Making the Star-Spangled Banner
Some people mistakenly think that the Star-Spangled Banner is the first American flag—it’s not! The Star-Spangled Banner is a national treasure because it is the very flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem.
Who sewed the flag now known as the Star-Spangled Banner? How big was it? Where was it first displayed?
Find the answers to these questions bellow:
Did Betsy Ross make this flag?
No, the Star-Spangled Banner was made by Mary Pickersgill. Many people who see the Star-Spangled Banner assume Betsy Ross made it. Why? Betsy Ross is one of the most familiar names in American history—and the only flagmaker most Americans have ever heard of. But she was just one of a community of women who made flags in Philadelphia during and after the American Revolution. She might have remained as obscure as her contemporaries were it not for a convergence of circumstances that made her a national legend. In 1893, a painting of Betsy Ross by Charles Weisgerber called The Birth of Our Nation’s Flag was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Mass-marketed in inexpensive prints, it gave momentum to a family story that Betsy Ross had made the first American flag. The Betsy Ross story continued to gain prominence around the turn of the century, as “flag fever” swept a nation facing challenges when immigration seemingly threatened American traditions. Throughout the twentieth century, generations of American children learned the story of Betsy Ross as part of their patriotic education. Countless books and toys helped fix in children’s imaginations an indelible image of Betsy Ross.
Mary Pickersgill made this Flag
In the summer of 1813, Mary Pickersgill (1776–1857) was contracted to sew two flags for Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. The one that became the Star-Spangled Banner was a 30 x 42–foot garrison flag; the other was a 17 x 25–foot storm flag for use in inclement weather. Pickersgill, a thirty-seven-year-old widow, was an experienced maker of ships’ colors and signal flags. She filled orders for many of the military and merchant ships that sailed into Baltimore’s busy port.
The flag is now 30’ x 34’. It originally measured 30 x 42’, but nearly eight feet were snipped off the end to give away as souvenirs in the nineteenth century.
The huge 30 by 42–foot flag overwhelmed the cramped rooms of Pickersgill’s house. She moved the operation across the street to the more spacious Claggett’s brewery. There they assembled the pieces of the flag and placed fifteen cotton stars on the blue canton.
Helping Pickersgill make the flags were her thirteen-year-old daughter Caroline; nieces Eliza Young (thirteen) and Margaret Young (fifteen); and a thirteen-year-old African American indentured servant, Grace Wisher. Pickersgill’s elderly mother, Rebecca Young, from whom she had learned flagmaking, may have helped as well.
Pickersgill and her assistants spent about seven weeks making the two flags. They assembled the blue canton and the red and white stripes of the flag by piecing together strips of loosely woven English wool bunting that were only 12 or 18 inches wide.
Mary Pickersgill, nearly forty years after she made the flag. Courtesy of Pickersgill Retirement Community.
Needles, scissors, pins, and chatelaine from the, early 1800s, of the type Pickersgill and her assistants would have used to make the flag.
Receipt for the Star-Spangled Banner
Pickersgill was paid $405.90 for the flag that became the Star-Spangled Banner, more than most Baltimoreans earned in a year. Courtesy of Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum.
Mary Pickersgill’s daughter Letter
Mary Pickersgill’s daughter, Caroline Purdy, wrote a letter (PDF) to Major Armistead’s daughter, Georgiana Appleton, in 1876, long after the Star-Spangled Banner was made. She told how her mother “worked many nights until 12 o’clock to complete [the flag] in the given time.” Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
The fifteen stars and stripes represent the fifteen states of the union in 1795. It wasn’t until the Third Flag Act of 1818 that the country decided to stick with 13 stripes—one for each colony—and a star for each state.
See also: The Story behind the National Anthem