Tuesday, July 4, 2017




The Star-Spangled Banner, on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

This flag flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Seeing the flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem which later became the national anthem of the United States.


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After the Burning of Washington during the War of 1812, it became clear that the next target for the British would be Baltimore, then the fourth-largest city in America. Fort McHenry was the city's primary defense from attack from water. Major George Armistead, commander of the fort, wanted a very large flag to fly over the fort -- one that would be unmistakable from a great distance. An order was placed with a Baltimore flagmaker, who provided the largest American battle flag ever flown at the time.

The flag had been sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill of Baltimore in 1813 at a cost of $405.90 (equivalent to $5,037 in 2016). The flag was made of cotton and dyed wool bunting. Pickersgill was assisted by her daughter, two nieces, and an African American indentured servant. The flag has fifteen horizontal red and white stripes, as well as fifteen white stars in the blue field. (At the time, the practice of adding stripes as well as stars with the induction of a new state had not yet been discontinued. The two extra stripes represented Kentucky and Vermont.)

The flag measured 30 by 42 feet.


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The flag was retained by Major Armistead after the battle. The "fly end" -- the tail of the flag -- was in tatters due to its snapping in the wind. Over the next century, the Armistead family occasionally cut pieces from the fly-end of the flag to give away as souvenirs and gifts. Other fly-end remnants were used to patch the flag. At some point, someone sewed a red chevron onto the flag, possibly to represent the "A" in "Armistead". In 1873, in preparation for a public display in Baltimore, a heavy canvas backing was attached to the flag. By 1900, eight feet had been cut from the end of the flag. One of the stars was also removed and given away as a gift.


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In 1912, Armistead's heirs donated the flag to the Smithsonian Institution. The flag was in poor shape. Many of the stripes had split apart, and much of the bunting was threadbare. The banner was riddled with holes, from wear and tear, insect damage, and probably at least one British rocket. It was restored by Amelia Fowler in 1914, in preparation for going on display. She removed the canvas backing (which was putting immense strain on the original fabric), sewed a linen backing onto the flag to support it. She and 10 her assistants also sewed more than 1.7 million interlocking stitches over the flag in a honeycomb-like mesh to hold the flag against the line backing.

The flag was displayed upright in a glass case in the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. In 1942, it was moved to a secret government warehouse in Luray, Virginia, to protect it from possible bombing raids on the nation's capital. It returned to display in 1944.

In the late 1940s, the flag was spot-cleaned with gasoline, and then vacuumed.

In 1964, the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) opened on the National Mall. The flag was moved there, and displayed in the second floor central hall.


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Wildly varying temperatures, high heat and humidity, and strong light had adversely affected the flag by 1980. In 1981, the Smithsonian took the flag off display and vacuumed it. New lighting and air-handling systems were installed in the central hall, and a screen mounted in front of the flag to protect it from light and airborne matter. The flag went back on display in 1984. The screen was lowered for five minutes every hour to give the public a view of the flag.

In 1994, the cables holding the screen broke, leaving the flag exposed. Conservators removed the flag to allow repair of the screen. Upon close inspection, they discovered that the screen had not done its job. The wool fibers were decaying rapidly, and humidity from sweaty human beings and chemicals from hair spray, deodorants, sunscreen, bug spray, and perfume -- all worn by people thronging the museum -- had caused many fibers to disintegrate. Additionally, bits and pieces of plants (tracked in by museum patrons), paper, and clothing fibers (including a large about of blue denim fibers) had contamined the flag.


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The flag was kept off display which conservators researched a plan for saving the flag. In 1998, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton initiated a fundraising project designed to help the Smithsonian save its most fragile treasures. The flag was moved to a climate- and light-controlled conservation lab in 1999 for conservation.

The conservation effort first removed the honeycomb mesh and the linen backing. The wool fibers of the original flag wer so damaged, even the light weight of the linen was dragging on them and causing them to disintegrate. For two years, a microscopic examination of the condition and construction of the flag was made, to determine the flag's actual condition. This included infrared spectrometry, electron microscopy, mechanical testing, determination of amino acid content, and infrared imaging. The flag was then cleaned with a water-acetone solution, which also reduced the acidity of the wool and retarded its disintegration. A new backing made of a sheer polyester fabric called Stabiltex was then attached to stabilize the flag.

The restoration was completed in 2008 at a total cost of more than $21 million.


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The Star-Spangled Banner is now on display in a two-story sealed, pressurized display chamber. A waterless fire-suppression system protects it. The air quality and humidity of the room are tightly controlled, and the flag is displayed only in dim light of a certain wavelength. A special glass viewing window protects it from flash photography.

The flag lies on a custom-built table at a 10-degree angle that allows it to be viewed by the public. A gantry system allows conservators to move over the flag and inspect and care for it without having to move it or touch it. The flag's condition is monitored by a series of sensors placed beneath the flag and in its sealed preservation room.

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