Star-Spangled Banner Back on Display

After a decade’s conservation, the flag that inspired the National Anthem returns to its place of honor on the National Mall

After almost two centuries, the flag's frail state became plain. The icon's new high-tech home will protect it from exposure to bright light, humidity and ambient pollution. (Smithsonian Institution)
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It was a sad sight. Red stripes had split from their seams, drooping away from white ones; much of the bunting appeared to be threadbare; the banner was riddled with holes, from wear and tear, insect damage—and perhaps combat; a star was gone from the canton. The rectangular flag that Mary Pickersgill had delivered to Fort McHenry was now almost square, having lost about eight feet of material.

"Flags have a hard life," says Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, chief conservator of the Star-Spangled Banner Project at the National Museum of American History. "The amount of wind damage that happens in a very short time is a major culprit in the deterioration of flags."

Thomassen-Krauss suggests that this banner's fly end, the part that flies free, was probably in tatters when the Armistead family took possession of it. By the time it reached Boston for its 1873 photo op, the ragged end had been trimmed and bound with thread to contain further deterioration. According to Thomassen-Krauss, fly end remnants were likely used to patch more than 30 other parts of the flag. Other trimmings were probably the source for most of the souvenirs the Armisteads handed out.

"Pieces of the flag have occasionally been given to those who [were] deemed to have a right to such a memento," Georgiana Appleton acknowledged in 1873. "Indeed, had we given all that we had been importuned for, little would be left to show." Contrary to widespread belief, the flag's missing star was taken out not by shrapnel or rocket fire, but most likely by scissors. It was "cut out for some official person," Georgiana wrote, though she never named the recipient.

The 1873 photograph reveals another telling detail: the presence of a prominent red chevron stitched into the sixth stripe from the bottom. The voluble Georgiana Appleton never explained it. But historians have suggested it might have been a monogram—in the form of the letter "A" from which the cross-bar has been dropped or was never pieced in, placed there to signify the Armisteads' strong sense of ownership.

That familial pride burned bright in Georgiana Appleton, who fretted over the banner's well-being even as she lent it out, snipped pieces from it and grew old along with a family relic that had come into being only four years before she did. She lamented that it was "just fading away." So was she. When she died at age 60 in 1878, she left the flag to a son, Eben Appleton.

Like family members before him, Eben Appleton—33 at the time he took possession of the flag—felt a keen responsibility to safeguard what, by then, had become a national treasure, much in demand for patriotic celebrations. Aware of its fragile state, he was reluctant to part with it. Indeed, it would appear that he lent it out only once, when the flag made its last public appearance of the 19th century, appropriately enough in Baltimore.

The occasion was the city's sesquicentennial, celebrated October 13, 1880. The parade that day included nine men in top hats and black suits—the last of those who had fought under the banner in 1814. The flag itself, bundled into the lap of a local historian named William W. Carter, rode in a carriage, drawing cheers, a newspaper reported, "as the tattered old relic was seen by the crowds." When the festivities ended, Appleton packed it up and returned to his home in New York City.

There he continued to field requests from civic leaders and patriotic groups, who grew exasperated when he turned them down. When a committee of Baltimoreans publicly questioned whether the Armisteads legally owned the banner, Appleton was infuriated. He locked it in a bank vault, declined to disclose its location, kept his address secret and refused to discuss the flag with anyone, "having been much annoyed about his heirloom all his life," according to a sister.

"People were banging on his door, bothering him all the time to borrow the flag," says Anna Van Lunz, curator at the Fort McHenry historical monument. "He became kind of a recluse."


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