Most people today know the story, true or legend or both, of Betsy Ross.
The Original Flag
In 1776 (or thereabouts) it is said that George Washington himself, or a small delegation from Congress, approached seamstress Betsy Ross of Philadelphia to design and make the flag, which she did. That may be debatable, but her house still stands in Philly, and visitors are always welcome.
Fast Forward Nearly 40 years
By 1812, the USA had rooted and grown. As new states were admitted, the flag had been adjusted accordingly: Fifteen stripes and fifteen stars. But the addition made the flag design unwieldy, and while the original thirteen stripes would remain, only new stars would be added. But that had not been in effect by the War of 1812.
Also by 1812, Baltimore, MD had become the third largest city in the United States, right after Philadelphia and New York. Its port, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, employed thousands of sailors, merchant mariners, support crew and of course, the ships themselves.
With Baltimore a vulnerable target, defending Fort McHenry which guarded its harbor was essential. In 1813, all possible steps were being taken to reinforce it, and prepare for the worst. Major George Armistead was the officer in charge. It was he who commissioned a huge garrison flag, ostensibly for the British army and navy to see it at a great distance.
A government commission was given to Mary Young Pickersgill, a Baltimore seamstress, to design and make the flag.
Mary Young Pickersgill (1776-1857)
Born in Philadelphia in 1776, Mary Young Pickersgill became a Baltimore seamstress/flagmaker. Her mother, widowed when Mary was a baby, was a prominent flagmaker who made flags and ensigns for the Continental Army. She moved to Baltimore when Mary was still a child, and taught her daughter the skills of making flags.
At 19, Mary married merchant John Pickersgill, but was widowed ten years later and never remarried. She set up shop as a maker of “silk standards and cavalry and division colors” for the U.S. Army, Navy and various merchant ships.
By the time of the War of 1812, she and her daughter Caroline were well established at their trade. A delegation from the U.S. Army visited Pickersgill to discuss their requirements: a huge “garrison” flag (30’x42’,) plus a smaller “storm” flag (17’x25’). The commission stated that she would be paid the hefty sum of $574.44 (equivalent of well more than $5000 today). This was a mammoth assignment, much more than two women could handle. She recruited two of her nieces, Eliza and Margaret Young, as well as apprentice Grace Wisher, a free woman of color. Other assistants were engaged temporarily to help in the projects, which may have included her elderly mother. The flags were made and delivered in six weeks.
Making the Flag
The project required more than 400 yards of wool fabric for the stripes and the blue field. The stars were made of cotton. Each stripe was 2-feet wide, and each star was 24-inches from tip to tip. When complete, it weighed more than 50 pounds, and took eleven men to hoist it on the flagpole.
The fifteen stripes themselves may have been relatively simple to piece together. Once cut into their 2’x42’ pieces, the pieces were stitched together. Labor intensive – but low-tech!
Placing the stars on the blue canton was something else. It required mega-space. Decades later, Caroline Pickersgill wrote that her mother obtained permission from a local brewery to lay the flag out in its malt house, and on her hands and knees, she placed and pinned the stars on the blue canton.
The Star Spangled Banner
The two flags were put aside for a full year. But in 1814, only a few weeks after the burning of Washington, the British began their assault on Baltimore. The battle began in the early morning and lasted throughout a day and night of intense rain, thus it was the “storm” flag that flew over the ramparts. The officers believed the huge, heavy garrison flag would be too soaked to “fly.”
After 25 hours, the rains abated, but after their fierce fighting, the British fleet withdrew. To signal American success, the great garrison flag was hoisted about the fort.
It was large enough to be seen eight miles away on a merchant ship carrying a Washington attorney on a business trip to Baltimore. After a sleepless night watching the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, Francis Scott Key saw the huge flag waving proudly, and deeply moved, committed his thoughts to paper. Titling his poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” with a rhyme and rhythm akin to a popular drinking song called Anachreon in Heaven, he sent the four stanzas to a local newspaper where it was printed and widely circulated.
Within a few weeks, a music publisher printed copies under the title“The Star Spangled Banner.” It became a hit.
The flag itself was displayed throughout the area in an effort to commemorate the successful defense of the fort, and generate continued support for the war. Swatches of the flag were cut away as souvenirs for veterans or other dignitaries. So was one of the fifteen stars.
Mary Pickersgill lived to be 80 years old. She remained in Baltimore, and became a long-time President of the Impartial Female Humane Society, to help destitute women. Her house in Baltimore has become the Star Spangled Banner Flag House and Museum, designated a National Landmark. You can visit it.
“The Star Spangled Banner” itself eventually found a home with Lt. Col. George Armistead, and remained in his family for decades. His grandson offered it on permanent loan to the Smithsonian Institution in 1912, where its fragile remains are preserved and protected in honored glory. You can see it.
The whereabouts of the Storm flag has never been discovered.
The Star Spangled Banner became the country’s national anthem in 1931.
Lord, Walter – The Dawn’s Early Light – W.W. Norton – 1972