MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Continuing on the whole War of 1812 theme, might the name Mary Pickersgill ring any bells? She's the one who created the massive Star Spangled Banner that oh, so famously waved over Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the war. Two-hundred years later, the Maryland Historical Society has recreated the iconic flag with the help of dedicated volunteers and curious citizens. Lauren Ober brings us the story of the flag's recreation and the woman whose work helped inspire America.
MS. LAUREN OBER
On a recent Saturday afternoon, more than 500 people made their way to the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore to do one small thing, to make a stitch. Just one. Not two or ten or twenty. One little stitch. But all those stitches combined are helping hold together one really big flag.
MS. KRISTIN SCHENNING
The strategy is to make the stitch strong. And if possible, not too small.
This year, the historical society embarked on an ambitious project. With a team of volunteer stitchers from quilting bees and embroidery clubs all around the region, it's recreating the Star Spangled Banner. That was the giant flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. It was also the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became our national anthem. And this year marks the 200th anniversary of the flag's most triumphant moment, when it signaled defeat of the British fleet during the Battle of Baltimore.
George Armistead, who was the commander at Fort McHenry, wanted a big flag, basically for morale. Big enough that the British could see it from a distance.
That's Kristin Schenning, the historical society's director of education.
So the flag was made, and it was flying at Fort McHenry for over a year by the time the Battle of Baltimore happened. And that's really where this particular flag gains its significance.
The original Star Spangled Banner is kept in a special climate-controlled chamber at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, here in D.C. It's tattered and much smaller than what it was when Mary Pickersgill, assembled it. No one can get up close to the flag anymore, which is part of the reason for the recreation, Schenning says.
They can go to the Smithsonian, they can see the original one, and it's so cool. But to be able to actually get your hands onto it and understand what it would have felt like, you know, to understand how the fabric moved, you know, and how the stitches went into it, how it flies. This is hands-on history. People can touch this flag.
If Schenning sounds pretty pumped about this project, it's because in a way, the Star Spangled Banner is coming home. Pickersgill was a native daughter of Baltimore and made flags for merchant vessels. When George Armistead commissioned her to create the Star Spangled Banner, Pickersgill's talent was put to the test. Pickersgill, her daughter, her two nieces and a 13-year-old African-American indentured servant worked around the clock to piece together the massive flag.
What's really kind of funny, she has this very tiny little house between Fells Point and Jonestown. She can't lay this flag out in her house. It is much too big. So she has to go to Claggett's Brewery and she uses their large rooms there to lay out the flag.
At 30 feet by 42 feet, the original flag was as tall as a two-story building. The recreation is just as big. Today, a flag that size made from nylon would be so heavy it would pull the flagpole down. So like Mary Pickersgill's original banner, the reproduction is made from loosely woven wool bunting.
So that when you hold it up, you can see through the fabric pretty well. It's really only going to weigh between 50 and 60 pounds. So it'll be light enough to fly and it'll be light enough that the wind will actually go through the fabric and help it lift.
While the fabric might ensure that the flag flutters on the staff, it's been a bear to work with, says Schenning's mom, Beverly. She's an avid quilter and the volunteer section leader responsible for the flag's 15 stripes.
MS. BEVERLY SCHENNING
It's slippery. It has a mind of its own. It won't take a crease. It looks like cheesecloth, it's that course.
On this day, Beverly is helping visitors put in their one stitch.
So are you going to show me how to do this stitch?
So you put your hand around the stripe, your thumb on top, your fingers underneath. You're going to stick your finger with the needle.
Luckily, it's just a blunt embroidery needle, so no possibility of puncture wounds. Beverly tells me to insert my needle into the bunting and then count over three threads before bringing the needle back up through the fabric. Then she reminds me to check my work.
You look underneath and you see your needle, pull it all the way through and you have a successful stitch.
Okay. And I'm looking underneath to see if it's there, which it's not.
It's not, so it slipped out. Because it's this funny, slippery fabric.
I failed. I failed my first stitch. Okay. All right. We'll try this again.
Two more attempts and my stitch is finally successful.
You got it.
You got it.
The public stitching part of the project has drawn visitors from all over wanting to make their mark on the modern Star Spangled Banner. Joe and Tiffany Sorentino and their boys Evan and Braden are visiting from Atlanta. Everyone in the family gets a turn with the needle.
MR. EVAN SORENTINO
This is how they make a real American flag?
The Sorentinos' stitches are on the middle of the bottom red stripe, and when the flag flies they might just be able to catch a glimpse of their sewing. And maybe they'll get to feel a little of the pride that Mary Pickersgill must have felt seeing her handiwork gallantly streaming amid the rockets' red glare, giving proof through the night that America remained the land of the free and the home of the brave. I’m Lauren Ober.
The recreation of the Star Spangled Banner will be raised over Fort McHenry on September 14th. You can learn more about the Star Spangled Banner project and see photos of the flag on our website, metroconnection.org.
Time for a break, but when we get back, dire warnings about the future of a famous island.
MR. CHRIS PARKS
This is happening at a lot of places. And there's just so much you can do to try to maintain what's been in the past.
Plus, the infamous tale of the man who established the American Nazi Party.
MS. HEIDI BEIRICH
Our country, from its inception until the 1960s, was a white supremacist country, and that is not that long ago. And we have to be really, really vigilant of not returning to those kinds of views.
That's coming up on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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