When Spangled Stars Unspangle

Un episodio speciale nella vita della famosissima bandiera americana ...

 ... e un omaggio al caro Aldo, che anche lui è speciale, un grande della vessillologia moderna, eppure uno che non ha mai perso il gusto del piccolo clin d'oeil, senza di cui la vita sarebbe tanto meno piacevole.

Peter Orenski


    Around four o’clock on March 31, 2001, in the gift shop of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore, Maryland, Harry Oswald pointed a finger at some for-sale table flags on the main counter. He then shook his head and uttered low, rumbling mumbles.

     For those accustomed to traveling with Harry through the vexillopolis, a pointed finger usually means trouble. A shaking head denotes double trouble. And a rumble of low mumbles warns, “Run for the exits!” But on that day I chose not to rush for the exit. Instead I asked,

“What’s the problem, Harry O’, wrong dessert for lunch?”

“Nope,” he said, “they screwed up the table flags again.”

“Screwed up, how?” I said.

“Screwed up by screwing up, that’s how. Look at the stars.”

"Fifteen stars, five staggered rows of three’s,” I reported. “What’s wrong? You’re sure it wasn’t the dessert?”

“Dessert, schmessert, don’t you know anything? Take a look at a picture of the actual flag –  right here,” Harry said, picking Lonn Taylor’s booklet The Star-Spangled Banner 1 off the wall shelf. “Look, compare, learn.”

“You mean the table flags aren’t all patchy, discolored and torn up in places?” I offered after briefly studying the cover photo of Taylor’s book.

 “Yeah, that’s right, good eye, smart guess,” Harry said. “Anything else, genius?”

    And so started for us a brief but memorable experience with the Star-Spangled Banner, arguably the most famous of America’s 27 official flags – the inspiration for the  “our Flag was still there” line in Francis Scott Key’s poem that became our national anthem.

    Few things are known with certainty about the early history of the Stars and Stripes. The original Flag Act of 14 June1777 is, depending on your disposition, either delightful or exasperating in its vagueness. For example, the phrase “13 stripes alternate red and white ...” allows for the stripes to run vertically – as they did in some early flags; the phrase “the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation” allows for a riot of “constellations” – some with discernible method, some from the ‘drunkard’s walk’ school of design – just as it allows for the blue union to run down the entire hoist of the flag (à la modern Texas) as it did at times in the early days of the Republic.

    Not so for our flag. Just about everything that needs to be known about the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner, is known.2  Hence there is but one correct version – no riot of possible constellations, no unsteady school of design, no wandering union, no wondering flag scholars. End of story? Not in America.

    I followed Harry’s finger and picked up one of the table flags on the gift shop counter. Fifteen stars, five staggered rows of three stars, fifteen alternating stripes of red and white. So far so good. Then I looked more closely at the stars: They all stood bravely at attention, like good little five-pointed soldiers, their tops pointing straight up (Figure I). I glanced at the cover of Taylor’s book to compare the table flags with Mary Pickersgill’s 1813 creation: In the photograph, the top points were inclined away from the vertical – by some 18°, later study would reveal (Figure II). What’s more, the points of the first row were inclined toward the fly, those of the second row were inclined toward the hoist, and they continued to alternate in this manner until the fifth row. Ted Kaye likes to call this the “dancing stars” pattern.

    Harry was hanging around the shop with a cozy smile on his face, silently  urging, “Look, compare, learn.”

“OK, OK, Harry, I looked, I compared, I learned,“ I finally said, “ but this is crazy. Why would the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House sell the wrong Star-Spangled Banner?”

  “I don’t know,” said Harry, “why don’t you find out?”

  “Good idea. Let’s ask them.”

“Be my guest,” Harry said.

    Explanations from souvenir shop personnel were less than helpful. Nobody seemed to know who had purchased the flawed 4x6-inch table flags or why or from where. Harry was confident, however, that a visit we had planned for April 2 to Fort McHenry – over whose ramparts the Star-Spangled Banner had gallantly streamed on the morning of September 14, 1814, signaling the defeat of British land and naval efforts to conquer Baltimore – would solve the mystery.

