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What’s the Deal With All the Flags on the Jersey Shore?

For most of my life, I have spent a part of each summer in Avalon, a beach town on the Jersey Shore. As a kid, I enjoyed days body surfing, emerging from the water only for a bologna and cheese sandwich and a nap on an old sheet, repurposed for the sand.

Avalon, a barrier island on the southern part of the shore, has always had a reputation as the playground of Philadelphia’s more moneyed set. It’s even wealthier now than when I spent my first summers “down the shore,” as we say. But its core identity remains the same: Avalon is casual. No one dresses up. And when spending the day there, the only goal is not to do much of anything.

As a journalist, I have spent nearly two decades writing about the Jersey Shore’s foods, traditions and quirks, resulting in two books about the area — and a few articles for this newspaper.

When my father bought a vacation home in Avalon in 2020, he gave each of his children a college flag for Christmas — the flags, as is the tradition in Avalon and the surrounding towns, were meant to be displayed from the house. I didn’t know why people did it, but most everyone did. So my University of Tampa flag was hung from our second-floor balcony alongside flags representing my siblings’ schools.

I live in Avalon part time now. During sunrise runs, I like to take pictures of all the interesting flags I pass: sports-themed flags; Ivy League flags; even custom flags, many of which have been stitched together from multiple college banners, representing the alma maters of an entire household.

I marked the flag-flying tradition down as a local oddity that wasn’t worth explaining. That was, until The New York Times published an article revealing that an “Appeal to Heaven” flag, a symbol carried on Jan. 6, was displayed last summer from the New Jersey vacation home of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. of the United States Supreme Court, according to interviews and photographs. (The article appeared after The Times reported that an inverted American flag was displayed at the justice’s residence in Alexandria, Va., following the 2020 presidential election.)

I was working from the dining room table in Avalon when the news of the Appeal to Heaven flag broke.

I got two kinds of texts that day. The first kind was from faraway friends: “What’s with you shore folks and all the flags?” And the second kind was from locals: “Why couldn’t he just fly a college flag like everyone else?”

I couldn’t answer the second question, but I decided to look into the first for an article that recently appeared in the Styles section.

I reached out to local historical societies, libraries and a handful of college librarians and archivists to try to learn when and why the tradition began. I poured over photographs in history books that I had dug up in the Avalon Free Public Library. And I talked to people with homes in other beach communities, including Rehoboth and Dewey Beach, both in Delaware, who told me no such tradition existed in their towns.

The reporting became a sort of treasure hunt. When I heard back from academics at four nearby universities, all admitted that they had no idea when the tradition began.

One Sunday afternoon in June, the photographer Michelle Gustafson and I spent over five hours cruising up and down Avalon and the surrounding towns, looking for the best, or oddest, assortment of flags. It was a beautiful, blue-sky day, so a lot of people were outside and eager to talk. If we found flags we wanted to learn about, we would knock on the door.

There were school flags — one house had three custom flags representing 13 schools — but also sports flags, Pride flags and even a Grateful Dead flag. No one knew when the tradition had started, but everyone was proud of his or her banners.

I got some answers from vexillologists, people who study flags. They told me that in shore towns, flags traditionally were used to signal between ships. But they still couldn’t pinpoint its start in Avalon.

So I crashed the Avalon Historical Society’s monthly teatime, where I interviewed a few longtime residents. Though no one had answers, the guests did share memories. One 85-year-old resident recalled seeing college flags hanging from lifeguard boardinghouses in 1948.

No one quite knew the when, but everyone felt confident in the why: Flying flags was a way to share pride — in a school; a kids’ schools; a team; or, for a few, political beliefs.

I don’t write about the Jersey Shore as much as I used to. I found it sucked some of the fun out of being there, and once I hung up the “Jersey Shore Jen” mantle (my first Twitter handle), my head was no longer on a swivel, looking for stories when I was supposed to be relaxing. But now that I’m living there part time, it has been a fun challenge to explain these hyperlocal traditions to a national audience.

My father, for one, was amused by the whole thing, and told me to make sure our flags were out when the photographer visited. Michelle took a picture of me with them, even though I had humidity-frizzled hair, the result of a long day of reporting on what was, for everyone else, a perfect beach day.

Regardless of the reasons for flying them, my dad loves his flags. They celebrate the accomplishments of his four children. And even though none of us went to an Ivy League school, he still hangs them high with pride.

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