Opinion  July 8, 2021  Mary M. Lane

Reframed: Mary Pickersgill’s Star-Spangled Banner

Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Mary Pickersgill, Star-Spangled Banner, early 19th century. National Museum of American History, Washington D.C.

The July 2021 Focus for Reframed is American Heat

At what point can an object become art?

Major George Armistead took command of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in June 1813. Though the Revolutionary War had been a success, the English were still a threat to the still-nascent United States; not losing the War of 1812 was crucial for America’s pride and military future.

It is notable that, though male flag makers did exist, Major Armisted commissioned Mary Pickersgill in the early 1800s, a female flag maker in Baltimore, to create two flags for Fort McHenry.

Pickersgill’s first flag, a storm flag measuring 17 ft. by 25 ft., has been lost to weather and wear. Yet her larger garrison flag, measuring 30 ft. by 42 ft., is in the Smithsonian Institute today, known as the Star-Spangled Banner.

Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. 

First known photograph of the Star-Spangled Banner, taken at the Boston Navy Yard, June 21, 1873.

At a time when women were vastly underpaid and discriminated against through regulations enforced by the government, Major Armisted used his governmental powers to employ Pickersgill, paying her $404.90 for the larger flag and $168.54 for the smaller flag, no small sum at the time. Pickersgill was a widow earning a meager income as a seamstress, yet the opportunity to craft the Star-Spangled Banner afforded her the opportunity to purchase the very home she was renting and to expand her female-dominated business.

Pickersgill’s Star-Spangled Banner famously inspired Francis Scott Key’s poem that has become America’s National Anthem. Unknown to many Americans, Pickersgill’s flag and Key’s poem rose in tandem to become famous in the United States only after the Civil War was over.

In a bipartisan effort, Hillary Rodham Clinton, (then a first lady), included the flag in the 1998 “Save America’s Treasures” project that Mrs. Clinton spearheaded. Her work saved the flag’s fibers from further decay and was also a bipartisan effort between Republicans and Democrats to preserve U.S. history.

The opinion that the original Star-Spangled Banner is now a work of art is the tried and true view of this Art & Object columnist. Throughout history, no one has agreed on what the definition of “art” is. Yet a common view is that a work of “art” is an “object” that has no practical function, but instead serves as a vehicle through which a viewer can experience emotions, recall memories, and process historical events.

When this columnist looks at this flag, she thinks of the sexism Pickersgill overcame to create the original Star-Spangled Banner. She remembers that Pickersgill did so with the help of a traditionally masculine member of the military, who was not accustomed to working with women but treated her without fear or favor. She thinks of the use of the flag during the Civil War to tear down slavery. She thinks of the use of the flag to reunite a divided country after said Civil War. She thinks of the women marching in the early 1900s for the right to vote. She thinks of all the times that the flag has been waived—in celebrations and in protests—to advance the rights of Americans via patriotism and the waving of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

The Star-Spangled Banner arrives at the Smithsonian, 1907. The flag was displayed at the Smithsonian Institution Building and photographed the day it arrived, July 6, 1907.

In this sense, the Star-Spangled Banner has transformed from an object above Fort McHenry to an artwork in the Smithsonian Institute.

The flag, as visitors can see today, is torn, tattered, and tested, but it is still a vibrant symbol of the United States and all that this country has overcome. The Star-Spangled Banner is tough, enduring, and malleable.

How appropriate for the country that it represents.

About the Author

Mary M. Lane

Mary M. Lane is an art market journalist, an art historian, and the author of Hitler's Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich. Reach her on Twitter: MaryLaneWSJ and Instagram: MaryLaneAuthor

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