More Than A Flag

Aug 14, 2013

Hundreds have visited the Maryland Historical Society to add a stitch to a replica of Mary Pickersgill's 30 by 42 foot flag, finished in 1813.
Credit Fraser Smith / WYPR

The war of 1812 may be forgotten by many Americans – but not by Marylanders who now have even more reasons to celebrate its 200th anniversary. The reasons are there in three famous names: Francis Scott Key. Ft. McHenry and Mary Pickersgill.

Key of course comes immediately to mind as writer of the National Anthem. Pickersgill of Baltimore is somewhat less well known, but she created the flag – the Star Spangle Banner – that Key wrote about after the bombardment of Ft. McHenry.

And now hundreds of Marylanders can boast about their connection with this history. They’ve taken a stitch in an arresting, 30 by 42 foot replica of the Pickersgill flag. Her original flag, still famously there after the bomb blasts, inspired Key’s poem that, wedded with the tune of a British drinking song, became our national anthem.

Volunteer Kristi Elkner (left) helps young visitor Katerina Schroeder sew her stitch on Sunday.
Credit Fraser Smith / WYPR

One of the amateur stitchers of the replica, Rep. John Sarbanes, imagined the scene recently as he was applying his stitch. “There you are on this ship out in the Baltimore Harbor. Francis Scott Key. And you are wondering,” said Sarbanes. “You’re anxious about, not just the fate of Fort McHenry and of Baltimore. You’re anxious about the fate of this young nation...This was the point when the American people had decided this experiment in democracy was something they valued, they treasured and that they wanted to hold onto.”

No wonder Key was inspired, Sarbanes said. He was seeing more than a flag. He was wondering if the nation – not just the flag or Ft. McHenry – would survive.

Clara Murphy, one of the expert stitchers on hand to help the amateurs, said just walking into the flag-making room at the Maryland Historical Society headquarters on West Monument Street is “very emotional.” "I find myself welling up quite a bit just thinking about it,” she said.

One of her colleagues, Mimi Dietrich, had even more reason to be emotional. She’s head of the applique team: stitchers charged with attaching the flag’s 15 stars, represented each of the united states in 1814. She said the challenges Pickersgill faced 200 years ago must have been daunting. So much flag, so little space.  “It was originally made in a row house in Baltimore. And I grew up in a row house in Baltimore,” Dietrich said. “I can’t imagine. I just can’t imagine.”

At first, she said, she couldn’t imagine completing the replica sewing task she’d volunteered for. “I lost a little bit of sleep over it and thought about it a lot. Just kind of took it step by step, and here we are,” she said.

The project is being supervised by Kristin Schenning, director of education at the historical society. Her logistical chores included finding the right fabric and recruiting the stitchers. They had to be good teachers as well as experienced in the art – so they could help congressmen and others. “To have so many people wanting to be a part of it makes it so powerful,” she said.

The flag is to be completed by August 22. It will be presented during a ceremony at Fort McHenry on September 14th. The Army Field Band will play. And a horse-drawn caisson will deliver the star of the show, the flag.

Schenning says the history – the flag and Key -- give Maryland a special role in the celebration. “They call it the forgotten war but for all that it’s forgotten it’s influenced our lives as Americans in ways that few other things really have,” she said.

It was a war, a flag, a flag maker and a man that said in a symbolic – and enduring – way what it meant to be an American.

This story is part of our series “Rockets’ Red Glare: The War, the Song and Their Legacies,” made possible by a grant from Star Spangled 200, a national bicentennial in Maryland.