The pale-blue silk flag belonging to Gen. George Washington typically spends its days behind a frame and covered by a white blanket, tucked into a drawer in the bowels of the Museum of the American Revolution.
The drawer is accessible inside its temperature- and light-controlled room only through a set of key-card-secured doors. Curators wear blue surgical gloves when handling the 13-star flag, carefully protecting the general’s headquarters standard from the sun’s damaging rays.
“All light is energy,” said R. Scott Stephenson, chief of the museum’s collections. “And because it’s causing a movement, all light, ultimately, is damaging. So we’re doing everything we can to make it live for another 240-some years.”
But on Wednesday afternoon, curators pulled the 1777 standard from the archives to be displayed as part of a special Revolutionary War exhibit to last from Thursday, Flag Day, until Sunday.
The tiny historic flag was last displayed in the 1990s, so this marks the first time the museum, which opened last year, will show the flag, whose simple design was the inspiration for the institution’s logo. The faded banner features 13 white, six-pointed stars.
These days, the standard is too fragile to fly.
“Silk is a very light material,” Stephenson said. “Even a little bit of a breeze would catch it.”
The flag was once a vibrant patriotic blue, but exposure to light and other elements have shown its age. Its weathered texture is reminiscent of blue-raspberry cotton candy.
According to descendants of the founding father’s family, the flag was passed down by Washington’s sisters. Betty Washington Lewis, whose sons served under Washington during the war, called the flag the Headquarters Standard.
Stephenson said it was most likely used to mark the commander’s presence in camp or flown in front of his marquee tent, which is on exhibit in the museum. It could also have been carried by a mounted escort, which explains its portable size, two feet by two feet.
Around 1909, the flag returned to the public eye. Descendants of Lewis eventually donated the relic to the Valley Forge Historical Society, which handed it over to the museum. Until Father’s Day, the fragile flag can be seen in the first-floor Patriots Gallery of the museum at 101 S. Third St. in Old City.