American Symbols: Do you have the Star-Spangled Banner’s missing star?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series American Symbols
A piece cut from the Star Spangled Banner now back at the Smithsonian

This is one of the pieces cut from the famous flag that now is back in the Smithsonian collection. CLICK this photo to read the Smithsonian story about the restoration effort.

“Do you have the 15th star?”

That’s the question curators at the Smithsonian Institution will ask a visitor who is a descendent from the War of 1812, especially if the visitor is related to the family that owned the flag. It seems that someone cut out the 15th star as a souvenir. Its whereabouts are unknown.

It would be sacrilegious today to cut a piece of an historic flag, but that was a regular and accepted practice in the 1800s. As a result, the original Star-Spangled Banner—yes, the one that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key—is about 20% smaller than it should be, according to an article this month in the Smithsonian Magazine.

The flag was owned by descendents of Lt. Col. George Armistead, the commander at Fort McHenry. They often received—and granted—requests for a piece of Old Glory. Wealthy people and dignitaries got some, as did historical groups, family friends, and household staff, according to the article.

Some swatches will never be recovered, such as the piece buried with a veteran of the battle or the one at the Francis Scott Key Monument (Golden Gate Park, CA). Every now and then, a piece will show up at auction or discovered in a dusty old attic. In its restoration effort, the Smithsonian has even had to place secret bids in auctions, according to the article.

The missing 15th star was “cut out for some official person,” according to Georgiana Armistead Appleton, daughter of the commander of Fort McHenry. But she never said who got it. Its location is a mystery to this day.

Do you have the 15th star from Old Glory?

What do you think of the practice of taking souvenirs?

Is it OK to own a piece of the Berlin Wall? Or, the World Trade Center?

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  1. goose says

    As someone that subscribes to the practice “Take only photographs and leave only footprints,” I do not like the practice of taking souvenirs, especially when the souvenir is a physical piece of something that may be very valuable. I don’t mean valuable in the financial sense, since a piece of the Berlin Wall may not be worth much (at least as far as the sum of its parts), but the feelings and memories associated with it mean a great deal to many people.

    One person taking a souvenir is not harmful, but when many people do it, entire artifacts, relics and landmarks can be destroyed.

    Still, I can understand the desire to have a piece of old glory in the 1800s. Photographs were not so easy to come by back then.