For two centuries Betsy Ross has been held hostage inside her Arch Street parlor in the Olde City section of Philadelphia.
More than 250,000 visitors a year wander through the teeny-tiny rooms, climb up the tight little staircase to explore pocket-sized bedrooms, and tramp down to a cellar kitchen. They examine the period parlor and view models of areas where the Rosses likely worked on their upholstery projects. What is believed to have been the original upholstery shop is now a gift store. Ross’ celebrity snowballed throughout the 20th century when she was merchandized in everything from dolls, towels and teacups to pocketwatches, pianos, and even immortalized as a PEZ (candy) head.
The white-washed myth portrays Ross as a simple and sweet seamstress.
In reality she was a hard-working, lifelong businesswoman, thrice-married who was fond of dark snuff and spinning tales of life in Revolutionary Philadelphia, including George Washington visiting her shop and (so the story goes) ordering the first Stars and Stripes.
Betsy’s life and legend
The Winterthur Museum in Wilmington is currently showcasing the real-life Ross in an intriguing exhibit called “Betsy Ross: The Life Behind the Legend” that runs through Jan. 2, 2011.
Did she or didn’t she? Historians have long debated the role Ross in making the first American flag. Marla Miller is a co-curator of the Winterthur exhibit and author of the recent book “Betsy Ross and the Making of America,” that is the basis of the exhibit. Meticulously researched, the book investigates the legendary first flag yarn and reports there is little hard historical evidence to support it.
Miller cuts through the haze of first flag debate and chooses instead to focus on the woman behind the myth bringing Ross to life in all her glory and the animated life of Revolutionary-era Philadelphia. At the same time Miller casts new light on the lives of hardworking artisians who populated the young nation and crafted splendid furmiture, clothing, ships and homes.
What surprised the author the most writing about a real folk legend?
“How well connected to she was to the leading citizens of the day,” replied Miller, director of Public History at the University of Massachusetts. “She is portrayed as this humble seamstress who was plucked from obscurity. Truth is she had close ties to the revolution — both those who advanced it and opposed it.”
Along with Winterthur curators Linda Eaton and Katie Knowles, Miller explores Betsy Ross as a wife and mother, her work in the upholstery trade and as a flagmaker, and finally, how her legend grew into the story we know today.
“We used every artifact we could find directly linked to her — like her eyeglasses, her skirts,” Miller related. “She is often portrayed as almost fictional. We’ve presented her as a tangible person.”
Ross: Larger than life
Ross is one of the few female figures of the American Revolution to emerge as a compelling character. Her larger-than-life place in the mythology of the American Revolution was touted in 1870 when her grandsons William and Geroge Canby summoned the press to a talk they gave before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. They announced (based on affidavits signed by several descendants) that Ross had created the first American flag.
The timing was perfect.
After the 1876 Centennial celebration of the United States, interest in the tale woven by Ross’ ancestors skyrocketed. Newspapers of the era eagerly promoted the narrative, and the rest is history. Or, probably not.
For women of Ross’ era it was a tough life. By the time the peace treaty was signed with England, Betsy Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypool (1752 to 1836) had lost two husbands to the revolution, given birth to two daughters, survived the British occupation of Philadelphia and established a thriving upholsterery business where she labored for more than five decades.
Her skills as a hardworking upholsterer enabled Ross to produce everything from fancy furnishings for Philadelphia’s finest homes to paper ammunition cartridges and flags for America’s fighting forces.
Flags, after all, were the cell phones of the day enabling sailors and soldiers to communicate long distance. In the early years of the new Republic, new flags were needed, and lots of them. There were not only national flags for a burgeoning nation, but also flags for Army regiments and ships for the fledgling Navy, still scores of others were dispensed as gifts to Indian nations as the new nation rolled westward.
A flagmaker and businesswoman
A wife and mother, Ross’ fortunes and anguish were closely tied to an emerging nation. Surprisingly to some folks, her most productive flag-making years were not during the early years of the Revolution, but rather during the Jefferson and Madison presidencies. Miller writers that Ross “was the primary flag maker contracting with the U.S. Arsenal on the Schuylkill River.” She fabricated six garrison flags that flew over a military outpost at New Orleans. Each 18-by-24 foot flag called for 100,000 stitches and sized out at 432 square feet.
“She had a more direct hand in international affairs as she fabricated dozens of flags for the U.S. military and the Indian Department,” Miller explained. “She worked with Philadelphia ornamental painter William Berrett and produced flags intended for diplomatic exchange with the native nations U.S. expeditions encountered as they explored the Mississippi Valley and points west. Betsy Ross flags announced and advanced the aims of the young Republic.”
Ross housed and employed a string of widowed sisters, daughters and granddaughters until she retired in 1827, when her daughter Clarissa carried on with the family business for another three decades. Ross was 84 when she died in 1836. She is buried beneath the giant elm and sycamore trees that shade the courtyard at the Arch Street residence.
The Winterhur exhibition is an intriguing look at an essential figure in the making of a new nation. It brings together an eclectic mix of early Americana, including Betsy’s snuff box, the family Bible listing the names of Betsy’s daughters, pieces of quilts made by daughter Clarissa Claypoole Wilson, a signature quilt made for granddaughter Catherine Canby, bedhangings used by George Washington, and a cartridge belt and case used during the American Revolution.
Visitors will also discover the Commander in Chief’s Standard used by Gen. Washington, the Standard of the Philadelphia Light Horse (the Markoe Standard), the Color of the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, the Regimental and Grand Division Flags of the 3rd Virginia Detachment and an Indian Presentation Flag from the early 1800s along with curios from perfume bottles to whiskey.
The legacy of a flagmaker
As for the first American flag that haunts Ross’ legacy, in 1777 the delgates from the 13 British colonies that joined in the rebellion (Continental Congress) decreed: “The flag of the United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternating red and white, that the Union be thirteen white stars in a blue field representing a new constellation.”
There is little doubt that Ross worked as a flagmaker for the revolutionary government of Pennsylvania. Still, the archival record does not document evidence that Ross met with Washington that lends credence to the idea of just one maker of the Continental flag.
“With the exhibit we want people to think about all the women like her that were making flags,” Miller observed. “There is no single moment when the first flag was born. Like the Revolution it represents, the flag was the work of many hands.”