Long before it flew to the moon, waved over the White House or was folded into tight triangles at Arlington National Cemetery; before it sparked fiery Congressional debates, reached the North Pole or the summit of Mount Everest; before it became a lapel fixture, testified to the Marines' possession of Iwo Jima, or fluttered over front porches, firetrucks and construction cranes; before it inspired a national anthem or recruiting posters for two world wars, the American ensign was just a flag.
From This Story
"There was nothing special about it," says Scott S. Sheads, historian at Baltimore's Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, speaking of a time when a new nation was struggling for survival and groping toward a collective identity. That all changed in 1813, when one enormous flag, pieced together on the floor of a Baltimore brewery, was first hoisted over the federal garrison at Fort McHenry. In time the banner would take on larger meaning, set on a path to glory by a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key, passing into one family's private possession and emerging as a public treasure.
Succeeding generations loved and honored the Stars and Stripes, but this flag in particular provided a unique connection to the national narrative. Once it was moved to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907, it remained on almost continuous display. After almost 200 years of service, the flag had slowly deteriorated almost to the point of no return. Removed from exhibit in 1998 for a conservation project that cost about $7 million, the Star-Spangled Banner, as it had become known, returns to center stage this month with the reopening of the renovated National Museum of American History on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Its long journey from obscurity began on a blazing July day in 1813, when Mary Pickersgill, a hardworking widow known as one of the best flag makers in Baltimore, received a rush order from Maj. George Armistead. Newly installed as commander of Fort McHenry, the 33-year-old officer wanted an enormous banner, 30 by 42 feet, to be flown over the federal garrison guarding the entrance to Baltimore's waterfront.
There was some urgency to Armistead's request. The United States had declared war in June 1812 to settle its disputed northern and western borders and stop the British from impressing American seamen; the British, annoyed by American privateering against their merchant ships, readily took up the challenge. As the summer of 1813 unfolded, the enemies were trading blows across the Canadian border. Then British war vessels appeared in the Chesapeake Bay, menacing shipping, destroying local batteries and burning buildings up and down the estuary. As Baltimore prepared for war, Armistead ordered his big new flag—one the British would be able to see from miles away. It would signal that the fort was occupied and prepared to defend the harbor.
Pickersgill got right to work. With her daughter Caroline and others, she wrestled more than 300 yards of English worsted wool bunting to the floor of Claggett's brewery, the only space in her East Baltimore neighborhood large enough to accommodate the project, and started measuring, snipping and fitting.
To make the flag's stripes, she overlapped and stitched eight strips of red wool and alternated them with seven strips of undyed white wool. While the bunting was manufactured in 18-inch widths, the stripes in her design were each two feet wide, so she had to splice in an extra six inches all the way across. She did it so smoothly that the completed product would look like a finished whole—and not like the massive patchwork it was. A rectangle of deep blue, about 16 by 21 feet, formed the flag's canton, or upper left quarter. Sitting on the brewery floor, she stitched a scattering of five-pointed stars into the canton. Each one, fashioned from white cotton, was almost two feet across. Then she turned the flag over and snipped out blue material from the backs of the stars, tightly binding the edges; this made the stars visible from either side.
"My mother worked many nights until 12 o'clock to complete it in the given time," Caroline Pickersgill Purdy recalled years later. By mid-August, the work was done—a supersize version of the Stars and Stripes. Unlike the 13-star ensign first authorized by Congress on June 14, 1777, this one had 15 stars to go with the 15 stripes, acknowledging the Union's latest additions, Vermont and Kentucky.
Mary Pickersgill delivered the finished flag on August 19, 1813, along with a junior version. The smaller flag, 17 by 25 feet, was to be flown in inclement weather, saving wear and tear on the more expensive one, not to mention the men who hoisted the unwieldy monster up the flagpole.
The government paid $405.90 for the big flag, $168.54 for the storm version (roughly $5,500 and $2,300, respectively, in today's currency). For a widow who had to make her own way, Pickersgill lived well, eventually buying a brick house on East Pratt Street, supporting her mother and daughter there and furnishing the place with luxuries such as floor coverings of painted sailcloth.