#Grace Wisher was a free African American girl who was indentured to Mary Pickersgill for six years to learn house work and plain sewing. Grace, at age 13, was the same age as Mary’s daughter Caroline Pickersgill. During the summer of 1813, Grace would have been three years into her indenture and would certainly have been expected to take part in household work and business of flag making, including being present and active in the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner.
This summer, artist Grandmother Edna Lawrence crafted a quilt dedicated to Grace that received recognition from Mayor Catherine Pugh. This quilt along with 10 other examples of Grandmother Edna’s work remain on view in the Flag House’s temporary exhibit.
Hannah Young Wells Fearson, older sister of Mary Young Pickersgill, was born August 2, 1767, in Philadelphia to William and Rebecca Young. In 1783, Hannah marries shipbuilder George Wells, and the couple relocates to Baltimore in 1784 where George has inherited house and building plots from his father. Five years after their marriage, George Wells dies. Having poorly managed and invested his inheritance, he leaves Hannah deeply in debt, a hardship she would have to deal with for twenty years thereafter. Unlike her mother and sister, Hannah chooses to remarry and does not enter into the flag making trade. On May 28, 1791, Hannah marries Jesse Fearson a Revolutionary War sea captain and commander of the Buccaneer, a privateer ship with 12 crew and 18 guns. By September of 1807, the Young/Pickersgill flag making business in Baltimore was underway and Hannah and her husband Jesse move to Granby Street, one block east of the Flag House. Like her sister, Hannah becomes involved with the Impartial Female Humane Society. In 1828, when Mary is named as president of the Society, Hannah appears in meeting minutes as part of a committee to “make the next inquiries into the affairs of the Society.” She is also listed as heading a committee on March 11, 1829, that is to call a Mr. Norris to “demand the papers and any articles he may hold belonging to said society.” Hannah continues to appear in Impartial Female Humane Society minutes until about 1848. On March 7, 1853, Hannah Young Wells Fearson dies at age 86 in Baltimore.
Hannah Young Wells Fearson (in plaid) pictured with sister Mary Young Pickersgill (in black), about 1840.
Through Museums for All, those receiving food assistance (SNAP benefits) can visit the Flag House and more than 300 museums throughout the United States for free or reduced admission simply by presenting their EBT card. Use the link to find a participating museum near you!
About Museums for All
Through Museums for All, those receiving food assistance (SNAP benefits) can gain free or reduced admission to more than 300 museums throughout the United States simply by presenting their SNAP EBT (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Electronic Benefit Transfer) card. Find a participating museum near you or browse our full list of participating museums.
Museums for All is a national, branded access program that encourages individuals of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum habits. It is open to participation by any type of museum — including art, history, natural history/anthropology, and general museums, children’s museums, science centers, planetariums, nature centers, historic houses/sites, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and arboretums.
The cost of museum admission can be a barrier for many low-income families. Participating museums provide reduced admission, ranging from free to $3.00, to visitors presenting their EBT card. This reduced rate is available during all normal operating hours to up to four individuals per EBT card. With a year-round open door policy, Museums for All invites low-income visitors to feel welcome at cultural institutions.
Since the launch of the initiative in 2014/2015, Museums for All has served more than 1.5 million visitors nationwide at more than 300 museums of all varieties, representing 45+ states, districts, and territories. Museums for All is the only nationally coordinated financial accessibility program in the museum field, providing an easy-to-implement structure and the ability for participating museums to customize their implementation.
Museums for All is an initiative of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency based in Washington, DC. The initiative is administered by the Association of Children’s Museums through a cooperative agreement with IMLS.
Elizabeth Murray Sewell, (1890 – 1977), was the wife of the Flag House’s first curator Arthur Perry Sewell. Because Arthur had been blinded by a chemical attack during World War I, Elizabeth conducted all correspondence and Flag House operations alongside her husband and on his behalf. The couple resided in a third-floor apartment in the Flag House’s attic as late as 1940. Together Arthur and Elizabeth were responsible for the initial preservation of the Flag House, restoring it to its approximate 1813 appearance, and the expansion of the museum’s footprint to include the first museum and office building (1950). After Arthur’s sudden death in October of 1946, Elizabeth continued on as curator until April 1957. During her tenure as curator, Elizabeth secured the donations of significant artifacts, including many furnishings for the Flag House’s early period rooms and objects related to the life of Francis Scott Key. In September 1958, she donated bound copies of curator’s reports dating back to 1927 for the Flag House archive.
