The Star-Spangled Banner: Stitch by Stitch

From the Lecture Series: Experiencing America—A Smithsonian Tour through American History

By Richard Kurin, Ph.D., The Smithsonian

No object in the Smithsonian is more inspirational than the Star-Spangled Banner.

Postcard of the original Star-Spangled Banner hanging in the United States National Museum
Postcard of the original Star-Spangled Banner (Image: Curt Teich & Co/Smithsonian Archives)

It tells the story of our fledgling country in peril, how the defense of a small fort in Baltimore gave heart to a people; and how we have defined, almost destroyed, and ultimatley saved a national treasure.

War of 1812

British Burning Washington. This illustration is from the 1816 book, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras
On August 24th, 1812, British troops set fire to the Capitol building (Image: Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras /U.S. Library of Congress)

America’s War of 1812 has sometimes been called the United States’ second war of independence. Although the United States was now an independent country, it was weak by contemporary military standards, particularly at sea. On August 24th, 1812, British troops set fire to the Capitol building, looted and burned the Presidential Mansion, and ransacked the Treasury. Shock reverberated throughout the United States. President Madison returned to a devastated Washington. Repairs on the Presidential Mansion had to wait until war’s end, when heavy coats of white paint covered the scorched brick and popularized the building’s earlier designation as the White House.

Now, the British turned northward to Baltimore. Only Fort McHenry, guarding the city’s harbor, stood in the way of British victory. British Admiral Alexander Cochrane and General Ross had a simple plan—pound Fort McHenry from ships anchored in the bay, and send in troops by land to surround and take the fort. Then the British could clear out the defenders.

This is a transcript from the video series Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Defending Fort McHenry

Baltimoreans were determined to defend themselves. Fifteen thousand militiamen protected the land route into the city. They sank junked boats to form a barrier across the inner harbor—the British would have to take the fort. At Fort McHenry, American commander Major George Armistead had 57 artillery pieces and 1,000 troops to face three British frigates, five bomb vessels, and one rocket-launching ship anchored two miles away, just beyond the range of his guns. The frigates were about 140 feet long, much larger and much more formidable than any ships the Americans could muster. Americans would face a tough bombardment.

Henry bombardement 1814
A VIEW of the BOMBARDMENT of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, by the British fleet taken from the Observatory under the Command of Admirals Cochrane & Cockburn on the morning of the 13th of Sept 1814 (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

The British salvo began on September 13, 1814. Spherical bombs burst deadly shrapnel over Fort McHenry; whooshing Congreve rockets rained fire. The rockets, in particular, could be launched from far out in the harbor, up to two and a half miles away.

After the daylong, distant bombardment, British ships moved in for the kill. But as they came into range of the fort, the American gunners unleashed their response, knocking the rocket ship out of commission and forcing the bombers to retreat.

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Francis Scott Key At Fort McHenry

 Francis Scott Key 1780-1843
Francis Scott Key observed the British attack on Fort McHenry from a boat in the harbor. (Image: Francis Scott Key, -1843 [Photograph] /The Library of Congress)

Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old Washington lawyer and amateur poet, observed the onslaught from a boat in the harbor. He was temporarily in British custody. He had boarded the ship to negotiate the release of an American civilian prisoner, but he was kept at sea during the battle because he had actually directly witnessed the British preparations. Key had originally opposed the war. He had written to a friend that he would rather see “the American flag lowered in disgrace than have it stand for persecution and dishonor.” Nonetheless, he dutifully served in the militia and sadly witnessed the burning of Washington weeks before.

Through that night, Key wondered whether Fort McHenry would stand or fall. As dawn approached, what flag would he see over the fort, the American Stars and Stripes, or the British Union Jack? The answer would signal the fate of the nation.

A year earlier, in the summer of 1813, when Major Armistead took command of Fort McHenry, he had written, “We have no suitable ensign to display over the Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” Armistead ordered two flags from Baltimore flag-maker Mary Pickersgill. Pickersgill had learned her craft from her mother, who had sewn flags and uniforms for George Washington’s Continental Army.

