This 4th of July we have decided to take a closer look at “The Star-Spangled Banner”- an anthem of freedom, American beliefs, and reverence for those who have fought for our nation.
On September 13th, 1814, British warships sent a downpour of shells and rockets onto Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, relentlessly pummeling the American fort for 25 hours. The bombardment, known as the Battle of Baltimore, came only weeks after the British had attacked Washington, D.C., burning the Capitol, the Treasury and the President’s house. It was another battle in the ongoing War of 1812.
A week earlier, Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old American lawyer, had boarded the flagship of the British fleet on the Chesapeake Bay in hopes of persuading the British to release a friend who had recently been arrested. Key’s tactics were successful, but because he and his companions had gained knowledge of the impending attack on Baltimore, the British did not let them go. They allowed the Americans to return to their own vessel but continued guarding them. Under their scrutiny, Key watched on September 13th as the barrage of Fort McHenry began eight miles away.
“It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone,” Key wrote later. But when darkness arrived, Key saw only red erupting in the night sky. Given the scale of the attack, he was certain the British would win. The hours passed slowly, but in the clearing smoke of “the dawn’s early light” on September 14th, he saw the American flag—not the British Union Jack—flying over the fort, announcing an American victory.
Aboard the ship the next day, Key wrote a poem on the back of a letter he had kept in his pocket. That night, on September 16th, Key and his friend were released in Baltimore. He completed the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he was staying, and titled it “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. Much of the idea of the poem, including the flag imagery and some of the wording, is derived from an earlier song by Key. The song, known as “When the Warrior Returns”, was written in honor of Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart on their return from the First Barbary War.
Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law Judge Joseph H. Nicholson who saw that the words fit the popular melody “The Anacreontic Song”, by English composer John Stafford Smith. This was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London. Nicholson took the poem to a printer in Baltimore, who anonymously made the first known broadside printing on September 17th; of these, two known copies survive. “The Anacreontic Song” can be listened to below:
On September 20th, both the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the song, with the note “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven”. The song quickly became popular, with seventeen newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire printing it. Soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together under the title “The Star Spangled Banner”, although it was originally called “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. Thomas Carr’s arrangement introduced the raised fourth which became the standard deviation from “The Anacreontic Song”. The song’s popularity increased and its first public performance took place in October when Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang sang it at Captain McCauley’s tavern. Washington Irving, then editor of the Analectic Magazine in Philadelphia, reprinted the song in November 1814.
By the early 20th century, there were various versions of the song in popular use. Seeking a singular, standard version, President Woodrow Wilson tasked the U.S. Bureau of Education with providing that official version. In response, the Bureau enlisted the help of five musicians to agree upon an arrangement. Those musicians were Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck and John Philip Sousa. The standardized version that was voted upon by these five musicians premiered at Carnegie Hall on December 5th, 1917, in a program that included Edward Elgar’s Carillon and Gabriel Pierné’s The Children’s Crusade. The concert was put on by the Oratorio Society of New York and conducted by Walter Damrosch. An official handwritten version of the final votes of these five men has been found and shows all five men’s votes tallied, measure by measure.
In 1899, the U.S. Navy officially adopted “The Star-Spangled Banner”. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that “The Star-Spangled Banner” be played at military and other appropriate occasions. The playing of the song two years later during the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series, and thereafter during each game of the series is often cited as the first instance that the anthem was played at a baseball game, though evidence shows that the “Star-Spangled Banner” was performed as early as 1897 at opening day ceremonies in Philadelphia and then more regularly at the Polo Grounds in New York City beginning in 1898.
In 1930, Veterans of Foreign Wars started a petition for the United States to officially recognize “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Five million people signed the petition. The petition was presented to the United States House Committee on the Judiciary on January 31st, 1930. On the same day, Elsie Jorss-Reilley and Grace Evelyn Boudlin sang the song to the Committee to refute the perception that it was too high pitched for a typical person to sing. The Committee voted in favor of sending the bill to the House floor for a vote. The House of Representatives passed the bill later that year. The Senate passed the bill on March 3, 1931. President Herbert Hoover signed the bill on March 4, 1931, officially adopting “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States of America. As currently codified, the United States Code states that “[t]he composition consisting of the words and music known as the Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem.”
Before 1931, other songs served as the hymns of U.S. officialdom. “Hail, Columbia” served this purpose at official functions for most of the 19th century. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, whose melody is identical to “God Save the Queen”, the United Kingdom’s national anthem, also served as a de facto national anthem. Following the War of 1812 and subsequent U.S. wars, other songs emerged to compete for popularity at public events, among them “America the Beautiful”.
Nearly two centuries later, the flag itself that inspired Key still survives, though fragile and worn by the years. To preserve this American icon, experts at the National Museum of American History completed an eight-year conservation treatment with funds from Polo Ralph Lauren, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Congress.
“The Star-Spangled Banner is a symbol of American history that ranks with the Statue of Liberty and the Charters of Freedom,” said Brent D. Glass, the museum’s director. “The fact that it has been entrusted to the National Museum of American History is an honor.”
Started in 1996, the Star-Spangled Banner preservation project—which includes the flag’s conservation and the creation of its new display in the renovated museum—was planned with the help of historians, conservators, curators, engineers and organic scientists. With the construction of the conservation lab completed in 1999, conservators began their work. Over the next several years, they clipped 1.7 million stitches from the flag to remove a linen backing that had been added in 1914, lifted debris from the flag using dry cosmetic sponges and brushed it with an acetone-water mixture to remove soils embedded in fibers. Finally, they added a sheer polyester backing to help support the flag.
“Our goal was to extend [the flag’s] usable lifetime,” says Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the conservator for the project. The intent was never to make the flag look as it did when it first flew over Fort McHenry, she says. “We didn’t want to change any of the history written on the artifact by stains and soil. Those marks tell the flag’s story.”
While the conservators worked, the public looked on. Over the years, more than 12 million people peered into the museum’s glass conservation lab, watching the progress.
“The Star-Spangled Banner resonates with people in different ways, for different reasons,” says Kathleen Kendrick, curator for the Star-Spangled Banner preservation project. “It’s exciting to realize that you’re looking at the very same flag that Francis Scott Key saw on that September morning in 1814. But the Star-Spangled Banner is more than an artifact—it’s also a national symbol. It evokes powerful emotions and ideas about what it means to be an American.”
While the first stanza is the most well know, here are the full lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner”:
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave
Happy 4th of July from The Stamp & Coin Place 🙂 🇺🇸