Tuesday is an important civic day for more than one reason.
Yes, voters will decide the next mayor of Chicago. But April 4 is also an annual city holiday of sorts: Chicago Flag Day.
Many of the flags waving from civic buildings aren’t just representing Chicago, they’re made in the city’s South Shore neighborhood, by Chicago residents, who work for a company known as W.G.N.
When a Chicagoan hears the letters WGN, they probably think of the broadcasting station, but in this case the letters stand for William George Newbould.
“We were here long before TV, we were here long before radio. W.G.N. Flag and Decorating Company, since 1916 and named after the family. Yeah, unfortunately those media outlets have nothing to stand on. I love ‘em but we were here first,” said Carl “Gus” Porter III. “The company actually started by my great grandfather purchasing a stick flag from a street merchant, walking down the street, and selling it for twice what he paid for it.”
The flag company is still soaring 108 years, high and proud as the flags it sews and sells. And for over a century, that’s been done in the same building by seamstresses like Estela Parra, who come June will have worked there 37 years.
Making the Chicago flag is so easy and common, she laughs she can make one in her sleep.
“Oh, that one is easy. Very easy,” Parra said.
Making a banner or flag for the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team is challenging — getting the measurements right, detail of the feathers of the chief’s headdress, and marking on his face.
But she’s learned, and her handiwork flies high in the rafters where the Hawks play home games, commemorating players so good their jerseys are retired, and the team’s Stanley Cup wins.
“We’ve also done all of the championship banners that hang in the United Centers. So the Bulls, the Blackhawks. Every dynasty in Chicago ends up coming back here,” Porter said.
Pick a hallmark event in the past century or so, and chances are W.G.N. has made a flag or banner for it. On Monday, Porter and his crew bedecked Guaranteed Rate Field as they do every White Sox opening day.
They put up colored bunting for religious occasions, like the passing of a pope or naming of a cardinal.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “we had people camping out front here with lawn chairs on a daily basis. It was a line down the street,” Porter said. “Everybody wanted red, white and blue anything.”
On V-J Day in 1945, it took hundreds of hours of manpower to hang scores of flags and to assemble a giant V that stretched across what was then Marshall Fields.
Then there are the flag “emergencies,” which Porter said happen more often than you’d suspect, such as when the company is commissioned to provide a flag to drape over the coffin of a fallen police officer, or when W.G.N. is asked to prepare the city for a funeral of a figureheads, as it did when Mayor Harold Washington died in 1987.
“My father got a call Thanksgiving morning, and had to leave Thanksgiving dinner to come downtown and start putting drapes up throughout the city,” Porter recalls.
The company similarly got little notice for Queen Elizabeth’s historic visit in 1959. Porter said his great grandfather lived in an apartment above the building, and someone knocked on his door at midnight asking for help getting the city beautified for her arrival.
Ever the salesman, Porter said after the queen left, Newbould then sold off pieces of the flags and banners to women who made them into dresses. At the time, flags were made of cotton. Now, they’re produced in nylon, which is more durable.
Porter himself is royalty too, at least among friends.
“If Abe Froman can be the Sausage King of Chicago, then I’ve got to be the Flag King of Chicago,” he said, referring to a name made infamous in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Porter said he started working for the family company at age four, selling flags to drunken fans at Notre Dame football games.
In March, after a long stint as vice president, he officially took over from his father as head of the company.
If he’s the W.G.N. flag company president – or the Flag King of Chicago – then April 4 is his big day.
Chicago Flag Day marks the date in 1917 (a year after W.G.N.’s founding) that the City Council adopted the now iconic flag.
“You can go to any corner of the country, that flag is still going to be recognized. People are going to know what it is and they’re going to know, ‘Oh these guys must be Chicagoans,” he said. “We are Chicago through and through, I am Chicago through and through and those who fly that flag are Chicago through and through.”
Porter says the Chicago flag resonates because its design is so simple. And yet, every element has meaning. The four stars stand for significant events in Chicago history: Fort Dearborn, Great Chicago Fire, Columbian Exposition and the Century of Progress.
Each of the five points on the stars have meaning; the blue bars signify Lake Michigan and the Chicago River while the white bands stand for the city’s North, West and South sides.
There has been talk about adding a fifth star, and once W.G.N. took that talk seriously. Porter said his grandfather overheard city insiders talking about honoring the late Mayor Richard J. Daley with a star, so he rushed to get ahead and produce some so they’d be ready to sell.
That never happened, but the company has a few of the vintage five-stars left.
Some, he said, were gifted to members of the Olympics selection committee in 2016 to show them “how important this event would have been to the city of Chicago” – enough to warrant an additional star.
At some point, Porter said, Chicago will have an event significant enough in the city’s future to warrant a fifth star. Until then, they’ll keep producing the classic, as well as any variety customers dream up.
The company has swapped the Chicago stars for apples (for teachers), lawnmowers (for a landscaping company), and so on.
“We will make virtually any custom flag,” he said.
You can design a flag or sign with a family crest or even someone’s face (though more complex designs will be digitally printed, rather than sewn).
They come in all sizes, and therefore prices. The only stipulations: Nothing offensive, and nothing that defaces the American flag.
Ironically, W.G.N. Flag and Decorating Company doesn’t have its own flag. Porter said the logo is too complicated – the sort of art that’s not a good fit for a flag.
A measure approved by the Illinois Senate (Senate Bill 1818) calls for the creation of a commission that would decide whether the Illinois state flag (currently featuring an eagle with a ribbon bearing the state’s motto in its beak) is due for an overhaul.
“The design itself should speak for itself,” Porter said. “If you look at the complexity of the flag, it does not have the outright symbolism that something like the city of Chicago flag has.”
Cook County redid its flag last year. Porter says the new design is similar to Chicago’s, and that sales for the county flag – nowhere near as popular as the city flag – are half the legacy version, half the new one.
This past year given the war, the Ukrainian flag was a popular order.
Those too are made in-store. American flags are not. W.G.N. sells but doesn’t make them. The shop also has a supply of flags from other nations.
On Friday, Roosevelt University Assistant Provost Ed Zuger dropped in to buy some for his desk and that of another colleague who also works in international affairs.
“We could have gotten 22 or 23 different nations’ flags for all the diversity that’s at Roosevelt University, but I picked a handful, a smattering of really strong representations from India to Uzbekistan, Ghana and Nigeria,” Zuger said. “It’s so that when students visit us they know, it’s an overt sign of respect for their heritage. And from home — everything they sacrificed to come to the States and study. It’ll make them a little homesick maybe, but it will make them proud too.”
Such is the mighty power of a flag.
“America takes flags with a lot of pride. We are the only country in the entire world who takes as much pride in a flag as this country does. You can go down any street in Chicago, the suburbs, rural areas — it doesn’t matter. You’re going to see a U.S. flag, if not half of the houses with U.S. flags, if not all of the houses with U.S. flags,” he said.
And Chicago’s flag in particular carries a special resonance.
“People absorb it. It becomes part of their soul like the U.S. flag does. That city of Chicago star and those stripes, to some people that is their life,” he said. “Like you said, there’s people with that tattooed on them. And while I don’t have that personally tattooed on myself, I can’t say I blame them.”
Porter isn’t expecting lines down the block of his shop on Chicago Flag Day -- it’s not like banks are closed, and schools get the day off for it, he joked.
Even so, he says, there’s no country that takes flags as seriously as does the U.S., and no city that takes its flag as seriously as does Chicago.