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Tea Partiers invoke spirit of '76

| Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010

Brian Durbin of Hempfield got up Saturday morning and transformed himself into Benjamin Franklin.

He pulled on brown knickers, a tan vest and ruffled neckpiece, and then covered his hair with a white wig. After pushing wire-rimmed glasses onto his nose, he grabbed a cane, ready to party.

Durbin set off to a Tea Party event in Unity, where physician Bill Hennessey invited several hundred people to a pre-Election Day rally.

Historical-themed garb and other symbols of Americana aren't just for Halloween these days. The Tea Party movement, touting principles based in the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, has boosted the economy by fueling the sale and rental of anything symbolic of Colonial times — costumes, flags, even powdered wigs.

At Tea Party events across the country, people are conjuring up the political spirit of anti-incumbent colonists by dressing as Minutemen and historical icons such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Others wave bright-yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags, imprinted with a coiled rattlesnake.

Durbin, who works for a tool and die manufacturer, said he spent $300 to rent costumes and accessories from Costume World in the Strip District for himself and son Brandon, 17, who portrayed Jefferson.

"If it makes somebody a little more attentive to history, it's worth it," he said.

Business is brisk at New Stanton-based Online Stores Inc., which sells "Don't Tread on Me" flags, from $1.60 for 4-by-6-inch stick flags to $35 for 3-by-5-foot outdoor display flags. Last year, the company sold 536 of the flags, up from 330 the year before. As of Sept. 30, the company had sold 2,804 on its website.

In July, the company filled its biggest single order of "Gadsden" flags — 35,000 for an event at the National Rifle Association headquarters.

"As long as that continues to be a symbol of the Tea Party movement, sales will continue to increase," said John Gilkey, vice president of operations at the company, which employs about 100 and sells about 2 million American flags each year.

The Gadsden flag, with its rattlesnake on a yellow background, is a "flag of action," said Clark Rogers, acting executive director of the National Flag Foundation, based in Pittsburgh. It was named for Col. Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, who designed it in 1776 and presented it to the Continental Congress as an emblem of the newly formed United States.

Rogers said flags identify groups and symbolize support.

In response to the demand for anything bearing the rattlesnake and motto, Online Stores opened a "Gadsden Clothing Co." online store about six months ago, Gilkey said. The website markets everything from T-shirts and baseball caps to beach towels and license plates.

"Any time something like that takes off, it can't help but have a positive effect on our business," Gilkey said.

Hennessey, who organized yesterday's rally outside his offices, said the snake represents taxpayers' discontent with government.

"The current government serves itself to the extent that it is stepping on the common man," he said. "If you step on a rattler, we're going to bite back."

The rattlesnake became an early symbol of freedom, said Michel Sadaka, an organizer of the Butler County 9.12 Project, which uses the "Join or Die" snake designed by Franklin as its logo. The group is a part of a nationwide project begun by talk radio host Glenn Beck, who based the group on the feeling of camaraderie after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Sadaka, who bought three Gadsden flags, said the group tries to connect like-minded people.

In e-mail invitations to Hennessey's rally, he encouraged participants to dress in costume.

"It is the day before Halloween, and this is supposed to be a fun event, a motivating event," said Hennessey, who went as a "Colonial doctor." He bought a three-cornered hat for $7 from and fashioned a wig from $5 worth of cotton batting from a fabric store, to go with his doctor's coat and patriotic T-shirt.

At Costume World, Colonial- and Victorian-era costumes — renting for $85 to $125 — are "hot" this year, said Missy McArdle, a seasonal manager. She credited the "Alice In Wonderland" movie with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and the Tea Party movement.

"We probably have Johnny Depp more to thank for the sales in the Victorian- and Colonial-era than Sarah Palin, but it certainly helps," McArdle said.

The store sells white knee-high stockings, white ponytail wigs, wire-rim spectacles and gold or silver buckles with elastic to stretch around shoes to complete a Colonial look. She said someone who would dress so elaborately for a political event must have strong convictions.

"In this economy particularly, if you're going to outfit yourself completely, that's going to make a huge statement," McArdle said.

Nationally, Target logged a spike in Colonial costume sales this year, said corporate spokeswoman Tara Schlosser.

The stores offer items for adults and children, priced from $11.99 for a three-cornered hat to $48.99 for an "Adult Colonial General" costume that includes gray pants, bright blue jacket and faux leather boots.

In Scottdale, Brian Corcoran reported a recent uptick in demand for Minutemen and Colonial ladies' outfits at his Vintage Costumes, which rents them for about $35 a day, including accessories.

Gloria Pronesti of New Castle, a member of the Alle-Kiski 9.12 Project, said costumes can detract from the seriousness of the message. Pronesti attended four rallies in Washington, where many of the costumed participants are well-informed but are not perceived as such, she said.

"There's no need to dress up in a costume for what we are about," she said. "I think it's rather silly."

But Corcoran said period costumes allow people to feel they are part of the past, whether at a rally or a re-enactment.

"When you see the costume or the uniform, you believe you're right there in the time period," he said.

He said the best thing about customers wearing costumes at rallies is the word-of-mouth references to the shops while they talk politics.

"It's always considered a great advertisement," he said.

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