Betsy Ross House revisits the flag story

One of the new informational panels at the Betsy Ross House addressing the flag controversy.
One of the new informational panels at the Betsy Ross House addressing the flag controversy. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 07, 2012

Local historians can jump into the longstanding controversy of whether Betsy Ross stitched the first American flag at a new mini-exhibit at the legend's house.

Defenders of Betsy Ross, whose story as the mother of the American flag first splashed into popular consciousness in the 1870s, have been warding off questions about her place in American history for more than a century.

Ross's place in history as the mother of the flag grew out of a meeting that she had in late May 1776 with Gen. George Washington and fellow flag committee members Robert Morris and George Ross, her late husband's uncle.

Her grandson William Canby delivered that bit of history in 1870 in an address to the Historical Society of Philadelphia. By 1920, the tale faced an army of skeptics, and the debate continues.

On Friday, the Betsy Ross House on Arch Street opened "Stitching the Story Together" to encourage visitors to draw their own conclusions. The exhibit displays informational panels throughout the house that tackle the controversy.

"History isn't as black and white as people may think it is," said Michelle Presnall, museum manager. "Now that people are hearing different things about the flag and the history, we thought it would be important to share the strong points of the argument."

Canby presented documents from Ross' daughter and other grandchildren affirming that Ross told them the same story several times.

Documents proved that Washington was in Philadelphia at the time the Ross story takes place, and records showed Ross was commissioned by the Navy Board to make a flag in May 1777. She was thus credited with making the first American flag.

Skeptics argue that the story is primarily oral history, and lacks proof to give Ross the credit of actually producing the American flag.

The Betsy Ross House, mindful of the debate, stresses her contribution as a pioneering businesswoman.

"She was an important person, and here at the house, we try to illustrate her story and her life away from the flag controversy," Presnall said.

Born Elizabeth Griscom in 1752, Betsy Ross was a Quaker until she married John Ross, an Anglican upholsterer, against her family's wishes.

The two opened a store, but Betsy was forced to close it after her husband died in January 1776.

It was during her marriage to her second husband that Ross was visited by Washington and the flag committee at her new upholstery shop. During that time, Ross took on any upholstery or related sewing jobs, as provisions were low and prices were high with the British occupation in Philadelphia.

"Betsy Ross is important because she represents thousands of women who participated in the Revolution," said Marla Miller, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and author of Betsy Ross and the Making of America.

Miller's scholarly look at Ross' life notes that Ross did not gain fame until the U.S. Centennial in 1876 approached.

"Americans were keenly interested in the era of the founding," Miller said. "And, in the wake of the Civil War, the nation's flag had become a symbol of unity. That's when the flag really gained the importance that it has today."

And in the same way America was looking for something to represent being American, women were looking for a figure to represent them as the suffrage movement blossomed.


The Betsy Ross House, 239 Arch St., is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and this weekend will feature traditional chocolate-making. For more information and tickets, call 215-629-4026 or visit historicphiladelphia.org.

Contract Samantha Byles at sbyles@phillynews.com or 215-854-2771.

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