    Instead, the trip just threw fire into kindling. We were among the first visitors at Fort McHenry on that drizzly, chilly Monday morning in April. We headed for the souvenir shop, which had just opened for business. I didn’t need Harry’s finger this time to spot the table flags. Picking out one, I showed it to him. He burst out laughing.

“Go ahead, make their day,” Harry said between guffaws.

  “Who makes your table flags?” I asked the salesperson at the gift shop.

“Why?” she said.

“Because they’re the wrong flags, the wrong design.”

“They’re not wrong, we’ve sold them like that for thirty years,” she said.

“Well, you’ve sold the wrong flags for thirty years,” I said.

    Harry’s eyes glistened with tears of laughter. He bought a T-shirt and wiped the tears on its sleeve. I happened to glance at the front of the shirt: It had a beautiful reproduction of the (correct) Star-Spangled Banner. I held up the shirt.

“Look at the flag on the T-shirt,” I said to the salesperson.

  “It’s ... the wrong flag?” she said.

“It’s the right flag.”

“We’ve been selling them like that for thirty years,” she said

“Good. You’ve been selling the right flag for thirty years, “ I said.

    Harry barely could add, “Yup, you’re selling the right flag and the wrong flag,” before having to sit down to recover from hyperactive chuckling.

    Incredibly, Harry turned out to be right. For as long as anyone could remember, the wrong table-flag design had been inadvertently sold, alongside excellent books and T-shirts reproducing the correct design, at two of the legendary sites in the history of the Star-Spangled Banner: Mary Pickersgill’s home in Baltimore city and the museum at Fort McHenry. A steel sculpture on the wall of the museum lobby also had the wrong star orientation. Replacing it would cost thousands of dollars. Replacing the flawed table flags turned out to be a simple matter of calling my friend Dale Coots, Marketing Manager at Annin & Co., and making her aware of the proper specifications. Dale immediately informed Annin’s manufacturing department, and soon after they scheduled their first-ever production lot of  SSB table flags with the correct star orientation.

    The story has yet another conclusion, a once-in-a-lifetime ending. Unnoticed by Harry or me on that morning, a few paces away from the gift shop at the Fort, a young man in uniform had become interested in our right flag-wrong flag controversy and soon approached to introduce himself: Ranger Vincent Vaise of the U.S. National Park Service, in charge of guided tours at the Fort McHenry. No, he said, he had never focused so precisely on the “dancing stars” arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner; yes, he would be happy to add this tidbit of flag history to his tour-guide stories. He then offered to share his experience by providing us an extensive,  two-hour personal visit of the Fort.

    As we made ready to part company around noon, a curious look came into Ranger Vaise’s eyes, and he said, “You seem pretty interested in flags. At noon we always change flags on the main mast at the Fort. How would you two like to raise the Star-Spangled Banner over Fort McHenry?” Harry and I exchanged the astonished glances of the suddenly vexilloblessed: “You mean raise a large flag, over the towering flag pole at Fort McHenry? The pole from which waved Pickersgill’s original garrison flag?” Apparently so, for Ranger Vaise nodded.

    And so it passed that exactly at noon on April 2, 2001 – with Ranger Vaise and his colleague saluting smartly at attention nearby – Harry Oswald and I raised a splendid nine-by-twelve-point-six-feet Star-Spangled Banner, broad stripes and bright stars gallantly dancing in the breeze, over Fort McHenry’s historic ramparts.

    It all happened because we made a fuss over proper flag design. Only in America.



1. Published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, © 2000 Smithsonian Institution, ISBN 0-8109-2940-6

2. The 30 x 42 feet (ca. 9.15 x 12.80 meters) flag was made under a government contract worth $405.90 by Baltimore flagmaker Mary Pickersgill, aided by her daughter Caroline and her nieces Eliza & Margaret Young (and perhaps by her mother Rebecca Young) during the summer of 1813. The red-and-white stripes – each 24 inches/61 cm wide –  were made from 18-inch-wide (ca. 46 cm) English woolen bunting, dyed blue with indigo and red with cochineal and madder. Thus each stripe was made from a complete width of bunting sewn to one-third of a second width. The stars, measuring about 24 inches across from tip to tip, were made of cotton and were sewn into the canton by the reverse appliqué method on the floor of the malt house at the nearby Claggetts brewery. The flag was delivered to Major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, on 19 August 1813. [all data from Ref. 1]