Gazette opinion: Sing happy anniversary to Star Spangled Banner

2014-06-13T00:00:00Z 2014-06-13T17:31:11Z Gazette opinion: Sing happy anniversary to Star Spangled Banner The Billings Gazette
June 13, 2014 12:00 am

On Saturday, Americans will have a special occasion to raise the Star Spangled Banner and sing its song.

Saturday is Flag Day. This year marks the 200th anniversary of our national anthem inspired by the banner that was raised at “the dawn’s early light” on Sept. 14, 1814, over Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor after. The flag signaled that the fort had withstood the 25-hour bombardment by British forces.

Many Americans know that Francis Scott Key penned the lyrics to the song that became our national anthem. Fewer know that Mary Pickersgill, a Baltimore widow and professional flag maker, fashioned the banner that inspired Key’s immortal words.

The banner Pickersgill sewed by hand was enormous -- 30 feet by 42 feet. According to the Smithsonian, Pickersgill’s daughter, age 13, nieces ages 13, 15 and 19, and a 13-year-old indentured servant, helped her with the huge flag. Pickersgill’s slave and Pickersgill’s elderly mother also may have helped, according to the National Museum of American History. The flag maker was paid $405.90.

“They worked many nights until midnight to complete it in the given time,” one of Pickersgill’s descendants wrote years later. The flag was sewn during the summer of 1813.

The 200-year-old flag has been a treasured exhibit in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., since it was loaned in 1907 and then donated in 1912 by Eben Appleton, grandson of Lt. Col. George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry.

Often on Flag Day the Gazette opinion highlights flag etiquette and proper care of the Stars and Stripes. Customs were much different during the Star Spangled Banner’s first century. It was snipped and trimmed many times by its owners in response to requests for patriotic keepsakes. The flag was sewn with 15 cotton stars and 15 woolen stripes because that’s how many states were in the Union at the time. However, the flag in the Smithsonian today is missing one star that was cut out. In fact, when the flag arrived at the Smithsonian, it was 240 square feet smaller than when the Pickersgill household finished sewing it.

Ariel Sabar explained that practice, writing in the June Smithsonian magazine: “In our own era of flag codes and schoolhouse pledges of allegiance, shredding a national icon may seem like sacrilege. But in the late 1800s, the practice was common, offering citizens of a rising nation a tether to their past.”

There is a common misconception that the banner flew during the battle of Fort McHenry. According to the National Museum of American History, eyewitness accounts confirm that the garrison flag was raised the morning after the battle to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”

The Star Spangled Banner was the object of a $7 million restoration completed in 2008. It now is displayed at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Sing along Saturday

Gazette readers should observe Flag Day, as always, by flying the flag. But on this 200th anniversary year, we can also join in a national 200th anniversary celebration. The Smithsonian and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have organized a national sing-a-long of the “Star Spangled Banner” for 2 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time Saturday. For more information, check out anthemforamerica.si.edu. Or just take time at 2 p.m. Saturday to face the flag with hand on heart and sing: “O say can you see ….” Your song will be heard across the country.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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