July 4 trivia: Who sewed the star-spangled banner that inspired the song?(Read article summary)
This July 4, the Maryland Historical Society is kicking off an effort to sew a reproduction of the star-spangled banner using materials as close as possible to those used by the original seamstress.
Andy Nelson / Christian Science Monitor / File
Francis Scott Key wrote â€śThe Star-Spangled Banner.â€ť Thatâ€™s something every US schoolchild learns. But who made the star-spangled banner itself? No, not the song â€“ the flag that inspired lawyer and amateur poet Key to write what became the US national anthem.
The answer to that is Mary Pickersgill, a Baltimore widow and noted flag seamstress who created the giant Stars and Stripes that floated in air above Fort McHenry on Sept. 14, 1814 â€“ â€śstill thereâ€ť the morning after a ferocious British bombardment.
Pickersgill is not exactly an unsung hero of the banner story. Her former home has been preserved as a small, charming museum in Charm Cityâ€™s downtown.
But sheâ€™s certainly less sung, compared with Key. This July 4, the Maryland Historical Society is aiming to boost her profile. It's kicking off an effort to sew a reproduction of the star-spangled banner using materials as close as possible to those Pickersgill used, in the same amount of time she needed to complete the original.
Itâ€™s a celebration of the flagâ€™s bicentennial, since it was made in the summer of 1813. You can donate toward the projectâ€™s cost on Kickstarter or come sew a stitch yourself during public stitching days in August.
â€śIt is a work of public art in every sense of the word,â€ť the Maryland Historical Society boasts.
Back in 1813, Pickersgill was Baltimoreâ€™s best-known flagmaker. This was a good career for a widow and single mother in a port city where ships needed flags and banners of all kinds.
That July, she received a big rush order. Maj. George Armistead, the new commander of Fort McHenry, wanted two flags. One was a relatively small flag of 17 by 25 feet, intended to fly in bad weather. But the second was a pure statement of nationalism: a giant flag of 30 by 42 feet that Armistead was sure the British could not miss.
Pickersgill needed backup for a project of this size. She enlisted her 13-year-old daughter, several nieces, and an indentured African-American servant in the effort. They labored after-hours in a brewery where they had room to lay out and stitch the flagâ€™s elements.
The flag was largely made of imported British wool bunting, a loosely woven fabric that could wave in the wind. (Trade with Britain was banned at the time, and the origin of the flagâ€™s fabric remains a mystery.)
The original banner had about 17 threads per inch weft, according to the Maryland Historical Society. Thatâ€™s light. By comparison, a necktie of today has 240 threads per inch.
The bunting came in 18-inch-wide strips. But the design of the flag called for stripes two feet in height. So Pickersgill skillfully stitched together two pieces for each stripe.
â€śShe did it so smoothly that the completed product would look like a finished whole â€“ and not like the massive patchwork it was,â€ť wrote Smithsonian magazine contributing editor Robert M. Poole in a 2008 story on the flagâ€™s history.
Pickersgill and her team finished the flags in about seven weeks. She was paid $573.45 for her work, a good sum at the time.
Then the flags did their duty. Key had boarded a British ship to help negotiate the release of an imprisoned American civilian; he was detained since heâ€™d seen that an attack on Fort McHenry was imminent. Itâ€™s likely the smaller storm flag was raised above the US defenses during much of the 25-hour battle, since the weather was bad. The big thumb-in-your-eye garrison flag was hoisted the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, to, yes, show they were still there.
Keyâ€™s inspiration and the writing of the anthem is another story. But itâ€™s worth remembering that before the War of 1812, the flag was merely a means of identification. By naming it the â€śstar-spangled bannerâ€ť and using it as a means to express perseverance, Key helped establish the flag as a national symbol for all Americans.
â€śThe flag was no longer just an emblem of the nation; it became a representation of the countryâ€™s values and the ideals for which it stands,â€ť according to the Smithsonian, where the gossamer-thin relic resides today in the National Museum of American History.