Recreating Baltimore's Famous Star Spangled Banner (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Recreating Baltimore's Famous Star Spangled Banner

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
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

00:00:31
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

00:00:51
The strategy is to make the stitch strong. And if possible, not too small.

OBER

00:00:57
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.

SCHENNING

00:01:29
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.

OBER

00:01:36
That's Kristin Schenning, the historical society's director of education.

SCHENNING

00:01:40
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.

OBER

00:01:49
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.

SCHENNING

00:02:07
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.

OBER

00:02:22
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.

SCHENNING

00:02:48
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.

OBER

00:03:03
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.

SCHENNING

00:03:19
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.

OBER

00:03:33
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

00:03:43
It's slippery. It has a mind of its own. It won't take a crease. It looks like cheesecloth, it's that course.

OBER

00:03:49
On this day, Beverly is helping visitors put in their one stitch.

OBER

00:03:53
So are you going to show me how to do this stitch?

SCHENNING

00:03:54
Yes.

OBER

00:03:55
Okay.

SCHENNING

00:03:58
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.

OBER

00:04:04
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.

SCHENNING

00:04:19
You look underneath and you see your needle, pull it all the way through and you have a successful stitch.

OBER

00:04:23
Okay. And I'm looking underneath to see if it's there, which it's not.

SCHENNING

00:04:28
It's not, so it slipped out. Because it's this funny, slippery fabric.

OBER

00:04:32
I failed. I failed my first stitch. Okay. All right. We'll try this again.

OBER

00:04:37
Two more attempts and my stitch is finally successful.

SCHENNING

00:04:39
You got it.

OBER

00:04:40
That's better.

SCHENNING

00:04:41
You got it.

OBER

00:04:43
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

00:04:56
This is how they make a real American flag?

SCHENNING

00:04:58
Yep.

SORENTINO

00:04:59
No way.

OBER

00:05:01
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.

SHEIR

00:05:35
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.

SHEIR

00:06:01
Time for a break, but when we get back, dire warnings about the future of a famous island.

MR. CHRIS PARKS

00:06:07
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.

SHEIR

00:06:15
Plus, the infamous tale of the man who established the American Nazi Party.

MS. HEIDI BEIRICH

00:06:20
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.

SHEIR

00:06:34
That's coming up on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

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00:06:39
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