ajor George Armistead, an officer during the War of 1812, needed a large flag to fly over Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor. In 1813, he hired Mary Pickersgill and her 13-year-old daughter Caroline to sew a flag with wool stripes and cotton stars. (There were 15 red and white stripes and 15 white stars on a blue background. It measured 30-by-42 feet, and weighed 50 pounds).
Francis Scott Key, a well-known Georgetown lawyer, 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 British attack on Fort McHenry. 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. He was so inspired by the sight that he took a letter from his pocket and wrote a poem on its back. He called his poem "The Defense of Fort McHenry," but he soon renamed it "The Star Spangled Banner."
It was set to the popular English tune, "To Anacreon in Heaven," which was about a Greek poet, and it was first performed in Baltimore in 1814. Americans have struggled to sing it ever since.
After the war, the flag remained in the Armistead family for many years, and later gifted to the Smithsonian where it has been preserved and is displayed in the National Museum of History and Technology.
The Original Star Spangled Banner Flag
The original Star Spangled Banner Flag measures 3’ x 5’, and is from 100% cotton.