A Brief History of the Flag Lapel Pin

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Jae C. Hong / AP

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama tours the Chrysler Stamping Plant in Sterling Height, Michigan, on Wednesday, May 14.

Are you currently wearing a flag pin?

Yes? Then you love America.

No? Hmm. That's gonna be a problem.

Such was the false dichotomy that faced Barack Obama during his April 16 debate against Hillary Clinton, when Charlie Gibson asked Obama a voter question about why he did not wear a flag pin on his lapel. The previous October, an Iowa ABC reporter had asked him a similar question, to which Obama replied that he had worn one after 9/11, but soon noticed, "people wearing a lapel pin but not acting very patriotic." He went on to explain, "I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest. Instead I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe... and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism." Naturally, a controversy erupted. When it came up again during the April debate, he made a similar point.

Obama now wears a flag pin on his lapel. Every day.

Short of wearing a stars and stripes onesie, the flag lapel pin is the quickest sartorial method for a politician to telegraph his or her patriotism. The origin of the flag lapel pin is murky, though it is by necessity linked the history of the American flag as a commonly used symbol. According to Marc Leepson's Flag: An American Biography, the "near religious reverence many Americans have" for our national symbol dates only to the Civil War era (not back to the Revolutionary War, as many assume) . Prior to that, few private citizens possessed or flew their own flags — it was limited to military and federal facilities. When the Confederates started winning battles early on in the War Between the States, Northerners began to fly the flag as a sign of pride.

Since then, flag imagery has been intricately tied to moments of crisis or conflict. Over the past four decades, Kit Hinrichs, one of the nation's top graphic designers, has collected more than 5,000 pieces of stars and stripes–related memorabilia. He says the flag lapel pins in his collection don't really date back before mid-century. "I don't think it was a common thing for men and women to wear before the Second World War," he says. "I certainly have jewelry from before then with flags on it — cufflinks and stick pins and tuxedo buttons and brooches — but not [many flag pins] before the '50s."

It was during the culture wars of the late '60s and early '70s that the flag lapel pin truly took off and became the simultaneously uniting and divisive symbol that it is today. Republican candidates in the 1970 congressional race wore them as a symbol of patriotic solidarity against anti-Vietnam protesters like Abbie Hoffman — who donned a shirt made of the flag — or others who stitched the flag onto the seat of their pants. But it was Richard Nixon who brought the pin to national attention. According to Stephen E. Ambrose's biography Nixon, the President got the idea for sporting a lapel pin from his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, who had noticed a similar gesture in the Robert Redford film The Candidate. Nixon commanded all of his aides to go and do likewise. The flag pins were noticed by the public, and many in Nixon's supposed "silent majority" began to similarly sport flags on their lapels. Over the next few decades, the pin sporadically surged in popularity. During the Gulf War, they sold briskly alongside flag patches and yellow ribbons.

Then came 9/11. Taking a page from the Nixon Administration, George W. Bush and his aides all donned pins. So did many anchors on Fox News, though not Bill O'Reilly, who said at the time "I'm just a regular guy. Watch me and you'll know what I think without wearing a pin." ABC News, on the other hand, prohibited its on-air reporters from pinning on the red, white, and blue, citing a desire to maintain journalistic credibility.

As befits a tradition that reached its height during the Nixon years, flag lapel pins have — fairly or not — become to many a shibboleth of America's War on Terror, and a symbol of the "either you're with us or against us" ethos that has often prevailed since September 11, 2001. And while the country hasn't yet reached anything close to a consensus on what a flag pin says about its wearer, Barack Obama seems to have discovered that symbols matter — even if one doesn't agree with the way they are used.