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Joshua Barney and the Star Spangled Banner

Excerpt from "Star Spangled Flag Makers"
by David B. Martucci

Virtually everyone in the United States is aware of the legend of Betsy Ross and the making of the First U.S. Flag. Although it cannot be proven, it has been accepted as fact by Americans since first publicly stated in 1870. Few Americans, however, are aware that Betsy was not the only Flagmaker in the early days of our republic. Indeed, numerous individuals are documented as flagmakers and probably countless others were also engaged in the business of vexillography at that time.

Flags before 1840 (when the sewing machine was introduced), as all other fabric constructions of the day, were made by hand sewing the various components into a single article. Most flags of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century were either of two types; one was the "ceremonial" standard, which was generally made of expensive leaded silk often emblazoned with fancy allegorical or patriotic designs that were embroidered or painted on in oils, often by some very talented or famous artist. These standards or colors are typified by those used by the U.S. Army and the Militia of that era. The other type was the utilitarian flag, made of pieces of woolen bunting stitched into the final pattern and used on ships, at forts and anywhere a flag display was needed.

During the Revolutionary War, the flagmakers of Philadelphia were kept especially busy by Congress, who was trying to outfit an army and a navy. The existing records give us the names of a few of these artisians, Margaret Manny, Cornelia Bridges, Elizabeth Ross, Anne King, Anne Ward and Rebecca Young. As I stated, Elizabeth Ross is known by most but it is Rebecca Young and her daughter and grand daughter that I am writing about.

Rebecca advertised as a flagmaker in the Philadelphia Newspapers during the Revolutionary War and Theodore Gottlieb, who did considerable research on the subject, states that she was paid "at least thirty times" for making flags for the Quartermaster Department of the Continental Army and the Pennsylvania Navy. After the War, in October 1784, she was paid for sewing the Standard of the First United States Regiment commanded by Lt. Colonel Josiah Harmar. After this, there are no further records of her but her daughter Mary continued the tradition by making one of America's most famous flags.

Mrs. Mary Young Pickersgill of Baltimore, a "maker of ships banners and flags," assisted by her daughter Mrs. Caroline Purdy, under contract to the United States Government in 1813 manufactured the U.S. Flag that has now become known as the "Star Spangled Banner" and was used as the garrison flag of Fort McHenry during the British siege of 175 years ago. This flag, originally measuring 30 by 42 feet (since then reduced to about 28 by 34 feet) was begun in July 1813 and finished on August 19, when she wrote a receipt for payment of $405.90 for it. It contained four hundred yards of first quality single ply 18 inch woolen bunting; the 15 stars made out of cotton, each measuring two feet in diameter; the blue union measuring approximately 16 by 20 feet and eight red and seven white 2 foot wide stripes; the whole sewed by hand with linen thread. Caroline Purdy later wrote that her mother devoted particular attention to reinforcing the topping or heading of the flag. According to the Smithsonian Institution, who now has custody of the flag, Mary was asked to do the work by Commodore Joshua Barney (who was shortly to become the best known hero defending Washington, D.C.) and General John Stricker of the Maryland Militia.

The Star Spangled Banner

The story of the seige of Fort McHenry and the writing of our National Anthem is fairly well known, so I shall only give the briefest outline here. Francis Scott Key, a well known gentleman of Georgetown in the District of Columbia, a sucessful lawyer and a volunteer in the light artillery company commanded by Major Peter, was persuaded by friends to meet with the British and intercede for a friend who had been taken for alleged offenses against His Majesty's Troops. He was obliged to meet them on board the Royal Navy Ship Surprise and, because the mission required several days, Key was not allowed to return home until after the attack on the fort. As a patriotic American and a first hand witness of the British Night Attack of September 13-14, 1814 on the fort, Key was anxious to learn the outcome. While the bombardment lasted, glimpses of the huge flag still flying were gotten "by the Rockets Red Glare" but after it ended, just past midnight, the ultimate outcome was in doubt. However, in the early hours of the morning, "by the dawn's early light," the flag was still flying, giving evidence that the fort still held out. During all this, Key scribbled a few lines on the back of an envelope and later, when he returned to his hotel in Baltimore, expanded it into the poem (that could be sung to a popular tune of the day, "Anacreon in Heaven") that he entitled "Defence of Fort M'Henry" but has come to us known as "The Star Spangled Banner."

Fort McHenry was commanded during the seige by Major (later Lt. Colonel) George Armistead, who was presented with the flag after the War of 1812 and it remained in his family for many years. The flag bears his signature and the date of the bombardment. On September 14, 1824, in connection with a reception of General Lafayette, the flag was brought back to Fort McHenry and displayed. In 1861 his widow bequeathed it to their daughter Mrs. William Stuart Appleton, and on her death July 25, 1878 it was left to her son, Eben Appleton of Yonkers, N.Y. He loaned the flag to the Smithsonian in 1907 and made it an outright gift December 19, 1912, where it has been preserved and is displayed in its current size in the National Museum of History and Technology against a backdrop outlining the original size.

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We can thank an overzealous public official for the Star Spangled Banner!

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