Mary-Paulding Martin was Flag House director for 15 years from 1965 until 1980. Born in Virginia on February 8, 1912, she was a 1933 graduate of Sweet Briar College and English teacher at both Garrison Forest School and Notre Dame Preparatory School. Among her many talents as a gardener and neighborhood activist, she was also an avid writer, researching and publishing several pamphlets on the history of the Flag House. It was her work and advocacy as director that gained the Flag House National Historic Landmark status on December 16, 1969. She was a 46-year resident of Bolton Hill and earned the nickname Mrs. Bolton Hill after being elected the first female president of the Mount Royal Improvement Association. In 1995, she published a book of poetry, Verses from My Marble Steps.
“I didn’t want to come here at all,” Mrs. Martin told The Sun in 1995. “But I fell in love with it, the buildings, the waterfront, the neighborhoods.”
Mary-Paulding Martin died in January 2007 at age 94.
Mrs. Ruthella Mory Bibbins (1865-1942), was a noted geologist and historian who wrote extensively on the history of Maryland and Baltimore. A native of Frederick County, she later lived in Baltimore City, graduating from Goucher College in 1897, then from Oxford a year later, receiving her Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago in 1900. In 1903, she married Dr. Arthur B. Bibbins, and together they devoted time to civic causes in Baltimore, including the founding of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House Association in 1927. Both Ruthella and Arthur Bibbins served as founding directors of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and purchased or secured the donation of many of the artifacts that remain in the Flag House’s possession today. The Flag House Association, founded by Ruthella and Arthur, gained non-profit status in 1931 and remains the steward organization that operates the museum and historic property for Baltimore City. #WomensHistoryMonth #WomenoftheFlagHouse
March 3, is #NationalAnthemDay. Although Francis Scott Key’s famous poem was popular in Baltimore almost immediately following the Battle of Baltimore in 1814, it wasn’t until 1931 that it was adopted as the national anthem of the United States. Read on for a brief history of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
On September 13, 1814, British ships anchored a mile from Fort McHenry in support of soldiers advancing toward Baltimore from North Point. The 25-hour bombardment was unsuccessful and on the dawn of September 14, Francis Scott Key who had remained in British custody after negotiating the release of prisoner of war was poised to witness the Star-Spangled Banner flag being hoisted over the fort. Key finished his poem in a hotel after sailing into Baltimore after the battle. The poem, first titled “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” and later “The Star-Spangled Banner” is printed as a broadside and in newspapers, gaining quick popularity.
Shortly after the battle in 1814, Thomas Carr, a Baltimore music publisher, prints the first sheet music of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and offers it for sale at his story on Baltimore Street. Following a play at the Holliday Street Theatre on October 19, 1814, the first public performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is made by an actor named Mr. Harding.
During the Civil War, 1861-1865, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is performed with greater frequency during the Civil War coinciding with increased civilian use of the national flag, whose stars symbolizing the states of the Union make a powerful allusion to the cause of reuniting the country.
In 1904, Italian composer Giacomo Puccini incorporates “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a musical theme in his opera Madam Butterfly to introduce the central character of U.S. naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton.
Eight years later in 1912, the first bill seeking to make “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem is submitted to Congress, but it dies in committee. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signs an executive order that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is to be played at official occasions.
It is not until 1931, that a bill making the Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem of the United States of America is adopted by both houses of Congress and is signed into law on March 3rd.
Edward Percy Moran (1862-1935), American By Dawn’s Early Light, 1912 Oil on canvas MU1995LOANBCL Star-Spangled Banner Flag House Baltimore City Life Museum Collection
On February 12, 1776, Mary Young, Polly as she would be known to family, was born to William and Rebecca Young in Philadelphia at a pivotal time for the family and nation. Two years later in 1778, the death of William would be the catalyst for what became a successful military supply and flag making business for Rebecca throughout the American Revolution. In 1805, Mary faced the same circumstance her mother did nearly three decades earlier when her husband, John Pickersgill dies suddenly while in London. After the loss of her husband Mary moves from Philadelphia to Baltimore to be closer to her siblings and to share the little house at the corner of Queen (now Pratt Street) and Albemarle Streets with Rebecca. Using Rebecca’s Philadelphia business as a model, the women saturate the Baltimore market with flag making advertisements, as many as ten over two months. Their skill and reputation for quality work resulted in the Mary receiving the commission for the 30’ x 42’ Star-Spangled Banner in 1813. The last known receipt for a flag made by Mary Pickersgill dates to 1815 and the flag making business seems to have been shuttered when Mary’s daughter Caroline Pickersgill marries iron merchant John Purdy in 1817.
Mary had experienced the hardship that the death of the male head of household could inflict upon a family, especially for the mother and wife of the late 18th century and early 19th century. Around 1818, she began to devote her time to supporting Baltimore’s widows and orphans through her involvement with the Impartial Female Humane Society and would dedicate the remainder of her life to the organization. Founded around 1801 and incorporated in 1811, the Society was established for the purpose of employing and providing relief to widows and educating orphans. In 1828, Mary is elected president of the Female Humane Society and organizes successful campaigns to raise the wages of Baltimore’s seamstresses and fund the construction of an aged women’s asylum opened on October 28, 1851. The Aged Women’s Home and later male facility stood at Lexington and Franklin Square in West Baltimore until the mid-20th century when the facilities relocated to Baltimore County. The Pickersgill Retirement Community still bears Mary’s name as a nod to her legacy of work benefitting Baltimore’s destitute widows and elderly women.
