Flags and beer: A Baltimore tradition

The kindness of a Baltimore brewer plays a small part in the story of America’s national anthem

Written by Rob Kasper for The Baltimore Sun

During the Fourth of July weekend in Baltimore, there will be plenty of flags flying and beers sipped. This connection between the American flag and Baltimore beer goes back almost 200 years and played a small but interesting role in history.

During the War of 1812, seamstress Mary Pickersgill was hard at work on the large American flag that would eventually fly over Fort McHenry and inspire Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would become The Star Spangled Banner. In the summer of 1814, Washington had just been burned, and the British were turning their attention to Baltimore, then the third largest port in America and home to privateers, a nemesis of the British Navy.

The story goes that Colonel George Armistead, who was preparing the defense of the fort, felt that the only thing still needed was “a flag so large that the British should have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” Mrs. Pickersgill got the job because she was an accomplished seamstress, having learned the flag making trade in Philadelphia from her mother, Rebecca Young. She also had family connections. She was related by marriage to Commodore Joshua Barney and General John Stricker, two of the men in charge of the defense of Baltimore.

She fashioned two flags, a massive 30 foot by 42 foot flag with stars that measured two feet point to point, and a smaller 17 foot by 25 foot flag called a storm flag. In bad weather the larger flag, soaked with moisture, could be too difficult to hoist, so the smaller storm flag could be substituted.

Assembling these large flags required a lot of room, which Pickersgill’s house on Queen Street, now called Pratt Street, did not have. She, however, was on good terms with a neighbor, George I. Brown, who has just bought a brewery at Lombard Street and the Jones Falls.

Brown had purchased the brewery from the mayor of Baltimore, Dr. Edward Johnson. The mayor, in partnership with his son in law, Thomas Peters, had brewed an ale that pleased the populace. But eventually the mayor found the demands of simultaneously brewing and governing too heavy a load and eventually sold the brew house at auction in 1813.

Brown owned the brewery for only five years, selling it in 1818 to Eli Claggett. But in that short span he earned a small place in American history by allowing Pickersgill to stretch her material on the floor of the brewery’s malt house and sew the pieces into the flag that gave us our national anthem.

Pickersgill’s massive flag now hangs at the Smithsonian American History Museum in Washington. The East Baltimore corner that once housed Brown’s brewery, and for a time was known as Brewer’s Park, is now a Marriott hotel. A painting by R. McGill Mackall hangs in Baltimore’s Flag House and Star Spangled Banner Museum at the corner of East Pratt and Albemarle streets showing the seamstress working on the flag in the brewery’s malt house.

While the Fourth of July in a national holiday, Baltimore has some distinctive ways to acknowledge its link to American history. Fort McHenry has recently opened a new $15 million visitors center where the stories the defense of the fort and Key’s inspirational poem are dramatically told. Recordings play many different renditions of the national anthem including “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the drinking song that provided the melody for Key’s lyrics. Monday afternoon in the Inner Harbor, staff members of the Flag House, following the tradition of Pickersgill, will help the public assemble a flag. And in backyards around the city, adult citizens can open a cold one and toast our forbearers, brewers and patriots both.

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