Restoring a flag that inspired an anthem

On the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, a young Washington lawyer named Francis Scott Key was being held aboard a British ship in Baltimore Harbor. When he saw the American flag still frisked in the breeze above Fort McHenry, he knew it had survived a 25-hour bombardment by the British fleet. Key was so moved that he started to write a poem, which later became a song. You know the one. It goes: "Oh say, can you see by the dawn's early light...?"

But the starry banner that inspired our national anthem isn't going to wave this Flag Day (June 14). America's most famous cloth symbol is lying flat on a giant table at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., undergoing much-needed conservation. Two years ago, the folks at the museum decided it was time the 187-year-old treasure was thoroughly examined, cleaned, and treated. The handmade wool-and-cotton flag was last preserved in 1914.

It's no tablecloth. At 30 by 34 feet, four of the flags would cover a basketball court. The banner's 15 stars are two feet wide. The 15 stripes on it are so wide that the flag is nearly three stories tall.

Why 15 stripes? The first 13 represent the original Colonies. A new star and stripe were being added for each new state. (This idea was dropped in 1818, when five new states joined. Too many stripes. Each state got a star, and the flag went back to 13 stripes.)

American military flags were huge back then, so they could be seen from a distance. Soldiers eager to know if they had won a battle would look for the red, white, and blue. Lifting the flags took muscle. They could weigh 50 pounds and had to be hoisted by several people.

How the flag shrank

The Fort McHenry flag was originally 42 feet long. Now it's 34 feet. What happened? After the battle, people asked the fort's commander, Lt. Col. George Armistead, for bits of the flag as mementos. He honored their requests. "People would cut off pieces to give to their family as souvenirs," says Valeska Hilbig, a spokeswoman for the National Museum of American History. "It got eight feet shorter."

The Star-Spangled Banner, as it came to be called, has seen a lot of action. First there was the everyday wear and tear of war, wind, and weather. (A special, smaller "storm flag" flew over the fort in bad weather.) But after the war, it got worse. Colonel Armistead's family kept the flag in a chest.

Conserving the flag is a big job. A crew of six has been at work for nearly two years. The work is done in the museum's new, high-tech "clean room." You can watch them work through a 50-foot-long, 11-foot-high glass wall.

A separate heating and cooling system provides a stable environment. Contaminants are filtered out. This is necessary because urban air contains lots of potentially damaging dust and other pollutants. Also, "We have 5 million-plus visitors a year," Ms. Hilbig notes. Visitors unavoidably bring a lot of dirt in with them.

One of the first things workers did was vacuum the flag. The next task was to undo what the previous conservators did. In 1914, 1.7 million stitches were used to attach a linen backing to the flag. But the backing has deteriorated and could damage the flag.

The workers just finished removing each stitch by hand. It took nine months. Recently, they have been busy snapping pictures of the stars. They use special cameras to take microscopic close-ups of the fabric's fibers. They do this and other work lying on a platform suspended over the flag. The photos will be used to document the flag's history.

"This is painstaking work," Hilbig says. Repairs made to the flag during the War of 1812 will stay, says chief conservator Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss. "It's history, and we don't want to replace that."

What they've found so far

Ms. Thomassen-Krauss thinks she has found Armistead's signature on one stripe. She'll know for sure when they peel off the linen backing. "It's always fun to find new things," she says.

The 1914 restorers found a note written by Armistead's daughter, Georgiana Armistead Appleton, who inherited the flag. (See photo, page 22.) It said:

"This precious relic of my father's fame, I here by bequeath...." Then a piece is missing. Historians think she was going to give it away but changed her mind.

When will the banner be on display again? Not before 2002. Conservators still need to inspect and treat it before that happens. The Star Spangled Banner won't be hanging from a flagpole, however. It's leaving that task to the little guys.

* For more information, visit the National Museum of American History Web site: americanhistory.si.edu/ssb/2_home/fs2.html

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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