On October 4, 1857, Mary Young Pickersgill dies at age 81. A wake is held in the front parlor of the historic Flag House and she is later interred at Loudon Park Cemetery. The Annual Report of the Impartial Female Humane Society provides an unnamed obituary for one of its “oldest and most valuable managers,” likely Mary Pickersgill. The same indicates she was a founder of the Society, and that “by her wisdom and untiring zeal, sustained its nearly expiring efforts.”
The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House is partnering with Digital Maryland to digitize a large collection of family letters and household ledgers from the Pannell family of Baltimore and Harford County. The collection will be available for online viewing in late fall 2018.
Born in Baltimore on 21 May 1784, James Pannell was the first president of the Mutual Fire Insurance Company of Harford County where he settled with his wife Susannah around 1813. Pannell was well educated and traveled extensively as this letter, written during a trip throughout Virginia, confirms. He was a gentleman farmer and member of the Uniform Volunteers Company, Fifth Regiment, in the Maryland Militia (Baltimore Independent Blues) serving in Baltimore during the War of 1812. Click the photo to read a full transcription of this letter from James to his wife Susannah dated August 6, 1812.
This article appeared on the Houzz website on Sunday, July 1, 2018
The first-floor front room at the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, restored to its approximate 1813 appearance
When Mary Young Pickersgill was stitching together the yards of wool bunting that would become her young nation’s famous Star-Spangled Banner in 1813, the red, white and blue fabric took up nearly the entire first floor of her Baltimore home.
The flag is “only a few inches shorter than the actual length of the house itself, so there was no way they could lay it out flat and finish placing stars and things,” says Amanda Shores Davis, executive director of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and Museum. “About a half-block behind where the Flag House sits is a brewery plant, so they were able to lay the flag out on the malt house floor.”
Photo from the National Museum of American History
The completed 30-by-42-foot flag would later fly above nearby Fort McHenry and, during the War of 1812’s Battle of Baltimore, inspire Francis Scott Key in 1814 to write a poem about the “broad stripes and bright stars” he could see as a captive aboard a British ship. The poem would go on to become the U.S. national anthem. The flag remains one of the biggest visitor draws in the Smithsonian Institution’s Washington, D.C., collection.
Key’s name would be forever affixed to patriotic history. Pickersgill’s role in the story, however, never quite garnered the same level of national publicity.
At the Flag House, which still stands near downtown Baltimore, historians and staff have been celebrating Pickersgill’s civic achievements and home for nearly a century. And as the house marks its 225th year in 2018 with a major preservation project scheduled for the fall and ongoing programs recognizing business-and-community-minded women like Pickersgill, it still offers a window into the life of an unusual and underappreciated 19th-century figure.
One of only two known photos of Mary Young Pickersgill, circa 1850
Building a Business
Pickersgill was born, like the country itself, in Philadelphia in 1776. Her mother, Rebecca Young, ran a flag-making and military supply business throughout the Revolutionary War (contrary to popular belief, more famous flag seamstress Betsy Ross wasn’t the only woman sewing the Stars and Stripes during the conflict, Shores Davis says). Both widowed, Young and Pickersgill, along with Pickersgill’s daughter, Caroline, moved into the Federal-style brick house in Baltimore in 1807 and promptly set up a new flag-making shop.
Photo from the National Museum of American History
The women were entrepreneurial and got their name out in their new market, Shores Davis says. “[Mary’s] skill was certainly known in the city, so when George Armistead, the commander at Fort McHenry, wanted to order a large flag, he knows who to go to,” she says. “Large” is something of an understatement. Armistead is said to have specifically wanted a flag “so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance,” and Pickersgill delivered with the massive 30-by-42-foot garrison banner.
For that and a smaller flag designed to withstand inclement weather, Pickersgill was paid a then-hefty sum of $574.44, as is recorded on the receipt shown here. She worked on the commission over about six weeks with the help of then-13-year-old Caroline, teenage nieces Margaret and Eliza Young, and 13-year-old African-American indentured servant Grace Wisher.
Ahead of Her Time
Pickersgill’s contributions to 19th-century America didn’t stop with her famous flag. She was a passionate advocate for women and social justice, and later served as the president of the Impartial Female Humane Society. She fought for higher wages for seamstresses and established the first aged women’s home in Baltimore (which has changed locations but is still in operation today as the Pickersgill Retirement Community). By the 1820s, she had even purchased her own house, a rarity for an unmarried woman at the time.
