Perhaps all the hard work isn’t visible to the naked eye, but in total, more than a decade of effort has gone into preserving the Star-Spangled Banner, a tattered but powerful symbol of the United States of America. According to James Gardner, former senior scholar and former associate director for curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, not making it look as good as new was the point: “Our goal was not to restore the flag but to preserve it for generations to come.”
Here are 10 interesting facts about the flag, its history and the conservation processes it’s undergone.
1. Contrary to popular belief, the Star-Spangled Banner is not the nation’s first flag, nor is it the flag known as Old Glory, which is also in the National Museum of American History’s collection.
2. The Star-Spangled Banner dates back to the War of 1812. It was flown at Maryland’s Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814, to signal America’s victory over British forces in the Battle of Baltimore, a confrontation that was a pivotal point in the war.
3. Mary Pickersgill, a professional flag maker in Baltimore, made the flag during the summer of 1813 with the assistance of four family members and a servant. For their handiwork, which measured 30 feet by 42 feet, Pickersgill was paid $405.90 (equivalent to approximately $5,500 in 2014). Today the flag weighs between 40 and 50 pounds.
4. The flag inspired our national anthem. Francis Scott Key’s original poem was titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry” and set to the melody of John Stafford Smith’s tune “To Anacreon in Heaven.” In 1931, an Act of Congress recognized Key’s tribute as the American national anthem.
5. The flag eventually was given to Lt. Col. George Armistead, who’d had it raised above Fort McHenry. It passed from his widow to one of his daughters to his grandson Eben Appleton, who lent it to the Smithsonian in 1907 and officially gave it to the institution for its permanent collection in 1912.
6. The irregularity of the flag’s fly edge, or the end that is farthest away from the flagpole, resulted from damage incurred while the Star-Spangled Banner flew above Fort McHenry. (As a flag flaps in the wind, the last inch at the fly edge can move at speeds of up to 700 mph, causing breakage and losses.) Additionally, portions of the Star-Spangled Banner were cut away as mementos during the 19th century.
7. Upon joining the Smithsonian’s permanent collection in 1912, the flag was approximately 30 feet by 34 feet and in bad need of repair. In 1914, after eight weeks and roughly 1.7 million stitches, professional flag restorer Amelia Fowler and a team of seamstresses had secured the flag to a linen backing, preparing it for its first long-term public exhibition. Fowler was paid $1,243 for materials and labor.
8. In 1998, the flag was removed from the wall where it had hung since 1964, and a third major conservation effort began. Staff worked while lying on a 30-foot-wide platform suspended 5 inches above the flag, clipping away the nearly 1.7 million stitches in order to remove the linen backing.
9. It took conservators several years to complete the treatment begun in 1998: about two years to remove the flag’s linen backing, about two to clean the flag and almost three more years to stabilize the flag and prepare it for long-term exhibition. They removed debris from the flag’s wool bunting and cotton stars with the aid of cosmetic sponges. Finally, a new backing made of silklike Stabiltex was attached to stabilize the frayed edges, splits and tears.
10. Thanks to the conservation laboratory’s 50-foot floor-to-ceiling glass wall, between 1999 and 2006, several million museum visitors were able to view the Star-Spangled Banner and learn about the conservation treatment.