Top of page

Printing “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Share this post:

The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Ray White.

“The dawn’s early light” on September 14, 2014, marked the 200th anniversary of the day that Francis Scott Key saw that “the star-spangled banner” was still waving “o’er” Fort McHenry.  The story of that morning has been told many times in this anniversary year.

During the closing days of the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer from Georgetown, D.C., watched the British bombardment of Fort McHenry from a ship anchored not far south of Baltimore Harbor.  Only three weeks earlier had the British burned Washington, and now they approached Baltimore with the largest flotilla of warships that the Chesapeake Bay had ever seen; the prospects for the American side looked bleak.

Thus, when morning came and Key saw that “our flag was still there,” it was with a great sense of patriotic pride and, undoubtedly, some measure of relief and, probably, amazement as well, that he penned his now-immortal lines, composed to fit the tune “Anacreon in Heaven.”  At some point on September 14 Key wrote out the initial version of his words and once back in Baltimore (probably on the night of September 15) he finished its four verses.

broadsideShortly thereafter, perhaps on September 17, the words were published for the first time, in the form of a modest broadside printed in a run said to number 1,000 copies at the office of the Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser.  The newspaper had ceased production during the attack on Baltimore, but Samuel Sands, then an apprentice printer at the American, set the text in type.  The broadside bears Key’s original title, “Defence of Fort M’Henry [sic].”  Only two  copies are known to survive–one held by the Library of Congress and another at the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

The tune, “Anacreon in Heaven,” by John Stafford Smith, was already well known in the United States, and Key’s words sung to the tune gained popularity almost immediately.  The words were reprinted in newspapers in Baltimore on September 20 and 21.  By September 27 the words had traveled some forty miles to the southwest, appearing in the Washington newspaper National Intelligencer.   Within several weeks, probably by October 19, the words and music were joined together in print for the first time, in a sheet music edition printed in Baltimore by Thomas Carr, at the behest of Key himself.  It is generally believed that Carr was responsible for retitling thesong “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


First edition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (Baltimore :Printed and sold at Carr's music store, 36 Baltimore Street, 1814)
First edition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Baltimore: Printed and sold at Carr’s music store, 36 Baltimore Street, 1814)

The popularity of the song continued to grow, and numerous subsequent editions of the sheet music soon appeared.  The rich holdings of the Music Division of the Library of Congress document not only much of the song’s publication history but, indeed, the history of sheet music publishing in the United States over the next half-century.  As was typical for the period, most of the editions appearing during the song’s first two decades have only one or two pages of music, without a title page or imprint date.  Thus, it is not possible to state precisely the publication order of some of the editions.  We can say that from 1814 until 1843, some fifteen editions are known to have appeared, printed in the eastern publishing centers of Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.



Earliest sheet music depicting the bombardment (Baltimore: T. Carr, 1821).
Earliest sheet music depicting the bombardment (Baltimore: T. Carr, 1821).

Original publisher Thomas Carr issued his so-called new edition in 1821, the first one to depict the bombardment of Fort McHenry.  Note, however, that the dates of the bombardment are given incorrectly as Sept. 12 and 13.  And Key’s name is incorrect as well–B. Key.

By 1864, the fiftieth anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at least sixty-nine editions of the sheet music were issued, most of them still coming from the eastern cities, but several from farther inland including Cincinnati, St. Louis, and New Orleans.  The first London imprint of “The Star-Spangled Banner” appeared in 1853.

In 1931, president Herbert Hoover signed the law that designated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States.  It is almost universally familiar.  But after observing the anniversary of its composition, let us recall Francis Scott Key’s second verse: ” ‘Tis the star-spangled banner; O, long may it wave!”

Comments (2)

  1. Thanks!

  2. I have an at least 139 year old page of music, no lyrics, entitled The Star-Spangled Banner, Favorite American Air, which is number 43 on page 38 in Bertini’s Instruction Book for the Pianoforte, Rudiments of Music, and it is all contained in a hand-stitched folder with a girl’s name and the date 1881 penned on the front. I bought this item at an antique store in Phoenix, Arizona in 2016. I have done extensive research on the girl who presumably made the folder and have traced its journey from Cornwall, England 1881 to the store in which I found it. I thought I would try to get the folder and it’s contents to the girl’s descendants. Because of its age, though,I am writing here to see if there is any historical significance to the single sheet of music described above since I have been unable to find any reference to another. It’s in pretty good shape, the whole thing is, but without proper preservation I don’t know how long it will last.

    Thank you,
    Barbara Carlson
    Phoenix, Arizona

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *