Stephen Salisbury II, one of the wealthiest men in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the 1800s, had interests in banking, canals and railroads. But his collection of fragments from the Star-Spangled Banner—one red swatch, one white—made him feel less like a have than a have-not. A friend possessed a blue scrap, and, without one for himself, Salisbury feared his pair lacked the appropriate “sentiment and force.”
“I therefore cannot refrain from the freedom of asking you to send me a piece of blue,” he wrote in 1874 to Georgiana Armistead Appleton, the daughter of Lt. Col. George Armistead, the celebrated commander of Fort McHenry during the British bombardment that began on September 13, 1814. Appleton had inherited the garrison flag after her parents’ death and was soon up to her bonnet in similar appeals.
“Had we given all that we had been importuned for little would be left to show,” Appleton had groused the year before. Still, Salisbury got his “snipping”—as did countless other dignitaries, historical groups, family friends, even household staff.
Which helps explain why the flag on permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American History, however colossal, is 240 square feet smaller—or nearly 20 percent—than it was on that fateful day in Baltimore two centuries ago. A piece was buried with a veteran of the battle at the behest of his widow; another rests in the Francis Scott Key Monument in Golden Gate Park. One of the giant stars was “cut out for some official person,” Appleton wrote, though she took the recipient’s identity to her grave.
“Anytime the descendants come to see the exhibit, we’ve asked, ‘Oh, we haven’t met you before, do you have the 15th star?’” says Marilyn Zoidis, the flag’s former curator at the Smithsonian Institution, to which Georgiana’s son donated the banner in 1912. “And no one ever said they did. It’s one of those mysteries.”
In our own era of flag codes and schoolhouse pledges of allegiance, shredding a national icon may seem like sacrilege. But in the late 1800s, the practice was common, offering citizens of a rising nation a tether to their past. A similar instinct survives today, in the almost talismanic power that attaches to chunks of the Berlin Wall or steel from the ruins of the World Trade Center.
The Armisteads snipped liberally from the hand-woven wool flag, as did George Preble, a naval officer who moonlighted as a flag historian. Appleton had lent Preble the banner in 1873, so he could photograph it at the Boston Navy Yard and show it off to various historical societies.
Some recipients set their snippets, reverentially, in gilt frames or on silk or velvet. Others tucked them into books or envelopes, forgotten. A man found one in 1968 while clearing out his late aunt’s Paris apartment. The U.S. Naval Academy Museum got one in 1952 from a captain, who received it from a first cousin once removed, whose late husband got it from a friend, who inherited it from his grandfather, who got it from a seaman, in 1876, as thanks for “intervening to save him from punishment for an infraction of Naval discipline,” according to a letter taped to the back of its frame.
In 2011, William Saunders, a retired market researcher near Columbus, Ohio, was in disbelief when he saw an authenticated shred for auction in Texas. “I didn’t think it possible for a private individual to own something so significant,” he says. Then he read about the history of the snippings, and placed a winning bid, for $10,755.
The blue fragment, fringed by a single red thread, is 1.25 inches long and a half-inch wide, its weave loose enough to see clear through. But Saunders has no buyer’s remorse. The scrap now hangs, in a golden frame, lit by a brass lamp, in his downstairs hall. “How many times since your youth have you heard ‘that our flag was still there’?” he says. “It’s emotional just having a connection to that night.”