The Flag & The Song
In the summer of 1813, Mary Pickersgill was contracted to sew two flags for Fort McHenry (outside of Baltimore, Maryland). The one that became the Star-Spangled Banner was a 30′ x 42′ garrison flag. It was intended as a challenge to the British warships that were expected during the War of 1812. It had 15 stars and 15 stripes. (It is the only one of our national flags which had more than 13 stripes.) Each stripe was 2 feet wide and made of wool. Each star measured 2 feet from point to point and was made of cotton. Mrs. Pickersgill and her assistants spent seven weeks making the two flags. The Army paid Mrs. Pickersgill $405.90 for the two flags.
On September 13, 1814, British warships began firing artillery at Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore’s harbor. Francis Scott Key was on one of those British ships to negotiate the release of a civilian. The bombardment continued for 25 hours.
The morning of September 14, 1814 U.S. soldiers at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry raised this huge American flag to celebrate a crucial victory over British forces. By the “dawns early light”, Francis Scott Key could see the American flag waving above Fort McHenry. Some accounts state the ship was 4 miles away, others say 8 miles – in any case, the flag could be seen from a great distance!
The British ships began withdrawing and Key realized that Fort McHenry had survived the battle. Moved by the sight of those “broad stripes and bright stars”, he wrote a poem that became a song celebrating “that Star-Spangled Banner” as a symbol of America’s triumph and endurance. Mr. Key’s words gave new significance to a national symbol.
When Mr. Key declared that “our flag was still there,” he fused the physical symbol of the nation with feelings of patriotism, courage, and resilience. By giving the Flag a starring role in one of the most celebrated victories of the war, Francis Scott Key’s song established a new prominence for the flag as an expression of national identity, unity, and pride. By giving it a name – that Star-Spangled Banner – he transformed the Flag into something that Americans could connect with. The Flag was no longer just an emblem of the nation; it now represented our values and ideals.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” gained special significance during the Civil War. During this time many Americans turned to music to express their feelings for the flag and the ideals and values it represented. By the 1890s, John Philip Sousa included the Star-Spangled Banner in the repertoire of the Marine Corps band. In 1896, the U.S. Navy ordered the song played for morning colors. In 1904, the War Department awarded it formal military respect. Thus began the tradition of standing during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Finally in 1931, President Herbert W Hoover signed a bill into law that made the Star-Spangled Banner our official national anthem.
Now, in times of celebration and of crisis…with pride and in protest…people raise the flag to express their ideas about what it means to be an American.
A New Home for the Flag
Although the Army paid for the flag, various historical accounts indicate that the Star-Spangled Banner remained the property of the family of the fort’s commander until 1912. A grandson gave the flag to the Smithsonian Institution in 1912.
In 1994 the Museum determined that Star-Spangled Banner required further conservation if it was to remain on public display. In 1998, teams of Museum conservatories, curators and other specialists helped move the flag from its home in the museums entrance foyer into a new, specially built conservation lab so museum visitors could observe the conservation process through a 50-foot long glass wall.
The conservation of the flag took many years and it is now on display in a specially built room.
An Interesting Note
The Star Spangled Banner is still an “authorized” flag. It can be flown at any time and could be flown in place of the 50 star flag. There is no law or executive order that precludes the use of a previously authorized U.S. Flag.
- Flag Facts, National Flag Foundation, 2002
- Smithsonian Magazine, June 2014