See What Happened Was...
fun stories from history
The Star Spangled Banner—that great American poem that would become our anthem. We all know the story of Francis Scott Key and his vision of the flag that still waved amidst the smoke of rockets and bombs. We’ve all heard his description of the broad stripes and bright stars, but did you know that you can go and see the actual flag that inspired these lyrics?
The National Museum of American History in Washington DC has that very star spangled banner on display. How did it get there? Why do we not all know about this? Shouldn’t it be proudly waving at the Super Bowl?
Well, here’s what we know.
George Armistead of Virginia was serving in the War of 1812. He was given the command of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry on June 1813. Feeling good about life, he commissioned the creation of a garrison flag “so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” For this task he turned to Mary Pickersgill, a master flag maker. With the help of her daughter, a few nieces, and an African American indentured servant she completed the flag in seven weeks. The flag was too big to be worked on in Mary’s home, so they worked on the floor of a local brewery (this flag doesn’t have the classiest history).
The finished product was 30 by 42 ft and each star was 2 feet wide. Yes, the British could see it.
It was this flag that Armistead raised on the morning of September 14, 1814 as a sign of the successful defense of the fort. It was this flag that Francis Scott Key saw from the harbor and that plucked the poetic heartstrings of his soul to write our anthem.
But what happened to the flag?
George Armistead died in 1818 and it passed on to his wife Louisa. In 1861, after her death, it was given to their daughter Georgiana, though not without a bit of a fight.
According to a friend of mine who is part of the Armistead line, “the Armistead cousins fought over who got to keep it, so they compromised by cutting of pieces as keepsakes. As a result, about 1/5th of it was cut off.” This is very much evident in the state of the flag today; it went from 30 by 42 ft to 30 by 32. (Again…not super classy)
While the flag was occasionally displayed by the family at patriotic events, it was mostly left in the family’s attic or safe-deposit box.
Until 1907 that is, when Armistead’s grandson decided that the rest of the nation deserved a chance to see this important piece of American history. So he loaned it out to the Smithsonian in 1907, permanently donating it in 1912.
When it arrived at the museum in 1912, it was understandably not in the greatest condition. If nothing else it was really old. I mean I can’t make socks last longer than 6 months, let alone more than a century. Naturally the museum did their best to help the flag be the best that it could be. They didn’t exactly do the greatest job though.
In 1914 a woman named Amelia Fowler believed that all flags should be rectangles and the fact that this one (thanks to snipping off pieces through the years) was more of a square need to be rectified. So, she folded and sewed it into a rectangle. That’s like the time I outgrew a favorite pair of pants and my mom let me believe that they could work as capris. Well mom, they didn’t. I know you meant well. But you were mistaken.
Beginning in 1994 there was a massive restoration effort to prevent further deterioration of the flag. They undid the fold that Fowler made and removed the destructive linen backing that had also been added in 1914.
After all that reverse sewing and an improved display, the flag was back to being the best that it could be. And, considering it’s over two hundred years old, I’d say it’s looking pretty good. Next time you’re in DC stop by and say hello. Just keep your scissors to yourself.