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Recreating Baltimore's Famous Star Spangled Banner

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The Maryland Historical Society embarked on a project to recreate the Star Spangled Banner.
Lauren Ober
The Maryland Historical Society embarked on a project to recreate the Star Spangled Banner.

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 10 or 20. One little stitch. But all those stitches combined are helping hold together one really big flag.

This year, the historical society embarked on an ambitious project. With a team of volunteer stitchers from quilting bees and embroidery clubs 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 commander at Fort McHenry wanted a big flag for morale and so the British could see it at a distance," says 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. 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 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 on it and understand what it would have felt like and to understand how the fabric moved and how the stitches went into it, how it flies. It's hands-on history," she says.

If Schenning seems 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, a critical trade in the port city.

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 round the clock to piece together the massive flag.

"She has all this going on, and she has this very tiny house. She can't lay the flag out in her house. It's much too big. So she goes around to Claggett's Brewery and she uses their large rooms to lay out the flag," Schenning says.

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.

"When you hold it up, you can see through the fabric pretty well," Schenning says. "It's only going to weigh 50 or 60 pounds. So it'll be light enough that the wind will 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.

"It's slippery. It has a mind of it's own. It won't take a crease. It's like cheesecloth it's that course," Beverly says.

On this day, Beverly is helping visitors put in their one stitch.

"So you put your hand around the stripe, your thumb on top, fingers underneath. You're going to stick your finger with the needle," she says.

Luckily, it's just a blunt embroidery needle, so no possibility of puncture wounds. The public stitching part of the project has drawn visitors from all over wanting to put their mark on the modern Star Spangled Banner. Joe and Tiffany Sorentino and their boys Braden and Evan are visiting from Atlanta. Everyone gets a turn with the needle.

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.

[Music: "America The Beautiful" by Black Label Society from Mafia]

Photos: American Flag

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