Saving a famous manuscript

Way Back When

Preservation: Experts at the National Archives are restoring the original copy of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

July 03, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Staff

As Smithsonian scientists and historians take on the monumental task of painstakingly cleaning and restoring the 34-by-30-foot wool and cotton flag that flew over Fort McHenry on the night of Sept. 13-14, 1814, the original manuscript of the song that it inspired, "The Star-Spangled Banner," will also be examined and subjected to space-age conservation methods by experts at the National Archives.

The manuscript, which has been in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society since 1953, is the earliest extant copy of the poem that Francis Scott Key wrote while watching the bombardment of the fort from a British truce vessel.

The manuscript restoration and new encasement will be paid for by a $180,000 "Save America's Treasures" grant from the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The manuscript was first owned by Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson, Key's brother-in-law and one of the defenders of Fort McHenry. He passed it on to his granddaughter, Rebecca Lloyd Post Shippen, and for many years, the document hung on the walls of Shippen's home at 209 West Monument St. -- right next door to where it is now housed in the society's headquarters.

In 1907, Shippen sold it to Henry Walters for $2,500 with the stipulation that it would be kept in Maryland. After Walters' death in 1931, his art collection passed by will into the possession of the City of Baltimore; "The Star-Spangled Banner," however, remained among his personal assets.

After it was sold at public auction in 1934, the trustees of the Walters Art Gallery purchased it for $26,400. In 1947, the document left Maryland and toured the nation aboard the "Freedom Train" until 1949.

In 1953, Mary McShane Jenkins purchased it from the Walters and donated it to the Historical Society in memory of her mother-in-law, Catherine Key Jenkins, a cousin of Key.

On Sept. 14, 1954, the manuscript -- resting in a hermetically sealed glass container filled with helium to prevent deterioration -- was put on public view in the society's Keyser Building for the first time. In 1989, the document was moved to its current exhibit case in the Thomas and Hugg Building.

"The document itself is in very good condition because it has been well taken care of," says David de Lorenzo, manuscript curator for the Historical Society, adding, "It's rare for a place to have a national icon of this significance."

Elissa O'Loughlin of the National Archives and Record Administration's document conservation laboratory agrees with de Lorenzo. In a report to the Historical Society on the status of the anthem copy she wrote: "The extant folds, small tears and minor losses pose no long-term condition risks, and could easily be stabilized by standard conservation methods. ... Storage conditions will probably never be fully documented, although the good overall condition of the document suggests that it escaped confinement in damaging enclosures."

De Lorenzo, who estimates that restoration of the manuscript will take about six months, says, "This document speaks to people. It represents how important history is in our democracy."

He says he is amazed at the numbers of people who come to the Historical Society from "far and wide" to view it.

"This document shows how important it is to preserve the history of humankind for future generations," he said.

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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