The Star-Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian

Star Spangled Banner Flag
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Is this flag the single most important artifact at the Smithsonian Institution? It just might be.

In celebration of the Fourth of July, we’ll be seeing a lot of American flags this week – on mailboxes, main streets, parades, t-shirts, and even painted on faces! It got us thinking about THE flag – the one that inspired our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

We asked our friends at Smithsonian for more information to share with you, and as you might expect, there’s plenty. Here’s are some quick facts:

Star-Spangled Banner Quick Facts

  • It was made in Baltimore, Maryland by flag maker Mary Pickersgill in 1813 after being commissioned by Major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry. Original cost: $405.90
  • The flag flew over Fort McHenry on the morning of September 14, 1814, signaling American victory over the British in the Battle of Baltimore.
  • Of course, the sight inspired Francis Scott Key to write poem published as “The Defense of Fort McHenry” with instructions that it be sung to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular British song. It was weeks later when it got a new title: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
  • Original size: 30 feet by 42 feet. The stars were two feet across, stripes were 23 inches wide.
  • Back then, it commemorated America as it was: 15 stars, eight red stripes, seven white stripes.
  • The flag was preserved by the Armistead family as a memento of the battle.
  • It was first loaned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907 and converted to permanent gift in 1912.
  • It’s only been on exhibit at the National Museum of American History since 1964.
  • A major, multi-year conservation effort launched in 1998. After six years of conservation and restoration, the flag was presented as the centerpiece of the renovated National Museum of American History.
  • Over $58 million has been spent over the years in caring for the flag.

Caring for the Flag

Jennifer L. Jones, Chair and Curator, Division of Armed Forces History, National Museum of American History is one of the people charged with its care. She explained the current display to us like this:

During the yearlong celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore and the writing of the Star- Spangled Banner song in 2014, I worked with the Chief Conservator for the flag, Suzanne Thomasson-Krauss, to examine the flag in its state-of-the-art display chamber – 6 years after the new exhibit opened. During those two days of examination and working in the chamber that houses the flag, the banner, now freed from its old stiches and heavy backing, had begun to relax and that made the threads and weave of the flag to start to come back together, which made it start to pucker and “move” like it was meant to do. And that is what you’d expect a flag to do, move and be lifted by the breeze.
The removal of some 1.7 million stitches allowed the flag to be free.
The beauty of putting that flag on view to the public in that chamber is that it represents all America, all ideas, all ideals, and all values. Not just one. And that is the beauty of our flag, and how it represents all Americans. It is on display with nothing more than the words that Key penned that he was inspired to write down at the end of that battle, because we were in the fight of our lives, determining whether our nation was going to exist as a new nation, or whether we were going to come back under British rule.

Wow! Right?

Of course, as this flag absolutely essential to the story of America, there’s so much more to learn about it. Did Mary Pickersgill sew it alone? Where did the Armistead family actually keep it? What was the conservation effort like? How is it actually displayed today?

There’s no better place to start than by seeing it for yourself at National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.!

In 2018, WorldStrides became the approved domestic educational travel provider of the Smithsonian. This blog is part of a series, “Hey Smithsonian!” where we ask our friends at the venerable institution questions that dig deeper into this special place and all it has to offer!

Happy Fourth of July everyone!

Article written by Andy Pillifant

Andy Pillifant
As a senior writer, Andy is one of the voices of WorldStrides. A linguistic chameleon, he writes about, well, everything, Favorite topics are culture, human nature, and soccer (which is about culture and human nature, don't you think?). He loves camping, hats, his wife and three sons.

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