Preserving the Star-Spangled Banner

Posted by Hillary Brady in July 3, 2015.

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The tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner” is one that will be played at picnics, fireworks displays, and other Fourth of July celebrations across the country this weekend. But the “broad stripes and bright stars” of the original flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814–inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the iconic poem–have required some refreshing over the years. While recent conservation efforts have made the flag a centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s climate-controlled Flag Hall at the National Museum of American History, that wasn’t the only big upkeep project on the flag. Here’s the story behind the 1914 conservation effort spearheaded by a talented embroidery teacher to bring new life to an American icon.

Women at work repairing the Star-Spangled Banner, 1914. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Women at work repairing the Star-Spangled Banner, 1914. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

The Star-Spangled Banner first came to the Smithsonian in 1907 and  was formally gifted a few years later from the family of Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead. When it came to the museum, the flag itself had seen significant damage. In addition to the battle it survived at Fort McHenry, pieces of the flag had been given out as mementos by Armistead’s family to friends, war veterans, and politicians (legend has it even to Abraham Lincoln, though his rumored piece has never been found).

The original "Star-Spangled Banner." Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

The original “Star-Spangled Banner.” Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

By the time the Smithsonian’s first conservation efforts began, the flag itself was 100 years old and in fragile condition. In 1914, the Smithsonian brought on embroidery teacher and professional flag restorer Amelia Fowler (who had experience fixing historic flags at the US Naval Academy) to undertake the Star-Spangled Banner project. Fowler, alongside her team of ten needlewomen, spent eight-weeks in the humid early summer restoring the flag. The team took off a canvas backing that had been attached in the 1870s, when the flag was displayed at the Boston Navy Yard. Fowler attached a new linen backing, with approximately 1,700,000 stitches, in a unique honeycomb pattern–a preservation technique Fowler herself patented. For the project, Fowler was paid $500 and her team split an additional $500. The newly-preserved flag was on display for the next fifty years.

Fowler’s flag restoration, which she said would “defy the test of time,” did last until 1999, during the “Save America’s Treasures” preservation campaign, when conservation efforts began again. The extensive work that Fowler completed to revive the Star-Spangled Banner, those millions of stitches, took conservators almost two years to remove. The iconic flag remains up for display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, inspiring new generations in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Featured image, 1839 sheet-music for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.