Betsy Ross reputation flagging in 21st century

    Today the historic Betsy Ross house on Arch Street will unveil a new state historic marker. It’s the first time Pennsylvania has officially acknowledged the place where many believe the first American flag was sewn. But that story of the flag may not be true.

    Today the historic Betsy Ross house on Arch Street will unveil a new state historic marker. It’s the first time Pennsylvania has officially acknowledged the place where many believe the first American flag was sewn. But that story of the flag may not be true.

    Listen:
    [audio: 090427pcbetsy.mp3]

    Wayne Spilove serves on two boards – at the Betsy Ross House, and as chairman of the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. That’s the body which authorizes historic markers. He says the story of the founding fathers commissioning Betsy Ross to make the first flag has been ingrained in him since he was a child.

    Spilove: Benjamin Franklin and George Washington asked her to create a flag with 13 stars for the United States and she created the flag at that location. That’s what I learned in elementary school and that’s what I believe to this day.

    For many people, that’s a story that has stuck, even if it is difficult to support.

    On a deep level it feels right, and makes sense.

    Charles Hardy is a history professor at West Chester University.

    Hardy: The lack of empirical evidence is secondary to how the story makes sense to people.

    OK, so what’s the problem with the Betsy Ross tale?

    There is no existing documentation. The story of Ross and the founding fathers entered the public record 100 years after it supposedly happened. It was first heard in a talk given by Ross’ grandson, who heard it from his mother, Ross’ daughter.

    Marla Miller is an historian writing a biography about Ross. She says the daughter, Clarissa, may have wanted her mother Betsy to enter the national pantheon at that time.

    Miller: There are growing numbers of histories of the Revolution, memoirs of soldiers, there’s a book that comes out about women of the Revolution. I think Clarissa just wants to know that her mother has a story too and she wants to make sure that is passed on.

    All of which means the story might be true, or, it might not be.

    Is she important then?

    Historian Seth Brugemann: Yeah, absolutely.

    Brugemann, a professor at Temple University, says what is more important than the “did she, didn’t she” business with the flag, is the proven fact that she was a successful entrepreneur and a patriot at a time when women had little political or legal power.

    Brugemann: She is a woman who negotiates the very complicated world of gender, property and power. She has a talent for survival in a complicated colonial milieu.

    That she would represent the bedrock ideal of the American Woman served her memory well as time marched on – when the nation was flooded with new immigrants in the late 19th century, and again during the Suffrage Movement in the early 20th century. At these times the popularity of her memory spiked. But Charles Hardy – that professor from West Chester – says she may now be on the wane.

    Hardy: Betsy Ross being an artifact of late 19th century and early 20th century, the question is will she survive – will her popularity survive into the 21st century? And I’m not sure that it will.

    Ross biographer Marla Miller agrees. She says the flag sewing story has become threadbare over time and it does not satisfy schoolchildren like it used to. She says the life of Ross has more heft than her legend.

    Miller: You know, here’s a woman who went to work every day, from the time she’s in her teens until she retires in her 70s. She lives through the Revolution, she buries two husbands as a result of it. Day after day she keeps working. And there’s just something really moving to me about that.

    The American imagination seeks out role models when times are tough. So Betsy Ross may have her day again.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.