Saving the Nation’s Flag

After nearly two centuries of exposure, the Star-Spangled Banner gets a much needed overhaul

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

 Sometimes I think I am getting to know too much about a subject, but then I check out a detail and find that even the detail has details — and I enter a whole new level of minutiae and am fascinated all over again.

The basic story here is simple enough: they are taking down the Star-Spangled Banner, the giant American flag that hangs in the National Museum of American History, for a three-year conservation project. When it is back onstage in 2002, it will be protected from all the things that attack 189-year-old flags and will be visible from two floors of the museum in a special showcase.

The conservation will cost $5.5 million, which is coming from the Pew Charitable Trusts and other foundations. The new Flag Hall will add another $5.5 million to the $18 million project, which itself is part of President and Mrs. Clinton's call for a refurbishing of our national icons to celebrate the millennium. In response to the Clintons' campaign, Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation recently pledged $10 million to help save the flag.

Now for a few details.

The flag was ordered in 1813 by Maj. George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, who wanted something big enough for the British to see when and if they invaded his harbor. He hired Mary Young Pickersgill, age 29, a professional flagmaker (creator of ships' colors, signals, and so forth), to sew a flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes, according to provisions in the 1794 Flag Act, and measuring 42 by 30 feet. The contract was for $405.90. Such a large flag was not unusual for the time; garrison flags frequently were flown from poles at least 90 feet tall. Mrs. Pickersgill may have bought the wool bunting and the cotton for the stars from her brother-in-law, Jesse Fearson, who owned a dry goods store in Baltimore. Then she and her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, put the huge thing together on the floor of a local brewery.

The flag, made in six weeks of ten-hour days, required 300 yards of wool (cotton, then a luxury material, was used only for the stars, which are 24 inches in diameter) and weighed 50 pounds. It took 11 men to raise it.

Today the flag weighs approximately 135 pounds, mostly because of a linen backing added in 1914 to strengthen it, replacing a loosely basted canvas backing installed 41 years earlier. The new backing was sewn on by a team of seamstresses who put in, so I am told, more than 1.7 million stitches.

Now there's a statistic. We know there were 12 stitches per square inch, which comes to 1,728 stitches per square foot. When multiplied by the total number of square feet, that comes to a whopping 1,762,560 stitches.

Over the years other things have happened to the banner. Armistead's widow cut out one of the stars to give to a political personage, but no one knows who the recipient was. There is a mysterious upside-down V, or a chevron, in one of the white stripes, which could have been an unfinished A for "Armistead." Lonn Taylor, a Smithsonian historian, cites a letter from Georgeanna Armistead Appleton, the owner's daughter, which says, "My mother sewed the red A on the flag," which would seem to rule out the other possibilities.

And the flag is now only 34 feet long, because the Armisteads gave away souvenir swatches. Taylor says this was common back then, there being no law against it.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus