R. McGill Mackall’s 1976 oil painting depicts Mary Pickersgil her daughter, Caroline, and a niece making the Star-Spangled Banner. The flag flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. (Maryland Historical Society)

Two hundred years ago this summer, a 13-year-old girl named Caroline Pickersgill helped her mother sew what would become the most famous flag in America: the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In 1813, the young United States was still fighting the War of 1812 — often called the Second War of Independence — against powerful Great Britain. British ships attacked and burned small towns along the Chesapeake Bay as people in Baltimore braced themselves for attack.

Soldiers spent months preparing Fort McHenry, at the mouth of the Baltimore Harbor, to defend the city. The fort’s commander, Major George Armistead, decided to fly an enormous American flag “so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”

So military officers went to see a local flagmaker named Mary Pickersgill, who lived with her daughter Caroline in a small house near the Baltimore Harbor. They asked her to create a flag that measured 30 by 42 feet — wider and longer than the Pickersgills’ house.

The Pickersgills set to work immediately. Two nieces and a servant girl also helped. For six weeks in the summer of 1813, they all cut and sewed stars and stripes. Because this was before the invention of sewing machines, they did all of their sewing by hand. Experts today estimate that there were more than 1 million hand stitches in the flag.

Under her mother’s direction, Caroline and the other seamstresses made each stripe two feet wide and each star two feet from point to point. (At that time, the American flag had 15 stars and 15 stripes, representing the first 15 states in the nation.)

The Pickersgills did not have room in their house to spread out the flag for the final sewing. So Caroline helped her mother carry the stars and stripes down the street to a local brewery, where they spread out the flag on the floor and pieced it together. Years later, in a letter to Armistead’s daughter, Caroline recalled “seeing my mother down on the floor, placing the stars.” They often worked until midnight before they went home and fell in their beds, exhausted.

After six weeks of steady work, they finished the flag and presented it to the soldiers at Fort McHenry. For about a year, the huge flag flew proudly over the fort. Then British ships started firing, and private citizens rushed to help the fort’s soldiers fight back.

The battle went on all day and all night while a lawyer named Francis Scott Key watched, listened and worried from a distance. Finally, on the morning of September 14, 1814, the battle ended, and he saw the huge American flag flying high, once again, over Fort McHenry. The United States had won. Excited, Key wrote a poem — “The Defence of Fort McHenry” — that would later be set to music as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

You can still see the original flag, now tattered and worn, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Stop by sometime this month and wish the old flag a happy 200th birthday!

Help sew a huge flag

In honor of the Star-Spangled Banner’s 200th birthday, about 200 seamstresses are hand-sewing a new flag, just as large as the original, at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The volunteer seamstresses — yes, they’re all women — are trying to complete the flag in six weeks, just like the Pickersgills did.

What: Star-Spangled Banner Project.

Where: Maryland Historical Society, 201 West Monument Street, Baltimore.

When: Watch and talk with seamstresses through August 22, Wednesday-Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m. (The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from noon to
5 p.m.) You can add your own stitches August 11 noon to 4 p.m. (Online reservations are recommended.)

How much: Free on Aug. 11. On other days, adults $9, ages 3 to 18 $6, age 2 and younger free.

For more information: A parent can call 410-685-3750 or visit www.mdhs.org/star-spangled-banner-project.

Learn more

Other great places to learn about the Star-Spangled Banner:

Star-Spangled Banner (the original flag)

Where: Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, 1300 Constitution Avenue NW.

When: Daily from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

How much: Free.

For more information: A parent can call 202-633-1000 or visit amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner.

The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House (the Pickersgill house)

Where: 844 East Pratt Street, Baltimore.

When: Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

How much: Adults $8, ages 6 to 18 $6, age 5 and younger free.

For more information: A parent can call 410-837-1793 or visit www.flaghouse.org.

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

Where: 2400 East Fort Avenue, Baltimore.

When: Daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The replica flag will be raised September 14 at a special Defenders Day ceremony that begins at 6 p.m.

How much: $7 for adults, age 15 and younger free. (On Defenders Day, free for everyone after 6 p.m.)

For more information: A parent can call 410-962-4290 or visit www.nps.gov/fomc.

— Rebecca Jones