Our Star Spangled Banner

Written by: Lynn Young, President General
September 12, 2014

September 12-15 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore during which Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner which became our National Anthem in 1931.   No doubt you are familiar with the story of the battle which inspired the song, but I thought you might enjoy more flag facts from the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  

In the summer of 1813, Mary Pickersgill (1776–1857) was contracted to sew two flags for Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. The one that became the Star-Spangled Banner was a 30 x 42–foot garrison flag; the other was a 17 x 25–foot storm flag for use in inclement weather. Pickersgill, a thirty-seven-year-old widow, was an experienced maker of ships’ colors and signal flags. She filled orders for many of the military and merchant ships that sailed into Baltimore’s busy port.

Helping Pickersgill make the flags were her thirteen-year-old daughter Caroline; nieces Eliza Young (thirteen) and Margaret Young (fifteen); and a thirteen-year-old African American indentured servant, Grace Wisher. Pickersgill’s elderly mother, Rebecca Young, from whom she had learned flagmaking, may have helped as well.

Pickersgill and her assistants spent about seven weeks making the two flags. They assembled the blue canton and the red and white stripes of the flag by piecing together strips of loosely woven English wool bunting that were only 12 or 18 inches wide.

The flag remained the property of Lt. General George Armistead, commander of Ft. McHenry during the bombardment.  Eventually New York stockbroker Eben Appleton, a grandson of Lt. General Armistead, inherited the Star-Spangled Banner upon his mother's death in 1878. The publicity that it had received in the 1870s had transformed it into a national treasure, and Appleton received many requests to lend it for patriotic occasions. He permitted it to go to Baltimore for that city's sesquicentennial celebration in 1880. After that his concern for the flag's deteriorating condition led him to keep it in a safe-deposit vault in New York. In 1907 he lent the Star-Spangled Banner to the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1912 he converted the loan to a gift.

Appleton donated the flag with the wish that it would always be on view to the public. Museums constantly balance the desire to display an object with the need to protect it from the damage created by light, dust, and other environmental factors. The Smithsonian has had to balance its effort to fulfill his wishes with the need to care for the fragile and damaged object.

Please visit the Smithsonian website for more information on the history and conservation of the flag:  http://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/default.aspx

The National Board looks forward to visiting Ft. McHenry on October 3rd.  There are many special events planned this weekend in the Baltimore area including a living flag and a Star-Spangled Spectacular. http://www.starspangled200.com/star-spangled-spectacular/fort-mchenry/

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