Resources: FAQs

What flag is this?

Some people mistakenly think that the Star-Spangled Banner is the first American flag—it’s not! The Star-Spangled Banner is a national treasure because it is the very flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem. See A Moment of Triumph.

Who made the Star-Spangled Banner?

The Star-Spangled Banner was made by Baltimore flagmaker Mary Pickersgill. You can learn more about her here. See Making the Flag.

How big is the flag?

The flag is now 30’ x 34’. It originally measured 30 x 42’, but nearly eight feet were snipped off the end to give away as souvenirs in the nineteenth century.

What is the flag made of?

The blue area of the flag (called the canton) and the red and white stripes are made of English wool bunting. The stars are made of cotton.

Where’s the missing star?

We don’t know! Although many people think the hole in the flag was the result of a bomb going through it, we know that Louisa Armistead--who owned the flag for many years--cut out the fifteenth star and gave it to someone to honor them. What we don’t know is who it was given to, or when, or where it is now. There have been many rumors of its whereabouts throughout the years—some people even believe it was buried with President Lincoln. But we’re never gotten a credible lead. If you find it, let us know!

Did Betsy Ross make this flag?

No, the Star-Spangled Banner was made by Mary Pickersgill. Many people who see the Star-Spangled Banner assume Betsy Ross made it. Why? Betsy Ross is one of the most familiar names in American history—and the only flagmaker most Americans have ever heard of. But she was just one of a community of women who made flags in Philadelphia during and after the American Revolution. She might have remained as obscure as her contemporaries were it not for a convergence of circumstances that made her a national legend.  In 1893, a painting of Betsy Ross by Charles Weisgerber called The Birth of Our Nation’s Flag was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Mass-marketed in inexpensive prints, it gave momentum to a family story that Betsy Ross had made the first American flag. The Betsy Ross story continued to gain prominence around the turn of the century, as “flag fever” swept a nation facing challenges when immigration seemingly threatened American traditions. Throughout the twentieth century, generations of American children learned the story of Betsy Ross as part of their patriotic education. Countless books and toys helped fix in children’s imaginations an indelible image of Betsy Ross.

Who owned this flag before it came to the Smithsonian Institution?

The Star-Spangled Banner was saved by the Commander of Fort McHenry, George Armistead. He gave it to his wife Louisa, who passed it down to her daughter Georgiana Armistead Appleton. On her death, it was inherited by her son Eben Appleton, who donated the flag to the Smithsonian in 1914.

Why does the Star-Spangled Banner have fifteen stars and fifteen stripes?

The fifteen stars and stripes represent the fifteen states of the union in 1795. It wasn’t until the Third Flag Act of 1818 that the country decided to stick with 13 stripes—one for each colony—and a star for each state.

I have a historical flag—what’s the best way to care for it?

Tips for preserving your family’s textile treasures:

Temperature: Try not to let your fabrics get too hot or too cold. Store them in a closet, not in a basement, attic, or garage.

Air Pollution: Keep dust off your textiles. Don’t put them in a kitchen or near a fireplace.

Light: Store textiles away from direct sunlight.

Insects: Store your textiles away from places bugs live, like kitchens and damp areas. It is important to inspect your stored textiles regularly.

What’s the difference between preservation, conservation, and restoration?

Preservation includes preventive measures to extend the life of an object for display and research.

Conservation is the physical or chemical treatment of an object to stabilize it.

Restoration, a process not normally used by history museums, makes an object appear newer by bringing it closer to its original condition.

The exhibition states that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner "song." Didn't he write a poem?

You're correct that in the past many people have described Francis Scott Key's words as a poem. In fact, this Museum used to describe them that way. However, further research and scholarship have led our curatorial staff to believe that Key had the tune "To Anacreon in Heaven" in his head as he wrote those first words. In 1805, Key had used the melody for a song he wrote in honor of Captain Stephen Decatur, so we know he was familiar with the tune and the rhyme scheme. By September 17th, just three days after the Battle of Baltimore, the Star-Spangled Banner was distributed as a broadside all over Baltimore, including printed directions that the words be sung to the tune of "Anacreon in Heaven," as we believe Key intended. Other institutions may disagree and continue to describe Key's lyrics as a poem, but we strongly believe Key always intended to write a song. Which is why you'll find it described as such throughout our exhibition and the companion Web site. Whether poem or song, we're pleased that Key's words, and the story behind them, continue to inspire people.