Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That’s something every US schoolchild learns. But who made the star-spangled banner itself? No, not the song – 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 – “still there” 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 City’s downtown.
But she’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.
It’s a celebration of the flag’s bicentennial, since it was made in the summer of 1813. You can donate toward the project’s cost on Kickstarter or come sew a stitch yourself during public stitching days in August.
“It is a work of public art in every sense of the word,” the Maryland Historical Society boasts.
Back in 1813, Pickersgill was Baltimore’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 flag’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 flag’s fabric remains a mystery.)
The original banner had about 17 threads per inch weft, according to the Maryland Historical Society. That’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.
“She did it so smoothly that the completed product would look like a finished whole – and not like the massive patchwork it was,” wrote Smithsonian magazine contributing editor Robert M. Poole in a 2008 story on the flag’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 he’d seen that an attack on Fort McHenry was imminent. It’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.
Key’s inspiration and the writing of the anthem is another story. But it’s worth remembering that before the War of 1812, the flag was merely a means of identification. By naming it the “star-spangled banner” and using it as a means to express perseverance, Key helped establish the flag as a national symbol for all Americans.
“The flag was no longer just an emblem of the nation; it became a representation of the country’s values and the ideals for which it stands,” according to the Smithsonian, where the gossamer-thin relic resides today in the National Museum of American History.