The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Star Spangled Banner, an American Icon
Happy Fourth of July! On Independence Day, flags are flown across the nation. The Smithsonian has many versions of the American flag in its collections, the best known being the Star Spangled Banner. But, do you know its history, and how it came to the Smithsonian?
The Star Spangled Banner is a huge 15-star, 15-stripe garrison flag, 30 feet by 42 feet, made in 1813 by Mary Pickersgill, a Baltimore flag maker. It was flown over Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 13 and 14, 1814, during the War of 1812’s Battle of Baltimore. During that stormy night, it was taken down and replaced with a smaller flag, but as the British retreated on the morning of September 14, the flag was hoisted again to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” When lawyer Francis Scott Key, watching for the outcome of the battle from an American ship in Baltimore Harbor, saw the flag flying over the fort “by the dawn’s early light,” he was inspired to write the patriotic poem that celebrated Americans who fought their first war as a united nation. Later set to music, his poem was designated as the United States’ national anthem in 1931.
The Star Spangled Banner was donated to the Smithsonian’s US National Museum in 1907 by Eben Appleton, the grandson of Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead, who had commissioned the flag and defended Fort McHenry during the British bombardment in 1814. Appleton, who first loaned the flag for display in 1907, was so pleased by the Smithsonian’s care and treatment of it that he made it a permanent gift in 1912 "with the firm and settled intention of having it remain there forever..." on view for the American people.
Prior to its donation, however, souvenir pieces had been cut from the flag, and it had begun to deteriorate. In 1914 the banner underwent restoration under the direction of Amelia Fowler, a seamstress who had experience in this type of work. In the east wing of the Smithsonian Castle, the century-old flag was laid out flat and set on a backing of heavy, unbleached Irish linen and the fragments were attached to the linen with a series of open buttonhole stitches about a half inch in length, interlocked horizontally and vertically. Once the flag was attached to the linen, the flag could be hung with less strain on the flag itself.
The Star Spangled Banner soon became a favorite among museum visitors, an icon of American history. Although the flag was only one of many objects in the Smithsonian’s collections (today numbering over 137 million), from the time it arrived, it resonated in a special way with museum’s visitors. It was first hung briefly outside the Smithsonian Castle and then went on display in the US National Museum (now the Arts and Industries Building) for the next fifty years.
When the new National Museum of American History opened in 1964, the flag was given a central place in the foyer, near the Foucault pendulum. It was in this large, open location that many people remember first seeing this memorable flag, displayed at full size. It was a popular backdrop for events, especially presidential inaugural balls. But exposure to light and dirt, changes in temperature and humidity, and the weight of the hanging fabric took its toll over the next thirty years. In the 1990s, the flag underwent a modern restoration and is now on display in a special setting that will protect it from further deterioration.