Historic Flags of the Smithsonian – A Visitor’s Guide

star spangled banner

Until the War of 1812, the American flag was generally considered a utilitarian object and didn’t attract the reverence of the general public. Its primary function was to identify ships and forts. Throughout history, the flag has emerged time and again to rally the nation in a time of crisis.

These banners are valuable not because of what they are made of, but rather the struggles and victories they represent. Flags are priceless symbols of our nation’s ideals. As national treasures, these historical flags are stored in the various Smithsonian museums for posterity.

The National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum house some of America’s most beloved emblems in their exhibits.

The Star-Spangled Banner

Celebrating its 203rd birthday this year, the Star-Spangled Banner is looking good for its age. It’s a bit threadbare, missing a few chunks, and the colors are faded. However, seeing it floating in the low-oxygen chamber where it is stored at the National Museum of American History can still take your breath away. The size, itself, inspires admiration, as each of the 15 stars measures approximately two feet across. The remaining banner is 30-feet by 34-feet, about eight feet short of its original size due to deterioration. Its shredded appearance only serves to make it more mystical.

The sight of the flag waving after the battle at Fort McHenry was awe-inspiring for Francis Scott Key. The fact that “the flag was still there” inspired him to pen a song. His song gave focus to the feelings of patriotism, courage, and resilience that occurred as a result of the victory over the British in Baltimore.

After Key’s song had been published, the American flag became the physical expression of national identity, unity, and pride. This flag, in particular, took on the name given to it by the song and, thereafter, was known as The Star-Spangled Banner.

The commander of Fort McHenry, Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead became an instant hero after the victory. The Star-Spangled Banner became an Armistead family keepsake and was passed down through the family to his grandson, who recognized it for the national treasure that it is. He donated it to the Smithsonian in 1907 with the request that it always be on view to the public.

The museum has gone to great lengths to balance the Armistead family’s wishes to have it on display with the need for preservation. The flag hangs in Flag Hall, one of the first galleries on view in the 300,000 square-foot National Museum of American history. Today, it is one of the most popular displays, with over 5 million annual visitors.

museum preserved US flag

Old Glory

Old Glory began its unassuming service in 1824 as a 24-star standard designed to unfurl grandly from the mast of Captain William Driver’s ship on his worldwide travels. Driver flew this 17-foot by 10-foot tribute to America during his travels to proudly show the rest of the world his home port identity.

When he retired from seafaring after 20 years to Nashville, Tennessee, he continued to display the flag with which he had shared many adventures. The size of the ship’s flag proved troublesome at home, though. It was so large, he had to improvise a pulley system to hoist it from the top of his house to a tree across the street.

Driver’s flag became a popular symbol of Union loyalty as he defiantly flew it in Nashville leading up to the Civil War. When Tennessee seceded, he had it concealed inside a quilt for safe keeping. During the war, President Lincoln ignored the temporary rebellion of the southern states and demanded that the Union flag continue to signify American solidarity by including a star for each state in the Union. Driver reportedly had ten additional stars added to update Old Glory in 1860 to respect Lincoln’s proclamation.

In February 1862, Ulysses S. Grant and the Sixth Ohio occupied Nashville, and Driver uncovered Old Glory from the quilt. The flag was hoisted from the State Capitol building and was met with cheering and uproarious demonstrations at the sight of the stars and stripes, inspiring the soldiers and citizens to remain strong through the end of the war.

Old Glory now only ranks second as a patriotic symbol to Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner. In fact, the term Old Glory has become common enough that it now refers to all United States flags.

This symbol of American solidarity is now a primary artifact at the National Museum of American History. Unlike the Star-Spangled Banner, it can be borrowed from the gallery, and it was last on display in 2006 in Tennessee.

US lunar flag

Replica of U.S. Lunar Flag

The Soviets and Americans had been in a race to space to show supremacy in spaceflight and, also, in overall technological and ideological superiority. President Kennedy likened being first to the moon to leading the future of the world, in a famous speech, inspiring a generation to celebrate the scientific and mathematic accomplishments of NASA.

The United States left more than footprints on the Moon when the astronauts first landed in July 1969. They also planted a United States flag constructed of nylon, not as an act of claiming territory, but as a symbolic representation of the historic first visit. The photo of the flag transmitted back to Earth represented winning the battle between freedom and tyranny, and it was a very public display of the dominance of American ingenuity and ideals.

The lunar flag was specially designed to be deployed on the moon with a horizontal crossbar to keep the flag extended in an environment with no wind or atmosphere. The assembly process had to be simple enough to complete wearing a space suit with a limited range of motion and grasping capabilities. Similar flags were also placed by later Apollo missions (Apollo 14, 15, 16, and 17).

The flag on display on the 2nd floor of the National Air and Space Museum is a replica of the ones put on the Moon by the astronauts of the Apollo missions. It was transferred to the Smithsonian from NASA and is now part of the Apollo to the Moon exhibition.

german flag converted to american flag

U.S. Flag Made from a Captured German Flag

During World War II, Americans proudly displayed the flag at home to demonstrate their support for our nation and soldiers. The image of the flag was used in many ways to symbolize the ideals for which our soldiers were fighting, and it called on every American to support those principles through word and deed.

Joseph E. Fennimore repeatedly risked his life as an advance scout with the Fourth Infantry Division of the Army.  He was one of the first Allied soldiers to hit the beach of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and was one of the few survivors. As the end of the war neared, his Army platoon was marched into Germany to spearhead the Allied Invasion. Much to his dismay, they did so without a flag.

Looking to inspire his squad, Mr. Fennimore crafted a one-sided flag that symbolized the democratic ideals for which they fought. He used a captured Nazi flag for white material, then cut out 48 star blanks from the blue background of a jacket, and found red binding for stripes. In a small German town, he and his squad stumbled upon a sewing machine which he used to assemble the flag.

In 1986, Fennimore donated his handmade flag to the Smithsonian, along with a photograph of his squad proudly posing with the banner on May 7, 1945, the day Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. It now resides at the National Museum of American History.

recovered world trade center flag

American Flag Recovered from the World Trade Center

This severely damaged American flag survived the collapse of the Twin Towers but was found by a recovery worker in the World Trade Center debris. The tattered flag, with 36 stars remaining, is now a permanent part of history. The flag became a powerful symbol of patriotism, survival, and resilience due to its survival and triumph, and it helped unite Americans in a time of crisis.

American Legion Post member Michael Lombardo had been given the flag by an unnamed federal agent in the days after the terrorist attacks. Post 433 planned a public ceremony to retire the asbestos-covered flag with dignity by burning it—the manner prescribed under a 1923 act of Congress. The veterans ultimately compromised, burning only a 6-inch portion of the nylon flag before turning it over to the FBI’s New York field office. The bureau then gave the flag to the Smithsonian.

Museum curators worked for weeks readying the flag for display at the National Museum of American History, removing as much asbestos as possible from the fibers and, ultimately, covering it with Stabletex, a sheer polyester fabric used in the preservation of fragile materials.

The flag is ensconced in a glass case near the Bellevue Wall of Prayers, a memorial to the World Trade Center victims in the National Museum of American History.

Conclusion

American flags have rallied our nation to come together in many dark periods. The flag is a priceless symbol of our nation’s ideals and has come to embody the victory of the American spirit time and time again.

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