"I didn't think much of it," recalls Kreitler, a Los Angeles environmental activist and Episcopalian priest. But then at a flea market, he noticed July 1942 issues of Time, Look and Life -- all with flags on their covers too.
Inside Life was an explanation: after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Hearst publicist named Paul Macnamara had organized a morale-lifting magazine industry campaign called "United We Stand." Some 300 magazines joined Macnamara's vision of newsstands filled with American flags for the Fourth of July, 1942.
This piece of forgotten American pop culture captured Kreitler's imagination, perhaps because of his own memories of that time.
"I was privileged to grow up with a grandfather who was a great patriot," says Kreitler, who'd moved in with his mother to his grandfather's house when his father was off fighting World War II.
Every morning, young Kreitler had watched his grandfather raise the flag up on a pole in the yard, salute it and then go inside and have coffee.
Over the years Kreitler managed to find copies of 320 different July 1942 magazines at flea markets. In one case, he lucked upon 80 a parishioner donated to the thrift shop at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Pacific Palisades, where Kreitler used to be the rector.
The head of the thrift shop mentioned that a dealer had already offered to buy the collection. "I'll give you four times that," Kreitler immediately responded.
"It was very gratifying to me, because my money went to serve the needy," he notes. In any case, he considers that lot of 80 magazines a bargain.
Although he declines to name specific prices, Kreitler does say that since finding that thrift shop treasure trove, "I've paid more for a single issue than I did for that whole collection."
In the wake of Sept. 11, Chronicle Books reproduced around 100 of the best of these covers in a paperback titled "United We Stand," published in conjunction with the Smithsonian's current exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, which runs through Oct. 27.
"Peter," Kreitler recalls the museum's curator telling him, "you have saved a piece of American history that had been lost."
And it's true that it had been. Kreitler remembers questioning his parents, his parents-in-law and others of their generation about those 1942 magazine covers.
"No one remembers the campaign," he says, "although a few remember the magazines."
Some were memorably gorgeous feats of art direction, especially compared to today's homogenous newsstand dominated by celebrity mugs.
A stroll past a July 1942 newsstand would have revealed an imaginative explosion of red, white and blue. House & Garden framed Mount Vernon with a flag pulled back like drapery. (The original painting of that cover, in fact, now hangs at Mount Vernon.) Screenland posed Veronica Lake lounging in a red and white bathing suit against a blue sky, a flag waving in the background.
A young girl helped her mother raise the flag up its pole on the front of Ladies Home Journal. Donald and Pluto marched over a hill carrying a flag, Pluto in an army helmet, for Walt Disney Comics. On the cover of Whiz Comics, the flag flies in the corner as some tearful trolls tell Captain Marvel about a war in troll-land: "It was all started by a couple of nasties named Adolph-Puss and Blabbermouth Musso!"
Especially clever were the magazines that incorporated the patriotic theme into their essence. Gourmet featured a red and white Jello mold surrounded by blueberries, with small flags sticking out of a nearby plate of star-shaped sugar cookies. Outdoor Life showed a couple of fishermen raising the flag next to their country cabin. Farm Journal angled a flag over a field of corn.
One of Kreitler's favorites is the cover of Poultry Tribune, which showed a young boy saluting an army of marching eggs with soldier hats, the lead egg proudly carrying a small flag in its pipecleaner arms.
"My guess is that young boy was the son of a chicken farmer and created that display himself," Kreitler says.
An eerie cover of a flag viewed through smoke was featured on the cover of a magazine called Think -- as it turns out, the inhouse journal of I.B.M. Kreitler says he particularly treasures that one because of the quality of the writing inside.
He quotes from a Think essay in that July 1942 issue by the historian Lewis Mumford.
"The reason freedom has suddenly become the preoccupation of (so many)," Mumford wrote, "is that for the first time in history there is the possibility it may be successfully exterminated. Neither freedom nor civilization can survive in mere patches."
This is true once again, which is why these 60-year-old magazine covers are once again so striking.