Trench’s work; but, up close, you can see that the artwork is actually different.
Note that neither of the above ADFLAG pennants have any pairs of tassels. Additionally, whereas Trench’s stadium pennants were always polychromatic, the majority of ADFLAG’s were still monochrome by the late 1950s. I suspect this was intended to lower production costs so they could offer their pennants at more competitive prices.
Finally, by the mid 1960s, ADFLAG’s stadium pennants reached the pinnacle of their evolution. By this point their artwork was much more original than in the previous decade. Have a look at these two pairs of pennants and see for yourself.
My readers may take issue with me on this point; but, it seems that the quality of ADFLAG’s artwork had met or even surpassed Trench’s by the mid-1960s. By this time ADFLAG was using more polychromatic designs. Also, note the artist’s complex use of light/shading throughout the seating decks and players on these two examples. Trench’s art was never that sophisticated. Finally, whereas Trench largely kept their artwork contained to the head of their pennants, ADFLAG often placed a player or two near the tail to create more of an action scene--again, something Trench never did.
To be honest I enjoy both company’s works from this era. There’s something attractive in the simplicity of Trench’s stadium designs. But, there’s also something special in ADFLAG’s stadium pennants because they were produced in much smaller volumes.
Whereas ADFLAG’s stadium pennants were a reaction to those of their competitor, they did produce some more original content that’s worth talking about. I call them “mascot pennants” because, well … the artwork largely consists of a comedic depiction of a team’s mascot.
The formula was simple. All were standard, full size pennants. None had tassels. A drawing of the team’s mascot playing baseball (usually as batter) dominated the head of the pennant. Then, the middle featured the city and team names, with one or both often written in a distinctive, wavy font resembling an early turn of the century script. Here’s a few examples:
I mentioned several times now my belief that ADFLAG once copied some of Trench’s original artwork, and the evidence in support of this claim. I feel inclined to say a few things in ADFLAG’s defense. First, it’s not entirely clear what legal protections existed back in the 1940s and 50s that protected these designs. Remember, before the 1960s, even the leagues were not protecting their team names, logos, etc. Artwork originally intended for a certain maker’s sports decals one year would magically appear on another’s pennant or banner the next. Today, this artwork would be protected by a registered trademark; but, you’ll note that no such markings appear on any felt novelty item before the 1960s. So, for this reason alone, ADFLAG likely did nothing wrong from a legal perspective.
Second, it had been common practice throughout the felt novelty industry for companies to copy certain design elements of competitors and incorporate them in their own products. If ADFLAG copied Trench, they weren’t alone. Keezer Mfg. Co. and ASCO did, too. What’s more, I’ve even found evidence that shows Trench used design characteristics they copied from earlier pennant makers (e.g., decorative sashes woven into the felt displaying a year of production--these date back to the 1910s, well before Trench existed). So, there’s far less originality in these manufacturers and their products than you might think.
To prove my point, take a look at these two pennants from the late 1950s. First we have an ADFLAG pennant, with original artwork depicting Comiskey Park. We know it’s ADFLAG’s because, in this instance, their name appears secreted within the drawing. (More on that practice to follow.)
Next we have another White Sox pennant depicting Comiskey Park by one of their competitors, WGN Flag & Decorating Co., also of Chicago.
Recognize that stadium façade? Here, it seems clear to me that WGN copied ADFLAG’s depiction of Comiskey Park. All they really did was remove the light towers, playing field, and most importantly: the hidden “ADFLAG” name and the curtilage surrounding it. Which tells me it was WGN that copied ADFLAG, and not the reverse.
Here’s another example involving the same two companies, and a pair of pennants each depicting Wrigley Field. First we have ADFLAG’s. Note the word “ADFLAG” hidden in green just outside the ballpark, behind the homeplate gate:
Here’s WGN’s version, less a few trees--and, the word “ADFLAG” of course:
Bottom line: copying artwork from competitors’ products was both legal and done from time to time. It seems like as long as you changed one thing--the shade of the grass, removed a tree, etc.--it was tolerated. The only thing you could not do was keep your competition’s name on your “new” image, or put your name on the work.
MAKER’S MARKS, TEAM LIBRARY, DISTINCTIVE ARTWORK
There’s no better maker’s mark than a sewn label. They usually stay affixed to the pennant for decades, and they contain all kinds of handy manufacturing info, e.g., who made it, where it was made, what it’s made of, etc. Unfortunately, ADFLAG never used labels. They did, however, do something else almost as good: secrete their name within their original artwork. And while they did not do this consistently, it’s better than nothing.
It’s not clear when they did this, but it seems like the practice began in mid-1950s and continued into the early 1960s. For whatever reason, it appears they did not do this at all in the late 1940s or early 50s. More puzzling: they discontinued the practice altogether by the mid-1960s when they made the last of their sports pennants.
The mark usually consists of the word “ADFLAG”. But other variations exist: “ADFLAG CHI.”; “ADV. FLAG CO.”; “AD FLAG CO. CHICAGO”; “AD FLAG CO.”; “ADVFLAG”; “AD. FLAG CO. CHI.”; and even simply “AF”. On mascot pennants, it’s often found at the bottom of the figure’s feet, concealed within the ground he is standing on. But you may also see it in the background, behind the figure. You may even see it hidden in the figure, say, on his belt. On stadium pennants, you have to closely inspect the stadium because there are so many places to conceal these few words. Have a look at these examples:
Don’t spend too much time looking for these hidden marks! As noted above, they were not used consistently. If you can’t find it after 60 seconds, it just may not be there. You may need to put your glasses on, because when these words do appear, they are very small and easy to overlook.
