Betsy Ross and the First Flag

The legend of Betsy Ross has long been entrenched in popular culture, but does it stand up to scrutiny?

But there are certain parts that cannot be confirmed. For instance, George Ross was not a member of Congress in the season that the family believes this event to have occurred. So he cannot have been at her shop representing a committee of Congress. That season Robert Morris opposed independence, so it seems unlikely that he would have been representing an effort to get a new flag for a new nation. However, both Ross and Morris were deeply involved in the rebellion—deeply involved in the defense of Pennsylvania and the Delaware. So there is plenty of reason to believe that they would have been making the rounds with Washington, who was in the city that spring to obtain flags or talk about flags. But they would not have been doing that as representatives of a committee of Congress.

If Betsy Ross was an upholsterer, why is she remembered as a seamstress?
We think of her as a seamstress because the image is of a woman who is sewing in her lap, not a woman working in a shop. When you call someone a seamstress it has a certain connotation in our culture that is a little bit romantic. There is a difference between thinking about the skilled craftsmanship that an upholsterer produces and someone who simply sews.

How did the legend become so entrenched in popular culture?
It was launched at the exact right moment. In 1870, the nation was approaching its Centennial, so people were in the mood to think about the Revolution and to celebrate the Founders. It was also a time that women were seeking the vote. So when the legend of Betsy Ross was introduced it solved a lot of cultural problems, because Betsy Ross could be added to the pantheon of Founders without challenging their traditional role. People who wanted to see women have a larger presence in our national narrative got that, and people who were fearful about introducing women to the political sphere did not have to object.

Why hadn’t Betsy Ross’s story been written before you came along?
Part of it has to do with the history of women’s history. When this field emerged in the wake of the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s, people interested in women’s history felt like they had to prove the seriousness of the endeavor and took on a range of projects, but would not have felt it was safe or advisable to look at someone like Betsy Ross. Another part of the reason, of course, is that no papers survived, so it’s not a particularly easy thing to research.

But now it’s perfectly safe to revisit topics like Betsy Ross as women’s history is well established as a scholarly enterprise. As for the absence of papers, there are now powerful databases like America’s Historical Newspapers and Early American Imprints that allow scholars to search for and recover information. A lot of the material I was able to piece together came from these databases, which allow you to retrieve documents and search archival material in ways that you couldn’t have just a few years ago.

The “Betsy Ross and the Making of America” Web site

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