Saving the Nation's Flag

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

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During the turbulent night of September 13, 1814, in the heat of the British bombardment, a smaller flag that was used during bad weather, called a storm flag, very likely was run up over Fort McHenry. This flag, 25 by 17 feet, was also made by Pickersgill and cost $168.54.

In the morning, Armistead's men ran up the big flag. An English midshipman wrote that, at dawn on September 14, "as the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign on their battery." This was, of course, the moment when Francis Scott Key, detained aboard a British ship, saw the sight that inspired him to write the famous lines that became our national anthem.

Armistead acquired the flag sometime after the battle, and his wife inherited it upon his death in 1818. She willed it to their daughter Georgeanna Appleton. Armistead's grandson Eben Appleton loaned it to the Smithsonian in 1907 and made a gift of it five years later.

During World War II the flag was hidden away for safety in a Luray, Virginia, warehouse, appearing again in 1944. In 1963 it went to what is now the National Museum of American History. After the war, it was spot cleaned with gasoline and later was vacuumed. Luckily, as the flag aged, conservation techniques grew steadily more sophisticated. In the 1970s plans to enclose the flag were proposed and dropped; by the 1980s conservators had worked out a cleaning plan. In 1984, to protect it from light and dirt, it was covered with an opaque screen that was lowered for just five minutes every hour for an unobstructed view while the national anthem was played. Then, in 1994, the cables holding the screen broke, leaving the flag newly exposed.

Conservators soon discovered that the screen had not kept out plant material, debris from construction projects, or lint from paper and clothes, including some blue cotton fibers that may have come from blue jeans worn by many of the five million people who visit the museum annually.

Also, the wool fibers have been decaying over the years, says Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the conservator in charge of the entire flag project. Sunlight, heat, chemical interactions, even the oxygen in the air, cause deterioration.

But help is on the way. "We're going to lay it flat to work on it," says Thomassen-Krauss, "and there will be a big moving bridge that we call a gantry, 32 feet across, so we can work on any part of the flag."

It will lie on a platform in the Flag Hall, inside a 50-by-50-foot room. There it will be examined and stabilized so that in early 1999, it can be moved to a special laboratory in the museum. In this $1 million lab, the three-year conservation process will begin. Experts will clean the flag, evaluate whether the stitches can be removed, add new support material and attach a new mounting system.

One point of interest will be that upside-down V. Conservators will be looking for traces of the crossbar that would show it had been intended for an A.

The flag comes down this month. If the linen backing is removed, it means that each of the 1,762,560 stitches will have to be snipped, at two snips per stitch. That is 3,525,560 snips. I love stats.


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