BALTIMORE – It was 200 years ago this summer that a Baltimore flag-maker stitched the flag that inspired America’s national anthem. Now, hundreds of people are helping to recreate that star-spangled banner.
The project began July 4 in Baltimore, and it is expected to take volunteers six weeks to hand-sew the estimated 150,000 stitches in the famous flag. When finished, it will be about a quarter of the size of a basketball court.
“It makes the link with the past in a very tangible way,” said Kristin Schenning, who is coordinating the project for the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore and helping to raise the money for the flag’s approximately $12,000 cost.
The finished piece won’t look like the 13-stripe, 50-star flag of today. Instead, it has 15 stripes and 15 stars representing the number of states in the Union when the flag was stitched in 1813 to fly over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. The sight of the flag’s “broad stripes and bright stars” still waving after the British attacked the fort during the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to include that phrase in his now-iconic lyrics.
The flag was a bold statement from the start. Fort McHenry’s commander, Maj. George Armistead, said he wanted a flag so large that the British would “have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” Local flag maker Mary Pickersgill was paid $405.90 to sew the 30-foot-by-42-foot flag, which ultimately became so large that she and her helpers took over space at a local brewery to work on it.
Thought the flag was sewn by Betsy Ross? Not true. Ross gets credit for sewing the first U.S. flag at the request of George Washington in 1777, but that wasn’t the one that inspired Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner.”
This isn’t the first time Marylanders have recreated the banner. In 1964, a replica was made for the New York World’s Fair. That flag is at Pickersgill’s house in Baltimore, which is now a museum.
This time, the historical society did a lot of research before stitching began. Family Heirloom Weavers, a Pennsylvania textile mill that does replica fabrics for military re-enactors and period homes, used specifications from the original flag on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington to re-create the flag’s wool fabric. Janea Whitacre, an expert dressmaker at Colonial Williamsburg, also taught a core group of volunteers the stitches and seams that were used.
Now, about 200 volunteers are piecing the flag together in an auditorium at the Maryland Historical Society. Jan Lucas, 56, a quilter from Eldersburg, Md., said working on the project makes her feel like she’s “a piece of history.”
Other stitchers agreed.
“It’s like taking you back 200 years to what they had to work on then. It’s fun, it really is,” said Carole Lee Custer, 65, a quilter from Halethorpe, Md., who generally works on the flag once a week.
The plan is to hoist the finished flag Sept. 12 at Fort McHenry as part of a celebration on Defenders Day, the day that commemorates the successful defense of the city during the War of 1812.
After Fort McHenry, the society also hopes the flag will be shown at the National Museum of American History, where the original flag has been since the early 1900s, and possibly at ground zero in New York.
“This is America’s flag. It was made in Maryland we want to share it with as many people as possible,” Schenning said.