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A Flag For the Fort

The 30-by-42-foot- long flag, called the garrison flag that flew over Fort McHenry during its bombardment in 1814 (Image: George Henry Preble – Frank A. O’Connell; Wilbur F. Coyle (1914)/Public domain)

Armistead ordered a small “storm flag,” measuring about 17 feet by 25 feet, to be flown in bad weather. He also ordered an enormous 30-by-42-foot- long flag, called the garrison flag. To give you an idea of how large this was, picture five full-grown men standing on each other’s shoulders. The flag is taller than that. It was made from worsted-wool bunting. It had 15 stars; the original 13 plus the new states, Vermont and Kentucky. The white cotton stars were two feet across and stood out against an indigo background. The flag had eight red stripes, and seven white ones, as stipulated by the 1794 Flag Act signed by President George Washington. Each stripe was 23 inches wide—about as wide as my shoulders—sewn together from smaller strips.

photo of Mary Pickersgill
Mary Pickersgill and her small team sewed the flag in 7 weeks (Image: Harris & Ewing, photographer/Public domain)

Pickersgill, her 13-year old daughter Caroline, her two teenaged nieces, Eliza and Margaret and an African American indentured servant named Grace helped sew the flag by hand. According to a letter written by Caroline decades later, they often labored until midnight. They worked for about seven weeks in Pickersgill’s little cottage. Then they had to piece together the flag in the larger space of nearby Clagett’s brewery. The large garrison flag cost $405.90, more than most Baltimoreans earned in a year. Major Armistead then flew the flag over Fort McHenry so that the British could not miss seeing it.

Pickersgill, her 13-year old daughter Caroline, her two teenaged nieces, Eliza and Margaret and an African American indentured servant named Grace helped sew the flag by hand.  

So now, imagine Francis Scott Key aboard the British ship having witnessed the bombardment by day and seen and heard the bombs bursting in air all night. What flag would he see as dawn broke? Would it be that enormous American flag, meaning the defenders would have held the fort? Or would it be a British Union Jack, indicating the fort, the city, and maybe even the country had been defeated?

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The Dawn’s Early Light

Artist's drawing of Francis Scott Key watching the flag over Fort McHenry
Francis Scott Key standing on boat, with right arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland (Image: Moran, Percy, Artist. The Star Spangled Banner
. Photograph/Library of Congress)

In the dawn’s early light, Key could make out the flag flying over Fort McHenry. It was, indeed, the American flag. Baltimore held. The nation survived. Overcome by emotion, Key penned a four-stanza poem on the back of a letter. Days later, Key’s poem was published as “The Defense of Fort McHenry” with instructions that it be sung to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a British popular song Key had in mind when composing the poem. That poem, and that song, are now familiar to all Americans as the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Its famous first verse, which poignantly ends with a question mark, is moving when read:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming, Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous flght O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming? And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Key’s handwritten poem survived the battle… Congress designated it the national anthem in 1931.

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The Flag After the Fight

But what of the flag itself? Major George Armistead kept the flag after the war. When he died in 1818, it was inherited by his widow, Louisa. For decades, it was carried and displayed during parades and patriotic events. According to newspapers, it was regarded as “a holy relic never disgraced, and receiving now the homage of friends.” Louisa, and her daughter Georgina allowed war veterans and prominent people to take snippings from the flag. One official supposedly got a star. Others were buried with swatches. Over time, some 200 square feet had been cut out of the flag.

Ben Appleton, Armistead’s grandson, inherited the flag in 1878 upon the death of his mother. He was besieged with continual requests to display the flag and even cut out fragments of the flag for special keepsakes. After Baltimore’s sesquicentennial in 1880, when the flag was paraded and the last of the surviving defender’s of Ft. McHenry were honored, Appleton concluded that the flag was just too fragile for public display. He put it in storage. Decades later, in 1907, to avoid having to deal with requests for its display, the somewhat reclusive Appleton lent the flag to the Smithsonian. It arrived in a modest canvas bag.

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Restoration Begins

The Star-Spangled Banner became a treasure in what was then called the National Museum. But it was in terrible shape. The formerly proud garrison flag hung outside on the façade of the Smithsonian’s Castle building on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It’s missing pieces; it’s worn and somewhat forlorn.

Women are at work repairing the Star-Spangled Banner
(Image: Record Unit 95, Box 31A, Folder 25/Smithsonian Archives)

The Smithsonian immediately hired conservator Amelia Bold Fowler and her team of ten skilled seamstresses to save the flag. They set up in the Smithsonian Castle and removed the canvas, replacing it with a linen backing attached to the flag with a specially patented interlocking mesh of some 1.7 million stitches. The cost of the project, a little over $1,200.

In 1914, with Baltimore officials pressing the Smithsonian to lend it back to them for the upcoming centennial celebration of the Defense of Fort McHenry, Appleton added a condition to his gift—the flag had to remain at the national museum “forever.”

