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The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House

844 East Pratt at Albemarle Streets,
Baltimore

In late June, 1813, the commander of the troops garrisoning Fort McHenry, Maj. George Armistead, reported to his superior, Maj. Gen. Smith, in part as follows:

We, Sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy. That is to say, we are ready except that we have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.

Shortly thereafter Commodore Barney and Brig. Gen. Stricker paid a visit to the owner of the little dwelling beside which we now stand. They had decided upon her, her daughter recalled, “to make this star-spangled banner, being an exceedingly patriotic woman.”

The dwelling was built about 1793. From 1807 until her death it was the home of Mrs. Mary Young Pickersgill (1776-1857), the widow of John Pickersgill, a onetime British claims agent in London. His widow was already a pioneer in charitable work for the indigent: her other monument is the Aged Woman’s and Aged Men’s Home, a foundation organized in 1802 and today situate at its quarters of “Pickersgill” on Chestnut Avenue, Towson.

Mary’s mother, Mrs. Rebecca Young, also widowed, lived with her here. As far back as the year of Mary’s birth — and how patriotic a birth year, that! — Mrs. Young had had experience as a flag maker. She it was who was requested by General Washington to manufacture the ensign subsequently known as the “Grand Union” and first flown at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in January, 1776. So our Baltimore seamstress had learned her trade under the venerable apprentice system.

For some six weeks Mrs. Pickersgill, daughter Caroline, mid niece Eliza Young toiled over the job. Most of it, presumably, was accomplished in the second-floor front room, where the light was best. But part of it was preformed on the floor of the malt house in Brown’s Brewery nearby, for the flag was stretched there. Caroline Pickersgill recalls that “my mother worked many nights until twelve o’clock to complete it in a given time.”

The result was an item thirty feet hoist (height) by forty two feet fly (breadth) “of first quality Bunting,” as is stipulated in Mary’s receipt, which is still in existence. The creation was then and remains today, the largest American garrison flag ever flown; For her labor Mrs. Pickersgill charged the not inconsiderable sum of $405.90.It was delivered to Fort McHenry in the latter part of August, 1813, as a routine business transaction — thirteen months in advance of immortality.

Since 1907 this unique example of Americana has been in possession of the Federal Government’s Smithsonian Institution over at Washington. Since 1964 it has rippled in air-caressed majesty as a principal exhibit in the Smithsonian’s new Museum of History and Technology.

In 1953 the Flag House inaugurated its own museum of the War of 1812 period, which welcomes the contribution of authentic relics dating from the 1790-1820 era.

On Flag Day, 1956, a ten-stanza poem, “The Ballad of the Widow’s Flag (1814),” by Mrs. Juliet B. Ballard of Virginia Beach, Virginia, was chosen as the “house poem” of the Flag House. No comparisons at all are called for between this entirely competent effusion and the famous lyrics which, just thirteen months after its fabrication, were inspired by Mary Pickersgill’s handiwork.

Sources

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