On 200th anniversary of U.S. flag, "banner" still waves

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On Sunday, this country celebrates a special birthday, the 200th anniversary of the writing of our National Anthem. You can still see the actual Star-Spangled Banner. It's on display at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. Well, most of it anyway.

Francis Scott Key wasn't making it up. 200 years later, the flag that withstood the British bombardment at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 still packs them in at the Smithsonian says curator Jennifer Jones.

"This is the rocket with the red glare and the bombs that were bursting in air," said Jones. "We have really looked at it as an iconic object of America."

But pieces of the Star-Spangled Banner are missing, including one of its stars. They were cut away, souvenirs turned into heirlooms. The Smithsonian wants those fragments back, but good luck with that. Some are as small as a thumbnail and could be in anyone's attic.

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Rather than being seen as a desecration, cutting up the flag into mementos were seen as sort of a cherished possession.

"People in the 19th century were very honored and very interested in holding that piece of history," Jones said. "Having that piece of history in their hands and passing that from generation to generation was an important aspect of souveniring."

While the flag may be showing its age, the song it inspired has never been in better shape. Brian McKnight performed it at last year's NFL Pro Bowl.

"You listen to the lyrics Francis Scott Key wrote, you are taken back to that night when those rockets were red glaring and bombs bursting in air," said McKnight. "If you can't feel that enough to sing it then you shouldn't be singing that song."

Johns Phillip Sousa made it a standard. Jimi Hendrix turned it on its head. And Whitney Houston made spirits soar.

"People know this anthem because they sing it at baseball games and all kinds of celebrations," said Jones. "What we want them to walk away with is an understanding that this flag and these words go together.

"And so those words and the question, is it still there? They answer is, it's still here 200 years later."

Visitors to the Smithsonian can see the original lyrics penned by Francis Scott Key in the same space as the Star-Spangled Banner. It's the first time the two have been brought together in modern history.

  • Jim Axelrod
    Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the chief investigative correspondent and senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.