The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. is doing something that is believed to have never been done before – showcase the original, handwritten manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the flag that inspired the lyrics.
These pieces of history have been displayed separately for many years. The flag has been housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History since the early 1900s, while the original, handwritten manuscript has been in Baltimore at the Maryland Historical Society.
Showcasing the two side-by-side is in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the song being written. According to Jennifer Jones, the curator who oversees the flag, seeing the two historic items together should create an “aha moment.” Jones added, “It’s meant to be emotional. It’s meant to be reflective.”
At age 35, Francis Scott Key wrote the historic song on September 14, 1814. At the time, Key was a lawyer and amateur poet who witnessed the War of 1812 and the British forces attacking Baltimore’s Fort McHenry for more than a day. When the attack was over, Key saw the fort’s flag flying, signifying that the U.S. troops endured the attack. This inspired Key to write a poem originally titled “Defense of Fort McHenry.” The poem eventually had a title change, was set to music, and became the national anthem of America in 1931.
The quill and ink-written original manuscript may have some surprises for visitors. Though the first stanza is all that is traditionally sung, Key actually has four stanzas in his original poem. Also, in the line “Oh say can you see through the dawn’s early light,” Key has crossed out “through” and replaced it with “by.”
The flag was given to the Smithsonian by the family of Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry. Armistead was also the man who commissioned the flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes to represent the number of states in the Union at the time.
The historic flag has been in Washington ever since, except for a short period of time during World War II when it was in Virginia for safekeeping.
Key’s manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was purchased in the 1950s by the historical society. Since then it has been on display in Annapolis, Fort McHenry, and Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland, where Key is buried.
President of the Maryland Historical Society, Burt Kummerow, says people should go see the exhibit soon because, “It isn’t going to happen again anytime soon.”
For those interested in seeing the two pieces of history side-by-side, you can visit the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. from Flag Day, June 14, through July 6. So get your summer vacation plans ready.