Parts of Original US Flag on Display

The original Star-Spangled Banner survived the British shelling of Baltimore in 1814, and the image of the flag flying over Fort McHenry inspired the poem later used as the national anthem.

But less than a century after the fort's commander took the flag home, it was about 10 feet shorter and missing one of its 15 stars.

For decades, the family of Maj. George Armistead bestowed flag snippings upon officials and esteemed acquaintances, in a practice once considered an honored tradition.

Many fragments have been lost, squirreled away in private homes or buried with their recipients. But others go on display Thursday — Flag Day — at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, where the original flag has been displayed since 1964.

``Snippings from the Star-Spangled Banner'' will run at the museum through Sept. 23.

Armistead, who took command of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, decided the installation needed ``a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.''

A 30-by-42-foot flag was stitched together by Mary Pickersgill. When Armistead retired after successfully defending the fort, he took the flag home.

It was willed to his wife, Louisa, and later passed down to his daughter, Georgiana Armistead Appleton. Both women occasionally lent the flag out for display, and invited people to cut pieces from it.

``It was considered a way of saving history if you will, to give someone a piece of our national history. And it was considered an honor to receive such a piece,'' said Marilyn Zoidis, curator of the Star-Spangled Banner project at the Smithsonian.

Appleton's son, Eben Appleton, inherited the flag when she died in 1861. He donated it to the Smithsonian in 1912.

At Fort McHenry, full-sized replicas of the flag continue to fly.

``I've been working here six years and it's still compelling to see the big flag flying over the fort,'' said Vincent Vaise, a National Park Service ranger stationed at Fort McHenry. ``It's like a big exclamation point over the fort.''