Francis Scott Key's Star-Spangled Banner Manuscript to Temporarily Leave Maryland Historical Society

BALTIMORE, May 21, 2014 -- In early June, the original handwritten manuscript of the "Star-Spangled Banner" lyrics, written by Francis Scott Key, will temporarily leave the Maryland Historical Society to visit sites in the Mid-Atlantic commemorating the War of 1812. Visitors are encouraged to see the manuscript at the Maryland Historical Society (105 W. Monument Street, Baltimore, MD 21201) before it begins its summertime journey. 


The Maryland Historical Society is loaning the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History the Francis Scott Key manuscript for a short-term display from Flag Day, June 14, through July 6, 2014. The manuscript will be displayed in the same environmentally controlled chamber as the Star-Spangled Banner flag. The manuscript depicts the flag as Key saw it, at "Dawn's Early Light," on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814.


A 'Humble Document'


Francis Scott Key
"Francis Scott Key," Dewitt Clinton Peters, 1902, MdHS, 1952.15.10

"The Star-Spangled Banner manuscript is a humble document," says Education Director Kristin Schenning, "Francis Scott Key was a regular guy. He was a lawyer--a very good lawyer--but he was doing his job and found himself the right place at the right time."


In September of 1814, the United States was at a point in the War of 1812 when it desperately needed a victory. When the British withdrew after their temporary occupation of Washington, D.C., they took an American physician, Dr. William Beanes, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland with them. Key was asked to obtain the release of Dr. Beanes and traveled with a U.S. agent for prisoners to the British fleet in Chesapeake Bay to arrange for Beanes' freedom.



On September 13 & 14, 1814, British bomb vessels fired more than a thousand rockets and exploding cannonballs called "bombs" on Fort McHenry in their attempt to invade Baltimore.


Key witnessed the Battle of Baltimore from a truce ship in the Chesapeake Bay. It was a long, rainy night--a 25-hour bombardment. All of Baltimore was shrouded in darkness, with the only light coming from the exploding bombs and rockets overhead. Their deadly blasts illuminated the American flag that was still flying over Fort McHenry the next morning, September 14.


The enormous, 30'x42' foot flag was still there.


It was on that fateful morning that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write his heartfelt words. Just like Key, the other 50,000 people living in Baltimore at the time knew, that if they too looked out their windows and saw the flag still waving, they were still free. The lyrics would become known as "The Star-Spangled Banner."


When he was released from the British fleet, Key gave the handwritten manuscript to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson, who insisted it be published. Within a week, the lyrics was printed in the form of a handbill entitled "Defense of Fort M'Henry" and distributed to the Defenders of Baltimore.


The lyrics quickly became popular and was set to the music of the British drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." (Contained in the Maryland Historical Society's collection are original broadsides of the song.)


Within weeks, Key's song spread throughout the nation. It was later adopted by Congress as the official U.S. national anthem in 1931.


"The manuscript is about the Battle of Baltimore, but it's more than that. It's about the flag, the pride of county we feel. The way we think about the flag today directly goes back to that song," Schenning says.


The Timeworn Nature of the Manuscript


"The Star-Spangled Banner," Francis Scott Key, 1814, MdHS, 54315

All four stanzas of the Star-Spangled Banner appear on Key's manuscript. "You can see that Key has taken notes," Schenning continues, "On the manuscript a few words are crossed out. The script is fancy, but it gets cramped towards the bottom of the page -- almost as though he is excited and is running out of space, but he wants to fit everything on one sheet."


Historians believe that Key wrote the lyrics at the Indian Queen Tavern in downtown Baltimore, where it was believed he stayed. After he wrote the manuscript, he folded it, as if to put it in his pocket. To this day, the page remains creased.


"The manuscript is as iconic to our nation as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights - yet it is a very accessible document," Schenning continues. "People can relate to Francis Scott Key. He was not one of our Founding Fathers. He is the essence of what it is like to be an American -- anyone can contribute a huge amount."


Preserving the Manuscript


Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson's son, James Macon Nicholson, inherited the manuscript in 1817. In 1875, it was passed on to his daughter, Rebecca Lloyd Shippen. The manuscript stayed in the Nicholson family until Henry Walters bought it in 1907. The Walters Art Gallery bought it from his estate in 1934; exhibited until 1947, loaned it to the "Freedom Train" traveling exhibit and then for an extended stay at the National Archives in 1949. Mrs. Thomas Courtney Jenkins purchased the manuscript for the Maryland Historical Society in 1953.


In 1998, First Lady Hilary Clinton embarked on a "Savings America's Treasures" campaign and gave the Maryland Historical Society a grant to conserve the manuscript.


In 2002, a conservator from the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) appraised and tested the manuscript for fading and wear and found it in good condition. Based on its condition, minimal conservation was needed. The manuscript was stabilized (encapsulated mat) in a custom-made container designed specifically for the permanent exhibit case. The oxygen was removed from the container and replaced with Argon, an inert gas that inhibits oxidation.


The manuscript resides at the Maryland Historical Society in a custom-built case. Every hour, a mechanical device reveals the manuscript for a few minutes, for total of 15 minutes of light per day.


Other Travel Dates


The manuscript will return to its permanent home at the Maryland Historical Society on July 7, 2014 and will be away again on loan from September 6, 2014 through September 14, 2014 at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine for the Star-Spangled Spectacular celebrations.


O Say Can You See! Star-Spangled Spectacular is a free festival that celebrates the 200th anniversary of our national anthem. Tall ships, Navy gray hulls and the Blue Angels will come to Baltimore's famed Inner Harbor to celebrate The Star-Spangled Banner. Landside festivals include living history demonstrations, a family fun-zone, live musical performances, and Chesapeake food and beverage. Events crescendo on September 13 with a star-studded patriotic concert and extraordinary fireworks display over Fort McHenry and the Baltimore harbor. For more information, please visit


Negotiations are underway to take the manuscript to George Washington's Mount Vernon in October.


For a complete list of events at the Maryland Historical Society, visit 


About The Maryland Historical Society


Founded in 1844, The Maryland Historical Society Museum and Library occupies an entire city block in the Mount Vernon district of Baltimore. The society's mission is to "collect, preserve, and interpret the objects and materials that reflect Maryland's diverse cultural heritage." The Society is home to the original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner and publishes a quarterly titled "Maryland Historical Magazine." Visit


For more details, contact Marketing Director Laura Rodini at or by phone: 410-685-3750 ext. 322.