Ripping Apart the Star-Spangled Banner
The most treasured possession of the Smithsonian Museum is the Star-Spangled Banner, one of the very first American flags to be manufactured during the Revolutionary War. Back then, the flag was made with 15 stars, but count 'em up, and you'll only spot 14:
Did they cut it out with a weed eater?
What happened there? Was it flying over some desperately defended American fort when a British cannonball pierced its noble hide ... yet still it waved on in defiance? It's a scene that would bring a single majestic tear to a bald eagle's eye. But it's not reality. The real story is this: All those missing pieces were cut off with scissors and given away as stocking stuffers.
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"Oh look, a tiny, centuries-old scrap of fabric. Um ... thanks, Santa."
After it flew proudly over Baltimore during the final battle of the war, Lt. Col. George Armistead took the impressively huge 30-foot-by-42-foot flag home as a keepsake, while Francis Scott Key wrote the shiny new nation's anthem in its honor. When Armistead died, he passed it on to his wife, and when she died in 1861, it passed again to their daughter, Georgiana Armistead, who thought it was so lovely, she couldn't bear to keep it all to herself.
Georgiana began to shop the banner around to museums that wanted to borrow it, but it wasn't enough for people to just see it on display -- they wanted to own a piece of history, too. And so, bombarded with requests for fragments of the flag, Georgiana began snipping pieces off of it and handing them out to whomever she deemed worthy. It was considered a great honor, usually bestowed on worthy folks like war heroes and famed politicians -- but she was still tearing off pieces of the Star-Spangled Banner like they were tabs at the bottom of a "Free Guitar Lessons" flier.
Except that people actually had an interest in the flag.