WASHINGTON -- Lying on their stomachs in a dust-free lab, a squad of conservators armed with surgical tweezers advance thread by thread across the wool and cotton flag Americans know as the original Star-Spangled Banner.
The eight team members, all women, are engaged in a prolonged, $18 million effort to stabilize and strengthen the flag. The work includes the exacting, eye-straining and tedious work of removing the 1.7 million knotted threads added in 1914 to anchor the flag to a now-weakening linen backing.
"The estimates are, if we can stabilize the environment (surrounding the flag) and protect it from light, that it will last for a very long time," said Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, chief conservator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. "The conservative estimate is 500 years and the optimistic estimate is 1,000."
That's good news for a flag that was pierced by bomb fragments in the British attack on Baltimore's Fort McHenry in 1814. In the 185 years since that 25-hour engagement the flag has been rolled and unrolled for countless displays, and endured long exposure to sunlight, pollution and gnawing insects.
Over the decades a full eight feet of its original 42-foot length was snipped away for relic hunters.
Lonn Taylor, the museum's exhibits historian, was researching the banner's history in a New England library when he opened a book "and a fragment of the flag literally fell out in my lap."
The flag now measures 30 by 34 feet but is still as tall as a three-story building.
Most Americans know the Star-Spangled Banner story.
In September 1814, Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key boarded a British warship in Chesapeake Bay to negotiate the release of a prisoner taken when British forces burned the Capitol in August.
Detained aboard ship while the fleet turned its attention to Baltimore, Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry beginning on the morning of Sept. 13, 1814, It continued through the day and most of the night before the British abandoned their attack and withdrew.
Shortly after dawn on the 14th, the morning mists parted and Key saw that the flag had survived its night of bombshells and rockets. Its "broad stripes and bright stars" were "gallantly streaming."
An amateur verse writer, Key jotted down the words that entered history as "The Star-Spangled Banner." Set to the music of an 18th century drinking song, the tune was increasingly played by military bands until Congress acted in 1931 to make it the official national anthem of the United States.
That was 117 years after Key witnessed "the bombs bursting in air."
An American soldier estimated that 1,800 shells had exploded in or near the fort. "We were like pigeons tied by the legs to be shot at," he said.
Historian Taylor is just as interested in the story of the flag before and after the bombardment as in story of Key.
The Fort McHenry flag, which originally measured 30 by 42 feet and was flown from a 90-foot pole, was made at a cost of $405.90 by seamstress Mary Pickersgill, who laid it out in a Baltimore brewery.
Soon after the bombardment the flag became the personal property of the fort's commander, Maj. George Armistead. It descended in his family for nearly a century after he died in 1818.
In an 1873 letter, Georgina Armistead Appleton, the commandant's daughter, called the flag "my treasure" and explained that one of its 15 stars and much of its leading edge had been clipped for souvenirs. "Indeed, had we given all that we have been oportuned for, little would be left to show," she said.
She wrote that year that while she had long thought of the flag as a family heirloom she had come to realize that "this time honored relic" should not remain in private hands forever ...." It was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1907.
For the conservators in the history museum's super-clean, low-light flag lab, the objective is not to restore the banner to as-new condition but to stabilize it as is, a patched, bomb-torn piece of American history.
Completion is set for 2002. So far, there is no final plan for how the flag will be displayed. But it is hoped it can be backed with a light, sheer material so that both sides can be viewed.
Visitors to the museum on the National Mall can view the operation through a 50-foot glass wall. In an adjacent exhibit they can trace the history of the banner and listen to the words of "To Anacreon From Heaven," the drinking song Key adapted for his anthem.
There are two lines at which Key might nod in agreement.
"Voice, fiddle and flute, no longer be mute," the old song goes.
"I'll lend you my name and inspire you to boot."
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