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?

Betsy Ross America

It’s been 234 years since George Washington walked into Betsy Ross’s upholstery shop and commissioned the nation’s first flag, or so the legend goes. Yet until Henry Holt published Marla R. Miller’s “Betsy Ross and the Making of America” in April, there had not been an authoritative historical biography about the woman behind the flag. Along the way, the book takes an in-depth look at life in Revolutionary Philadelphia, and the artisans who crafted homes, furniture, and clothing for the young nation. But in the following Failure Interview, I chose to focus on the Betsy Ross legend, asking Miller where it came from, and how it differs from what really happened.

Why did you write “Betsy Ross and the Making of America”?
My first book [“The Needle’s Eye”] was on women and work in the early Republic. The introduction talks about the way we romanticize early American women’s work. As an example, I discussed Colonial Barbie and Betsy Ross. As you know, Betsy Ross was an upholsterer in eighteenth century Philadelphia, but the popular historical image of her is as a seamstress. So what was it about women making furniture that was so hard to reconcile with our historical imagination? I started looking into what had been written about Betsy Ross and was astonished to find no scholarly work on her. It seemed like a gap I was the right person to fill.

Tell me more about the legend and where it came from?
It was first introduced into the public mind by her grandson, William Canby, in 1870. He had heard the legend from his aunt Clarissa—Betsy’s daughter—when he was younger, and in the late 1860s he started to do research on the subject. In 1870 he gave a talk to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania reporting his family tradition as he knew it. The legend that he recounted is that in the spring of ’76, George Ross, Robert Morris and George Washington visited the upholstery shop of Betsy Ross and asked her to make a flag. In the legend, Washington comes with a sketch that suggests what he has in mind, and Betsy is supposed to have some suggestions for improvements, including a correction to the star. In the legend, Washington’s sketch has six-pointed stars and Betsy is said to have folded a piece of paper just so, and with a single snip of her scissors produced a symmetric five-pointed star. She suggested this was a better design and in the legend she is given fabric to create a “specimen” flag, which she does. Everyone loves it and they decide that it is going to be the nation’s flag.

How closely does the legend match reality?
Parts of the story hold up. Betsy Ross was a flag maker in Revolutionary Philadelphia. George Ross was the uncle of her husband John, so there’s every reason to believe that those two knew one another and that George would have brought a committee of men to her shop. She was a skilled upholsterer, so naturally she would be knowledgeable about how to create elements like stars. Betsy Ross was recently widowed, and across Philadelphia other women—many of them also widows—were getting contracts to produce the flags that ships at sea need. She would have been looking for revenue streams, and getting access to those contracts would have been very appealing to her.

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.

Reporting the Revolutionary War