Question of the Week

Which flag maker helped to inspire Francis Scott Key’s, “The Star Spangled Banner?”

Sunday, 6/13/10

Mary Young Pickersgill

Most people are familiar with the story (be it true or false) of Betsy Ross and the American flag. But another woman with ties to Philadelphia, Mary Young Pickersgill, also played an important role in the history of the flag. She sewed the “Star Spangled Banner Flag” that was flown over Fort McHenry during the 1814 Battle of Baltimore.

Mary was born in Philadelphia in 1776, and her family moved to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, then to Baltimore during the Revolutionary War. After marrying her husband, John Pickersgill, in 1795, Mary moved back to Philadelphia. After her husband’s death, Mary moved back to Baltimore and opened a successful flag-making business.

During the War of 1812, the U. S. Army decided that a flag should be erected over Fort McHenry to boost residents’ spirits after British forces burned Washington, D. C. Colonel George Armistead commissioned Mary to create a flag so large that it could be seen by the approaching British Army. In six weeks, Mary, along with her daughter, two nieces, and two servants, created by hand an immense flag that measured 30 by 42 feet.  When the enemy army finally descended upon Baltimore in 1814, the giant flag was at full staff. Francis Scott Key, who was onboard his own vessel that was being held by the British near Fort McHenry, saw the flag from the water and was inspired to compose the poem that became the nation’s anthem. Mary’s flag, now known as the “Star Spangled Banner Flag,” survives to this day. It has been restored and is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

HSP holds one of only three known copies of “The Star-Spangled Banner” written and signed by Francis Scott Key. Key’s poem was originally titled Defence of Fort McHenry. HSP’s library holds many publications on the history of the U. S. flag, and we also have a few related manuscripts collections, such as the Stephanie L. Burrell collection on the history of the American flag (#1519).

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