Mildred Jones, 64; created colorful festive flag business

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Valerie J. Nelson
Los Angeles Times / February 3, 2008

LOS ANGELES - Mildred Callahan Jones, who inadvertently helped launch a national craze for decorative flags with the handmade "It's a Boy" banner she hung outside her home in 1975, has died. She was 64.

Mrs. Jones, who became a pioneering manufacturer of the cheery pennants, died after a long illness Jan. 17 at her home in Richmond, said her husband, Thomas. A diabetic, Mrs. Jones had undergone quadruple-bypass surgery in 1998 and endured a series of strokes in 2002.

She tiptoed into the flag-making business in 1971, after marking her home with a bright banner so party guests could find it. A local reporter called to ask why Mrs. Jones was flying a pillowcase from her second-story window.

Told that it was a festive flag, the reporter asked: "What's the festive occasion?"

As cheerful as the banners she became known for, Mrs. Jones responded: "Life itself is a festive occasion."

Trained as a nurse, she started fielding orders for appliquéd flags that were anything but red, white, and blue. In spring, she sold tulip and daffodil designs. Birds, hot-air balloons, and tennis rackets were popular in summer. Fall brought requests for leaves and jack-o'-lanterns. Santa and Christmas themes were winter favorites.

"We sold 200 the first year, and I thought we'd set the world on fire," Mrs. Jones told the St. Petersburg Times in 1998.

The business took off after the birth of her only child when her husband dashed home from the hospital to unfurl her favorite: an image of a blue train with puffs of smoke that proclaimed, "It's a Boy."

The media came calling, and flag fever took hold.

"She gave a new spark to an old industry and added a twist to it with the decorative flags and banners," Jeff Shaaber of Valley Forge Flag Co., a leading manufacturer of US flags, told the Richmond Times in 2002. "She's credited with starting a trend."

In trying to account for the flags' popularity, Mrs. Jones told The Washington Post in 1996: "It's a way of expressing yourself without having to spend a fortune."

By 1977, her Festival Flags Unlimited had moved from the basement of her home to a building in downtown Richmond. A third of the 10,000 banners produced in 1995 were sold in Richmond. They typically cost $75 apiece.

The governor of Virginia ordered a flag for actor James Garner after he made a television movie in Richmond. NASA commissioned a flag to go up in the space shuttle Discovery in 1985.

She was called "the Betsy Ross of Richmond," and mail arrived simply addressed to "The Flag Lady, Richmond, Va."

Critics often bristled at the chipper nylon creations and dismissed them as a fad. The banners endured partly because more affordable imports began arriving in stores in the early 1990s.

Mrs. Jones insisted that her flags be handmade in Richmond, and she responded to the mass-produced competition by emphasizing custom designs. One client was the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

At its peak in the mid-1990s, Festival Flags generated more than $1 million a year, but sales fell to about $100,000 a year by 2000. In failing health, Mrs. Jones sold her business in 2003.

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