'Family of Flagmakers' exhibit explores the lives of the women who made the Star-Spangled Banner

There are two ghosts in "Family of Flagmakers," an exhibit at the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House about the lives of the women who made the flag immortalized in verse by Francis Scott Key.

"Family of Flagmakers" is described as the first exhibit ever to focus on the life of Mary Pickersgill, the woman who made the 30-by-42-inch flag that flew over Fort McHenry after the British bombardment during the War of 1812.

Occupying a place of pride in the exhibit is a cardboard mock-up of the house at 844 E. Pratt St. where Pickersgill and her household lived.

There are photographs and paintings of Pickersgill at different ages. There are documents about her mother, daughter and three nieces.

But the two other women living in Pickersgill's home are given short shrift by the official record.

The first ghost is that of an African-American indentured servant named Grace Wisher. She entered the household in 1809 when she was 9 years old to learn to "learn the art and mystery of housework and plain sewing," according to the letter spelling out the agreement. ("Plain sewing" was a term that referred to clothes mending, in contrast to the "fancy work" of designing and fitting garments.)

No photographs of Grace exist. Instead, she's depicted in the cardboard mock-up as a broken-dot outline. Though undeniably present, she lingers unseen on the periphery.

The traces of the second ghost — an African-American slave — are even fainter. The only vestiges of the mystery person's existence are census records.

"We know there was a slave living in the house," says Amanda Shores Davis, the museum's executive director. "She was most likely female, and she was probably the cook."

It's not known whether Grace had a hand in sewing the famous flag. But Davis said the flag project was so big and involved, and the turnaround time was so short, that it's likely that anyone in the house who could hold a needle played a part in the flag's creation.

"It's assumed that all the women in the household had a role in making the Star-Spangled Banner," Davis says. "And that includes Grace."

As the exhibit makes clear, Pickersgill is a curious mix of contrasts.

"As progressive as she was," Davis says, "she was still a slaveholder."

A widow, Pickersgill ran her own business, earning enough money to buy the house in which her large family was living. Female landowners were rare in the early 19th century.

After Pickersgill retired from flag-making, she embarked upon a second career as a philanthropist. She raised money to help poor women find jobs and to send disadvantaged children to school. The organization she headed built Baltimore's first home for elderly women, which lives on to this day as the Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson.

"I wish more people knew about her," Davis says.

"When we remember the War of 1812 at all, what we think about is the 'Star-Spangled Banner' and the defense of Fort McHenry and the bombs bursting in air. We forget about the women living in the little house on Albemarle and Pratt streets who made a flag."


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