Mary Young Pickersgill is best known as the seamstress of the Star-Spangled Banner flag, which flew high above Fort McHenry during the British bombardment of Baltimore on September 13-14, 1814. Major George Armistead had commissioned the flag a year earlier, as the British were menacing Chesapeake Bay towns and Baltimore began preparing for its defense. Armistead, commander of the Maryland militia unit stationed at the Fort, wanted a flag “so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” Pickersgill was given only six to eight weeks to complete it, a tall order even for a highly talented seamstress. However, Mary Pickersgill was more than just a seamstress, she was also a single mother and successful businesswoman who was able to draw upon the labor of others to fulfill the biggest commission of her career.
Born in 1776 in Philadelphia, Mary Pickersgill seemed destined to become a flag maker. Her mother, Rebecca Flowers Young, had sewn flags during the Revolutionary War, and after being widowed in 1778, turned to her brother for help. Colonel Benjamin Flowers was a Revolutionary War hero now in charge of military supply stores, and so Rebecca began making military supplies, including flags. Sewing continental standards and garrison flags, Rebecca started the focus on flag-making which eventually became a family business.
Mary married Philadelphia merchant John Pickersgill at age 19, and was widowed ten years later, leaving her with a young child to support. In 1806, she moved with her mother Rebecca, and daughter Caroline to Baltimore to be closer to their extended family. As a port city, Baltimore proved to be an excellent choice to establish a new flag-making business, and Rebecca began advertising their services in making military colors, signal flags, and merchant flags. In 1807, the small family moved to a larger house in the “Old Town” neighborhood near Fell’s Point and the harbor, settling into a working-class neighborhood populated with ship’s captains, merchants, and a large free African American population.
An Entrepreneur in Baltimore
The Pickersgill house was perfectly situated for a flag making business, with its visible corner location and numerous windows that let light in everywhere, an important consideration for sewing work. Customers could view flag samples in the house’s front parlor, and then negotiate an order over tea in the dining room. The house was large enough to take in a boarder to help offset the rent, and it also had room for the three nieces who eventually came to live with Mary.
Although the number of female heads of household living in Mary’s neighborhood at that time approached 17 percent, Mary and Rebecca were unusual in that they managed to start and run a successful business as women on their own. However, their ability to achieve that goal depended on the labor of other people. Someone had to keep the house running smoothly by taking care of all the cooking, cleaning, washing, and hauling of water from the neighborhood spring. This work was probably done by the enslaved person listed in the 1810 Census as living in the house, along with the two indentured servants Mary acquired, in 1809 and 1814.
Slave ownership among families of modest means was not uncommon in Baltimore, with most owning a single enslaved person, usually a female between the ages of 10 and 35. Slave ownership was also common among Baltimore’s crafts workers in the early part of the 19th century. Some of these enslaved workers were “term slaves,” who were granted freedom after a certain number of years. Term slaves could be purchased for half the price of a “life slave,” and so represented less of a risk for lower income families and small business owners, who might not have the means to support them during an economic downturn. For women in particular, slave ownership represented a possible means to economic freedom, at a time when women had few other legal rights. By using someone else’s labor to maintain their household, Mary Pickersgill and Rebecca Young were able to focus on growing their flag making business.
Assisting the enslaved person with household work would have been the indentured servants Mary contracted for, one of whom was a free African American girl named Grace Wisher. In addition to food and shelter, Grace’s contract specified that she would receive instruction in housework and the art of sewing. Most likely Grace slept in the kitchen at the rear of the house, along with the enslaved woman, a reminder of her place in an otherwise all-white household. However, Grace’s position as an apprentice meant that she would have worked alongside Caroline and Mary’s nieces, assisting with sewing work, including the biggest flag order Mary would receive in her life – that of the Star Spangled-Banner flag.
A Tall Order
Through family connections and her reputation as a flag maker, Mary Pickersgill landed the contract to make a 30 x42 foot garrison flag for Fort McHenry, along with a smaller storm flag for inclement weather, to be delivered within six to eight weeks. Using over 400 yards of fabric, including cotton and dyed English wool bunting, Mary and her team of seamstresses created 15 stars and 15 stripes on a blue background, with each stripe measuring two feet wide, and each star two feet across. The flag was so large that it had to be assembled in the larger space of a local brewery, with the seamstresses working late into the night to meet their deadline. Mary delivered the flags to Armisted on August 19, 1813, over a year before the bombardment at Fort McHenry. When the flag was later memorialized in Francis Scott Key’s poem, Mary Pickersgill took her place in history as well.
Philanthropist and Slave Owner
However, there was more to Mary Pickersgill’s life than just flag making. By 1820, she had done well enough economically to purchase the large house on Albemarle Street, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1828, she was elected President of the Impartial Female Humane Society, a benevolent organization that aimed to assist struggling seamstresses, just as she had once been. Under Mary’s long term of leadership, the Society also began construction of a home for elderly women, which was completed in 1851. Mary Pickersgill died in 1857, leaving the Albemarle Street house and
Impartial Female Humane Society Home, as well as four enslaved workers, another indication of her financial success, to her daughter Caroline.
The retirement home still exists today, and the Star-Spangled Banner is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Both legacies are a testament to the resourcefulness and determination of a widowed woman in the early 19th century, who, with the help of others, built a successful business based on her talent and connections.