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Every year, more than a quarter of a million people pay five bucks per head to enter the Betsy Ross House on Arch Street in Old City. They’re lining up to see what’s purported to be the former home of the woman who sewed the nation’s first American flag.
But you know what they say about things that sound too good to be true, right?
Look, it’s unclear whether Betsy even lived in that home, and nobody can prove that she had anything to do with the first flag. When President Woodrow Wilson was asked about the story on Flag Day in 1916, he responded: “Would that it were true.”
Betsy Ross (whose 263rd birthday is today) was a Revolutionary War patriot — she lost two husbands during the conflict and honestly, was the equivalent of a total badass in her day. So Billy Penn is here to help you celebrate her birthday — and to review what parts of her story are legend, theory and cold, hard facts.
Are you tryna tell me everything I learned in second grade is a lie?
Here’s the thing: There’s really no way to know if it was the truth. Legend has it that George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross came to Betsy’s upholstery shop unannounced while they were representing the Continental Congress in 1776 and asked for her help in creating the first flag. According to the 2010 book Betsy Ross and the Making of America, the story goes that she had the idea of going with five-point stars, created a “specimen” and then went to work on creating more flags.
But the story’s been taken with a grain of salt. Even employees at the Betsy Ross House tell viewers to decide for themselves whether it’s the truth or a well-loved fiction. There’s no proof: No letters to contemporaries, no period engravings, nothing in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Zip. (There was a war going on, remember?)
Well, then where did this idea come from?
It came from carefully told family tales, and probably started with Betsy Ross herself — who apparently started telling family members the story in the 1820s. Decades after her death, her grandsons William and George Canby lead the charge of her descendants to sign affidavits securing their grandmother’s place in the history of the American Revolution. It was the Canbys who submitted the story to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The U.S. Centennial in 1876 was around the same time, so the legend took root rather quickly.
According to Maria Miller, author of the 2010 Betsy Ross book, no historical record other than that of her family confirms the story of the meeting between Betsy and the three founding fathers. Making things more murky: When records of the War Department were destroyed in a fire in 1800, many pages of records of Philadelphia’s Revolution were never to be seen again.
How come everyone knows this lady’s name though?
She sort of became the 19th century’s version of Taylor Swift; her actual level of importance varies depending on who you talk to about it. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she was made into dolls and her face was placed on everything from sewing machines to plates to cigars.
Do we know anything about the first flag?
Yes! It might’ve been designed by some dude from Jersey. According to Ed Crews, a Richmond-based writer and historian, credit for the first design of the flag may go to Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey rep to the Continental Congress who liked to spend his free time designing seals and symbols. There are actual documents to show that he worked on the first official United States flag, including a series of letters he wrote to the government asking to be paid for his contributions. Officials refused to pay him, but acknowledged that he worked on the flag.
HOLD UP. I thought Betsy Ross made some dough off this?
So she made a pretty penny for at least designing a flag for the government. That much we know. According to historical archives, there’s a receipt dated May 29, 1777 “to Elizabeth Ross, for 14 pounds, 12 shillings and 2 pence for making ships colours.” (That amounts to about $2,000 today.) And that payment would have come just about a month before Congress passed a resolution declaring, “that the flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the Union be 13 stars white in a field of blue representing a new constellation.” The long and short of it: We know Betsy got paid to make A flag, we just don’t know if it was THE flag.
Cool. So we have no idea who actually made the flag.
That pretty much hits the nail on the head.
TELL ME she actually lived in Philly.
We are, for the most part, sure she actually lived in Philly. Whether or not she lived in the Betsy Ross House/ Museum on Arch Street is up for debate. She certainly lived around the general area: Betsy and her first husband were married in Gloucester, N.J., she owned a business on Chestnut Street, she lived in Abington on a farm for a period of time when she was older, and for her last three years, she lived in a home on Cherry Street with one of her daughters.
As far as the house on Arch Street in between Second and Third — one of the most visited tourist sites in Philadelphia — nothing is definitive. Evidence seems to show that her husband at the time of the alleged “sewing,” John Claypoole, lived either in the house at 239 Arch Street or at 241 Arch Street, which is now the garden of the Betsy Ross House. You can read more about that sort of evidence here.
Ah, but you say she’s a badass?
Totally. Throughout history, the woman born Elizabeth Griscom was painted as a dainty housewife who sat around and sewed flags. There is definitely more to know. Betsy Ross was married three times by age 31 — she was widowed twice thanks to the war. (The third husband up and died on her too, but later on.) She was also revolutionary when it comes to religion: She left the Quaker church to join the startup-y Free Quakers. This was a bunch of ex-Quakers who broke some rules of the faith, mostly by supporting the Revolution. She was into snuff — AKA finely ground tobacco that you essentially snorted. She also endured some serious personal stuff: Between her three husbands, she gave birth to seven children, but two of them died during childhood due to illness. (Not unusual for the time before sanitization of hospitals was a thing, and we didn’t yet know about penicillin.)
But she sewed stuff for a living, right?
Scholars agree that Betsy Ross was less of a seamstress, and more of an upholsterer, which at the time was not a dainty career path — you needed muscles, and the gig attracted both men and women. According to a 2010 Slate article, “eighteenth-century upholstery work included heavy tasks like assembling curtains, stuffing mattresses, and covering chairs. Flag-making itself was no delicate enterprise.”
On top of that, she was more than a worker — she was a businesswoman. She didn’t just give out flag designs as some form of charity to the government, and is documented as demanding pay for the upholstery work she did complete.
When are people going to start questioning this more?
It’s safe to say they already do. Within the last decade, historians have taken a keen interest in the Betsy Ross story to study not only whether or not it’s true, but how family storytelling made us believe it was all true for so long.