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The Flag on Display

On display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology, around 1964.
The earlier, vertical display of the flag caused it to stretch and weaken (Image: NMAH, Smithsonian Institution Archives/Public domain)

The Star-Spangled Banner was then exhibited in a giant glass display case in the Arts and Industries Building, where it was seen by millions over the next half century. The only time the flag was removed was during World War II, from 1942 to 1944, when President Franklin Roosevelt feared Germany might bomb the National Mall. The flag was packed up and sent for safe keeping, along with other important national collections, to Shenandoah National Park near Luray, Virginia.

In 1964, the Star-Spangled Banner became the centerpiece of the new Museum of History and Technology, later renamed the National Museum of American History. The Star-Spangled Banner hung vertically on a specially constructed frame, soaring 50-feet high in a monumental open space known as Flag Hall. Most of the time, a covering flag blocked it from view. But several times a day, the museum would play a recorded version of the national anthem and lift the covering flag to unveil the historic Star-Spangled Banner to the public.

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Major Conservation Work Begins

Over the decades, museum conservators realized that hanging was stretching the Star-Spangled Banner out of shape. Changes in temperature and humidity, as well as dust and pollutants, were harming the fibers. Bright light was fading its colors. By the mid-1990s, they devised a plan to preserve the nearly 200-year-old textile born in war and lovingly maltreated as a relic and an icon.

photo of conservators working on flag in front of museum-goers
Conservators hang over the flag and perform their daily work in front of museum-goers (Image:  Smithsonian Institute)

The project needed major funding. Enter then-First-Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Save America’s Treasures program. The Star-Spangled Banner was number one on the list. Clothing designer Ralph Lauren helped fund the project, and the restoration began. Museum staff took down the flag and treated it in a temporary laboratory constructed in the museum. Visitors could watch conservators working on a scaffold suspended over the flag as, inch by inch, they vacuumed and cleaned the flag of oil, mold, dust, and other detritus. Their most painstaking task? Carefully removing every one of the 1.7 million stitches sewn in 1914 by Amelia Fowler and her seamstresses and replacing the old backing with Stabiltex, a strong, stable, and sheer material. Per the terms of Appleton’s request, the flag remained on display, even as it was being restored.

Carefully removing old stitches from the flag
Carefully removing every one of the 1.7 million stitches sewn in 1914 (Image: Smithsonian Institute)

The conservation process took six years. Funds from the government, philanthropist Kenneth Behring, and others enabled us to construct a new home for the flag in the museum’s central core. This is a special climate- and light-controlled, low-oxygen chamber designed by Smithsonian architects, engineers, and conservators. The flag would be displayed on an adjustable, angled table so it could be displayed without stressing the fabric. By the time President George W. Bush, General Colin Powell, and others ceremonially opened the renovated museum, we’d spent nearly 58 million dollars caring for the flag.

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The Star-Spangled Banner’s Current Home

photo of the Star-Spangled Banner on display
The Star-Spangled Banner in its current exhibition display (Image: Smithsonian Institute)

The new installation is striking. You walk along a darkened hallway, seeing painted images of the War of 1812, passing a charred timber from the Presidential Mansion, burned during that invasion of Washington, as well as seeing a rocket and a bomb from the attack on Fort McHenry that night. You imagine Francis Scott Key in the dark out on Chesapeake Bay, his eyes straining to see the fort and the flag flying above it; you turn a corner and then with the light simulating the early dawn, through a wall of glass, you see the Star-Spangled Banner. The words of Key’s poem are projected onto a back wall. It is as awe inspiring as a museum experience can be.

Common Questions About the American Flag

Q: What do the symbols on the American Flag mean?

The stars number 50 and represent the states. The stripes number 13 and represent the 13 original colonies. The color red is said to represent valor. The color white represents purity, while the color blue stands for justice.

Q: Can the American flag be burnt or destroyed?

Yes. The destruction of the American Flag is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, burning it could result in an arson charge or vandalism if on private property.

Q: What does it mean when the American flag is flown at half mast?

Flying the flag at half mast generally signifies that an important American figure has died. It is a symbol of respect and mourning.

Q: Why is the American flag folded 13 times?

The American Flag is folded 13 times as a form of symbology of our shared beliefs in life, eternal life, the Armed Forces, and many other elements of philosophical American life.

This article was update on 8/1/2019

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