Star-Spangled Banner and the War of 1812
The original Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song that would become our national anthem, is among the most treasured artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
SNIPPINGS FROM THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER
In the late 1800s, souvenirs, or relics, of important events and people in American history became highly prized and collectible objects. The Star-Spangled Banner, historic and celebrated, was subjected to this practice.
The Armistead family received frequent requests for pieces of their flag, but reserved the treasured fragments for veterans, government officials, and other honored citizens. As Georgiana Armistead Appleton noted, “had we given all that we have been importuned for little would be left to show.” Despite efforts to limit the practice, however, over two hundred square feet of the Star-Spangled Banner was eventually given away, including one of the stars.
By giving away snippings, the Armisteads could share the Star-Spangled Banner with others who loved the flag. The citizens who received these mementos treated them with reverence and pride. Some framed and displayed these pieces of history in their homes; others donated them to museums. Today, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has thirteen Star-Spangled Banner fragments in its collections. Since conservators and curators cannot be sure from which part of the flag these fragments were taken, the pieces cannot be integrated back into the flag. However, they can be analyzed, allowing conservators to document changes in the condition of the flag’s fibers and better understand how time and exposure to light and dirt have affected the flag.
By the time it arrived at the Smithsonian in 1907, the Star-Spangled Banner was already in a fragile and tattered condition. In 1914, the Smithsonian hired Amelia Fowler, a well-known flag restorer and embroidery teacher, to “resuscitate” the flag. Working with a team of ten needlewomen, Fowler first removed a canvas backing that had been attached to the flag in 1873, when it was displayed and photographed for the first time at the Boston Navy Yard by Admiral George Preble. The women then attached the flag to a new linen backing, sewing approximately 1.7 million interlocking stitches to form a honeycomb-like mesh over the flag’s surface. Fowler’s work took eight weeks (mid-May to mid-July 1914), and she charged the Smithsonian $1243: $243 for materials, $500 for herself, and $500 to be divided among her ten needlewomen.
The flag was then displayed in a glass case in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. It remained on view there for nearly 50 years, except for two years during World War II, during which time it was housed in a government warehouse in Virginia, to be protected from possible bombing raids on the nation’s capital. In 1964 the flag was moved to the new National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History), where it was displayed in the central hall on the second floor.
FOR FURTHER READING
For detailed and illustrated stories of the British attack on Baltimore, the bombardment of Fort McHenry, and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” you find books available through these Amazon affiliate links;
Walter Lord, The Dawn’s Early Light (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1992)
Scott S. Sheads, Fort McHenry (Santa Barbara, CA: Sequoia Press, 1989)
Scott S. Sheads, The Rockets’ Red Glare: The Maritime Defense of Baltimore 1814 (Centerville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1986)
Lonn Taylor, The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000)