The gaudy reds and golds of the Maryland state flag have leapt in recent years from the flagpole to T-shirts, koozies, swimsuits and a host of other products that Lord Baltimore himself never could have imagined.
A handful of companies are riding a wave of interest in state flag-themed products and items that allude to Baltimore or Maryland culture, such as images of crabs. A flag with a history that dates to medieval times is now ubiquitous across the state, found on cellphone cases, bags, shoes, crab-shell Christmas ornaments and even tattoos.
"I put the Maryland flag on things and people just went crazy over it," said Ali von Paris, who founded the clothing and accessories line Route 1 Apparel in 2010 while a student at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It wasn't really done, even five to 10 years ago. It's nothing like it is now."
Since the flag's image can't be patented, it is easy for any business to start painting or pressing it onto products. That leaves the door open for competitors to flood the market, so some makers like von Paris say they patent their specific designs to ward off copycats.
Because of the Maryland flag's uniqueness, it can be hard to picture such a trend taking off in other states. But manufacturers like David Trapp, who produces Maryland-themed apparel and accessories through Baltimore-based MoJo Art and Image under the brand name Maryland My Maryland, said the same phenomenon can be found in Colorado, which also has a brightly colored flag, and in California and South Carolina, which have unique symbols on their state flags.
"Every region's got some things that they hook into," Trapp said. "I think in Maryland it's our sports, our crab culture, and it's our flag. And not every state has got such a beautiful flag to hook on to."
The Maryland flag reflects the coat of arms of George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, who never set foot in the state but sparked its founding with sons Cecil and Leonard Calvert.
The black-and-gold portion of the state flag — which also is seen in the Baltimore flag — was a design presented to George Calvert by King James I when he was named the first Baron of Baltimore in the 1620s, said Burt Kummerow, the historian-in-residence for the Maryland Historical Society. The red-and-white portion, in the shape of what is called a cross bottony, is the family crest of Calvert's mother's side, the Crosslands, and is believed to date to the Middle Ages.
"Of course everyone loves it, because medieval heraldry is really cool," Kummerow said. "It's a time-tested, really good design."
Flags can divide — like the Confederate battle flag — or unite — like the American flag after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. During the Civil War, Calvert's black-and-gold standard was used as a Union symbol while the red-and-white banner was adopted by those favoring the Confederacy.
During wartime in Union-controlled Baltimore, it was illegal to be out in public sporting red-and-white colors, Kummerow said.
In the 1880s, the two symbols were sewn onto one flag in an attempt to unify the two sides, and it became Maryland's official flag in 1904.
"They were real strong symbols for the people that lived back then and putting them together was a strong statement for reconciliation," Kummerow said.
Von Paris started Route 1 Apparel from her dorm room in 2010 after being inspired to make a turtle-themed T-shirt to commemorate the former Thirsty Turtle bar, where she had worked. Her first flag-themed product was a Maryland-flag bikini, and she said her initial order of 1,000 sold out before it was even delivered.
"I think we captured a market before it got really known that this could be trendy," said von Paris, 25. "When we first started the company, not many people understood why we were putting the flag on things, but it caught on."
The company now sells a wide variety of Maryland flag apparel and accessories, from sports bras and socks to sunglasses and dog collars. During the winter holidays, the company processes up to 2,000 orders a day, and von Paris is exploring an expansion to other states. She said she tries to be particular about the designs her team selects.
"I don't want to be known as the company that throws the flag on everything and sells it," she said. "We take it to the next level."
The business grew so organically, she said, that she never borrowed money or even took an outside investment. While Von Paris believes she started the latest flag apparel trend, she doesn't fear competition.
"Someone might knock us off, but our support group is huge, they get the wrath of people," she said.
But Route 1 and MoJo Arts are far from alone in marketing Maryland-flag emblazoned items.
A cycling apparel firm in Reisterstown called Hill Killer Apparel makes a cycling kit — Lycra jersey, shorts and arm warmers — emblazoned with elements from the flag.
Sharon Cooper of Harford County started an Etsy store called Sharon's Painted Woods three years ago when she retired as a schoolteacher. Her first item was a crab shell Christmas ornament painted with the Maryland flag, and it took off. She said she now sells up to 500 items a month during the holiday season. Her business is small enough to handle custom orders, and she said she's received requests for items for bachelorette parties and the like.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the people who are former Marylanders who are no longer here and miss that, and they like that they can have a keepsake in some shape or form, whether it be a purse or a shoe that reminds them of their home state," said Cooper, 65.
Maryland pride apparently extends to food products, too. Cory Shaffer last year started producing the "B-More Box," in which customers can choose a package of items like Otterbein Cookies, a Maryland flag coffee mug, Old Bay popcorn and a small piece of locally made art, typically integrating the flag. The boxes can be delivered either by monthly subscription or as one-time gifts. "Realtors love it for closing gifts," said Shaffer, 28.
The Evening Sun
In the back of the 36,000-square foot MoJo Art and Image warehouse in Southwest Baltimore on a recent day, screen printing machines spun on a circular rack, with each press adding pink Plastisol ink in the image of a crab onto T-shirts. Workers placed the shirts on a belt to be heated in a machine at 360 degrees, which sets the ink. The pink T-shirts will sell for $19.99 online.
The warehouse can turn out as many as 15,000 screen-printed T-shirts a day, typically featuring designs with the Maryland flag, crabs or allusions to Baltimore's sports teams. The company is licensed by McCormick & Co. to produce Old Bay images, which it slaps on T-shirts, mugs, glasses and more.
Trapp in 1992 founded Buck Wear, an apparel company with a hunting and outdoors theme. In 2013, he bought the screen printing machines to make Buck Wear's T-shirts and hoodies, then decided they could be put to better use printing Maryland-themed shirts, and launched MoJo Art and Image. He sells shirts with flag-colored crabs and statements like "I put Old Bay on my Old Bay" at various retailers across the state.
Trapp said the trend appeared to take off after the Terps football team unveiled their flag-themed Under Armour "Maryland Pride" uniforms in 2011. The Baltimore sports apparel brand now sells a variety of replica jerseys and other apparel that echoes the flag, but initially the uniforms faced some derision. At the time, NBA star LeBron James tweeted: "OH GOSH! Maryland uniforms #Ewwwwww!"
But the boldness struck a different chord among many Marylanders.
"It's all about timing," Trapp said.