Visitors Flock to Stars and Stripes

The soul of America weighs 50 pounds, measures 30 by 34 feet and lies on a table behind a monstrous glass wall at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

She is the original Star-Spangled Banner, and since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon she is attracting renewed interest from a country suddenly swelling with national pride.

"The flag represents our history, our culture, our diversity and our unity," said Maryland National Guard Col. Howard Freedlander, a member of the Flag Day Foundation board.

The flag, which flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor during the War of 1812 and inspired the national anthem by Francis Scott Key, is currently in the middle of a three-and-a-half year restoration project.

Restorers have just finished removing 100 pounds of linen backing and other fabrics that had been added to the flag over its lifetime. The next step is cleaning the fabric, with the entire restoration projected to be finished near the end of 2002.

When the renovation project is completed, the remaining original pieces of the flag could last another 500 to 1,000 years, officials say.

Now displayed behind glass at the Smithsonian, where visitors can watch the progress of the restoration firsthand, the banner is attracting extraordinary attention in the last six weeks. People are flocking to see the old, tattered and faded 15 stars and 15 stripes in any way possible, said Marilyn Zoidis, curator of the Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project.

Zoidis said they are even-flooding project's Web page, where traffic has increased ten- and twenty-fold since September 11.

"The flag has survived as our country has survived," Zoidis said.

The 188-year-old flag was first pieced together in a tiny row house in Baltimore owned by Mary Pickersgill. Construction of the enormous flag, built on a scale typical of other flags of the time, had to be moved to a much larger malt house nearby.

Mary Pickersgill's row house is now a museum dedicated to her work and her flag. Sally Johnston, executive director of this Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, said that the public's sudden interest in the flag is a gut-level reaction to the attacks.

Museum officials and history-lovers say they are just happy Pickersgill sewed a flag strong enough to help satisfy that need.

"If she hadn't made such a good flag, it wouldn't have lasted through the bombardments and 200 years," Johnston said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.