“I like to think of her as probably a pretty tenacious person,” Shores Davis says.
Pickersgill lived in the house until her death at age 81 in 1857, and Caroline stayed there 10 more years. Built in 1793, the residence likely housed tenants before Young and the Pickersgills moved in, and it featured a first floor that was probably devoted to the women’s business and a second floor that served as living space.
Census records show that this bedroom was occasionally rented out to boarders.
Today, the interiors appear as they might have in 1813, trimmed in period-appropriate Prussian blue and decorated with Pickersgill’s possessions, such as the teacup shown here, and Young’s desk.
A ceramic basket that belonged to Mary Young Pickersgill
“[The house] tells us so much about the ways in which the family lived and what it possibly could have been like for [Mary],” Shores Davis says. When Pickersgill was faced with the death of her husband, she didn’t remarry as might have been expected of her at the time, Shores Davis notes. Instead Pickersgill focused on her work and providing for her family.
“She kind of took it upon herself to be the head of household and start this successful business,” Shores Davis says. “So, you can kind of see that success through some of the objects that we display in the home. And just seeing the handsomeness of the house itself is so moving and tells us a lot about her ability to take care of a household.”
The Flag House in 1914
A House Full of History
For a time after the Pickersgills lived in the house, it was a storefront post office and a general store. Businesses there were bilingual, as the house sat right across the street from where Little Italy began. It may have been a children’s home at one point.
But the place’s connection to the famous flag was always known. “In a lot of the historic photos of the house, even before it was a museum, there was a flag flying out front,” Shores Davis says. The city purchased the house in 1927 to turn it into a museum, and preservation work started on it almost immediately.
First-floor walls that had been removed over the years were replaced, along with mantels and fireplace surrounds for the original fireplaces that had been uncovered after years of being sealed over. Larger-scale restorations throughout the 1950s stabilized the first floor with steel beams, repaired the plaster and replaced rotted wood.
In the 1990s, archaeological work at the site uncovered more than 15,000 artifacts, including everything from modern pieces of chewing gum to historic candy dishes and earthenware bowls. Today the original house sits next to the original 1950s museum building, which has been converted into an education center, and the 2003 Hofmeister Museum Building, which features exhibition space, an orientation theater and the two-story Great Flag Window to give visitors an idea of just how massive Pickersgill’s Star-Spangled Banner really was.
Cmdr. Armistead’s family kept the Fort McHenry flag for decades, for many years in a canvas bag in a safe deposit vault to prevent deterioration. It was given to the Smithsonian in 1912 with a wish that it always be on public display.
Photo from the National Museum of American History
Teams of conservators and other specialists have put years of work and millions of dollars into its preservation, and visitors can still see it under glass in a carefully climate- and lighting-controlled case at the institution’s National Museum of American History.
A Living Legacy
This fall, the Flag House will undergo its largest preservation project since the mid-2000s. Brickwork and fences will be restored, Shores Davis says, and period replica shutters will be preserved or replaced. Work is set to be completed by the end of the year.
In the meantime, the Flag House’s programming continues to honor the property’s history and Pickersgill’s spirit. The museum granted its first Mary Pickersgill Award for Women’s Leadership in Business in 2012, and the annual prize has already recognized Baltimore women business leaders such as Johns Hopkins Hospital’s first female president, Dr. Redonda Miller, and Carla Hayden, the first African-American and first woman Librarian of Congress, among others.
“People that hear [Mary’s] story will be able to relate it in some way to their own story in business or life. Mary is the pinnacle of grit and determination. She accomplished so much in a time when it was uncommon for women to be in business,” says Nicole Sherry, head groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles and the 2016 Mary Pickersgill Award recipient. “It means a lot to me. I work in sports, a male-dominated field. If I can change the mindset of any person I encounter about women working in predominately male fields, then I truly am carrying on her legacy.”
For Flag Day in June, the museum hosted a naturalization ceremony for 28 new American citizens from 18 countries. Shores Davis says that out of everything the house museum does, introducing school-age kids, who make up almost 60 percent of the site’s more than 11,000 annual visitors, to the house and Pickersgill’s story is one of the most rewarding experiences for her and her team.
“[The museum] shows students how people needed to be resourceful. There are things that we think of as antiquated now, but everyone had a job and everyone had something to do. One of our taglines is that normal people make history,” Shores Davis says. “You’re making history right now by the things you’re doing and learning and participating in. Mary often doesn’t get recognized for her contribution of making the flag, so I think that the house combined with the tour and the objects build a picture of [her]. We don’t know much about her personality, but I think it’s something you can glean when you’re in the home.”
Tell us: Have you visited Mary Young Pickersgill’s Baltimore home or the Smithsonian’s Star-Spangled Banner she made? Tell us about your experience in the Comments.