Star-Spangled Banner: Science Saves U.S. Icon

June 30, 2006

As the United States prepares to celebrate its 230th birthday on the Fourth of July, one of the country's most recognizable icons—the flag known as the Star-Spangled Banner—has just finished getting an eight- year makeover to help hide its age.

The flag became a national symbol when lawyer Francis Scott Key saw it tattered but still flying after a U.S. battle with the British in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1814.

The scene from that critical battle in the War of 1812 inspired Key to write what would eventually become the U.S. national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner."

(Download a wallpaper photo of the 1812 U.S. flag.)

But the flag has been slowly suffering additional damage since it saw battle more than 190 years ago.

For years, conservators at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where the banner has been kept since the 1960s, noticed that the fragile flag was deteriorating.

Years of use at Baltimore's Fort McHenry, combined with exposure to light, dust, moisture, pollution, and other elements, caused the flag's cotton and wool fibers to weaken. Holes and rust spots dotted the fabric.

So in 1998 museum experts launched the Star-Spangled Banner Project, an effort to conserve the flag for decades to come.

A team of scientists, conservators, engineers, and researchers from around the world began to study the flag and analyze its condition—a task made difficult by the flag's immense size, about 34 feet (10 meters) long.

"We were surprised at how very fragile the flag was," said Marilyn Zoidis, senior curator for the project.

Science Saves the Flag

The flag's delicate condition became evident once 1.7 million stitches were removed from a linen backing that had been sewn onto the flag in 1914.

Continued on Next Page >>


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