Even if there is no mark, it’s still fairly easy to spot an ADFLAG pennant from others. That’s because the company was fairly uniform in its design characteristics throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. First, ADFLAG pennants never had tassels. Never. This small omission makes it easy to differentiate ADFLAG’s pennants from Trench’s. That’s because Trench used two pairs of tassels on virtually all of their products until roughly 1970.
Second, ADFLAG pennants were mostly monochrome, even into the early 1960s. Sure, some designs were also available in a polychrome version; but often just 2-3 colors, and only on a few select portions of the graphics. And, these color versions were always more scarce than their single color cousins. This too distinguishes their products from Trench’s. By the mid-1950s Trench had made 4-color polychrome pennants their norm; and by decade’s end Trench had all but discontinued making monochrome pennants in a full size.
Third, ADFLAG pennant’s often contained what I call “full body” illustrations. Let me explain. There’s three segments of a pennant: the head-end, the center, and the tail-end. On many ADFLAG pennants, their graphic illustrations span all three segments. Typically, there’s a batter depicted on the head. On the tail you will often find a smaller silhouetted player, such as a pitcher. Then, in the center, where the text primarily stands, you may even find a ball traveling between the two players. The end result is more of an action scene than a static drawing. Here's what I mean:
Again, Trench never really did this. Their pennants’ artwork was primarily restricted to the head-end of the pennant. The center was reserved for text, and the tail-end left blank.
So if you can’t find an ADFLAG maker’s mark, don’t sweat it. You will have a good idea that it is or isn’t by ADFLAG after examining for tassels, color, and graphic design layout. No tassels? Monochrome or limited color graphics? Full body illustration? Good chance it’s an ADFLAG pennant.
Employing the above methodology, I looked at a few teams and identified the below pennants believed to have been made by ADFLAG between the late 1940s through the mid-1960s.
Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers
New York/San Francisco Giants
Chicago White Sox
Other baseball pennants by ADFLAG
Professional football pennants by ADFLAG
Chicago Black Hawks
All Star Games
Below you'll find a variety of all star game (ASG) pennants made by ADFLAG during the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.
The East v. West All Star Game series below commemorated the annual Negro League (baseball) ASG. This particular ASG was played annually from 1933 to 1962. Additionally, the majority of these games were played at Chicago's Comiskey Park; not far from ADFLAG's production facilities. I suspect ADFLAG made a pennant for all of the Chicago-hosted "East v. West" contests occurring during the event's run.
The College All Star Game series was played annually from 1934 to 1976 (no game in 1974) at Chicago's Soldier Field. The game featured a team composed of the best collegiate football players pitted against the defending champions of the National Football League. It served as a pre-season football game that the professional squad nearly always won. Proceeds from the event were given to local charities. ADFLAG made a ton of pennants for this event's run; however, so did other pennant makers, such as Trench.
Major League Baseball, of course, has also played an ASG annually beginning in 1933 that continues to this day (no games in 1945 or 2020). Unlike the above ASGs, this game's location varied from year to year. Whether or not the game was played in Chicago, ADFLAG made a pennant for many of these events held in the late 1940s through the mid-1970s.
You'll even note they made pennants for the NBA and NHL All Star Games played in 1973 and 1974, respectively; both of which were played at Chicago Stadium.
Distinctive artwork used by ADFLAG
Look for this pitcher on the tail-end of ADFLAG’s pennants, hurling a fastball toward a batter placed on the head-end.
In the background of ADFLAG’s stadium pennants you’ll often find this airplane and cloud combo overhead.
This gridiron great appeared on ADFLAG football pennants in the early 1960s. Like much of ADFLAG’s artwork, the artist used lots of shading which helps bring out the details of this player’s face.
I’m pretty sure this is the same face depicted in the previous image, above. Once again, note the extensive use of shading across the many details of this player’s face.
Same guy?? I suspect this figure was used closer to the mid-1960s on ADFLAG’s football pennants. Of the three football players shown here, I feel like this figure was perhaps most commonly used.
ADFLAG regularly used this font to spell out baseball team names in the 1950s and 60s. That said, this font style seems more turn-of-the-century than mid-century. In so doing, I suspect they were trying to create a more vintage look.
Here’s another font ADFLAG used regularly throughout the 1950s and 60s to spell out baseball team names. Again, as with the previous style, this looks very turn-of-the-century and was likely intended to appear more vintage.
For more information on ADFLAG, visit their website: flagpro.com. To make a purchase at their Etsy storefront, click here.
For the most comprehensive online gallery of football pennants, including some featured in this post, visit: feltfootball.com .
Note: All unquoted material on these pages is © 2019 K.R. Biebesheimer & Son. All rights reserved. Short excerpts may be used after written permission obtained and proper credit is given.
I collect vintage pennants and banners. Soon after getting into this hobby, I became curious about the companies responsible for their production. I had to look hard, but eventually found a lot of interesting information on many of them, and their products. This site is my repository for that research. Periodically, I will dedicate a post to one of these featured manufacturers. I hope other collectors will find this information useful.