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The Star-Spangled Banner at 200

June 30, 2014

This year marks the 200th anniversary of one of the most famous flags (and battles) in American history. And, it seems fitting to highlight its preservation this week as we (Americans) celebrate our Independence Day on the 4th of July.

According to the June 2014 issue of Smithsonian, this national treasure was "a bargain." Mary Pickersgill of Baltimore was paid $405.90 to sew an enormous flag (30 by 42 feet) from red, blue and undyed wool, and cotton for the 15 stars. Intended as a bold statement to the British warships that were sailing toward the city's harbor, the flag served as a backdrop to a spectacular battle witnessed by Francis Scott Key and won by the American forces on September 14, 1814 during the War of 1812. When the composer decided to celebrate the victory, he wrote "Defence of Fort M'Henry," which was later set to the tune of a British drinking song and became "The Star-Spangled Banner," the national anthem of the United States of America.

When the flag arrived at the Smithsonian in 1907, it had survived a number of owners and souvenirs hunters, but it was a naval officer and flag historian, George Preble, who brought the flag into the national spotlight. Ironically, Preble also took snippets of the flag and distributed them as souvenirs so the flag is now eight feet shorter than it was originally.

In 1914, on the one hundredth anniversary of the battle of Fort McHenry, the Smithsonian hired a professional flag restorer to stabilize the flag so that it could be safely displayed. A team of needlewomen stitched the flag to a linen backing, which enabled the flag to be hung in a glass case in the Arts and Industries Building of the Smithsonian where it stayed until 1964 when it was moved to the National Museum of American History.

In 1996, the National Museum of American History began a project to evaluate the condition of the flag, and the formal restoration project began in 1998 when it was moved to a laboratory on the Museum's second floor. Conservators removed the linen backing, cleaned the flag and attached a new, lightweight support all in full view of the public. Conservators and curators then worked with architects, engineers and exhibit designers to create a new display chamber for the flag, which became the centerpiece of a major renovation of the Museum building.

The flag was fully restored by 2008 with financial help from Polo Ralph Lauren and other funders, including American Express, and its new display case features low level lighting, a low display angle and updated security systems. No effort was made to restore the flag to its original condition or to make it look new, and visitors are able to see the tattered flag in its true condition (which some mistakenly believe is the result of cannon fire rather than souvenir gatherers).

The Star Spangled Banner

Star-Spangled Banner on display at the National Museum of American History
Photo courtesy of National Museum of American History

"The Star-Spangled Banner and all its successors have come to embody our country, what we think of as America," said President Clinton when the restoration work began in 1998. "You can neither honor the past, nor imagine the future, without the kind of citizenship embodied by all our memories of this flag."

We at American Express were happy to contribute $1 million toward the restoration and preservation of the Star-Spangled Banner under our Historic Preservation program, and we join the Smithsonian in celebrating its 200th anniversary.

If you have a question or comment, please share it here. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog with friends and colleagues.

P.S. Happy 4th of July! Our next posting will be on July 21, 2014.


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