Betsy Ross Discussion (Sept 1996)

Query From Heather Munro Prescott prescott@ccsua.ctstateu.edu 09 Sept 1996

During my first women's history class of the semester, one of my students asked whether Betsy Ross sewed the first flag, or whether she created it, i.e. designed it herself. My understanding is that Washington gave her the design and then she embellished on it. However, I'm also aware that some of the Betsy Ross legend itself has been "embroidered" upon over the years. Does anyone care to fill me in here? Thanks.

Responses:

>From Stacy A. Cordery stacy@wpoff.monm.edu 09 Sept 1996

...You are certainly right about the embroidery! The story was first told in 1870 by Betsy Ross's grandson and rapidly became part of the popular myth-making during the Centennial celebrations. According to him, George Washington (who was actually hundreds of miles away at the time) and two members of the Continental Congress took time out in the middle of a war to attend committee meetings on the flag design. Then the full committee went to Mrs. Ross's upholstery shop in Philadelphia with a sketch showing what they wanted. Their idea was to use six pointed stars.

She, however, suggested an improvement, showing how easily she could make five pointed stars with one snip of her scissors. Some versions of the tale say the committee was so thrilled by the flag she produced that she was given a contract and continued to be official flagmaker for the American government for the rest of her life.

The only evidence of Mrs. Ross making flags of any kind is a receipt for money paid her by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board in 1777 for making "ship's colours." This could not have included an American flag because Congress did not adopt a flag resolution until June 1777. That resolution stipulated only that there should be thirteen stripes, red and blue, and thirteen stars in a blue field. The first flag conforming to this design used by American forces was the "Bennington Flag" which was an arch of seven seven-pointed stars over the numerals "76" and two additional stars in the top corners of the field.

>From Rodney Hessinger hess@vm.temple.edu 09 Sept 1996

The story of Betsy Ross has more than been embroidered upon, it appears it was completely fabricated. The story was created around a century after Ross supposedly created the flag by her descendants in Philadelphia who wished to create a tourist attraction to cash in on the high number of visitors coming to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exhibition. A mist fascinating question is why the Ross myth has had such a strong hold on the American imagination. Michael Frisch offers an interesting interpretation of this question in an essay entitled "American History and the Structures of Collective memory" in his book A Shared Authority. Frisch suggests an American psychic need for a mother figure to give birth to the American country and notes Ross's pairing in the mythology with America's father figure, George Washington.

>From Cynthia Russett cynthia.russett@yale.edu 09 Sept 1996

The Independence Hall Association has a website with a Betsy Ross Homepage. This links to the historical account of the making of the flag, and that link leads to a Point-Counterpoint discussion of the pros and cons of the accuracy of the story. The historical account can be found at:

http://www.libertynet.org/iha/betsy/flagtale.html


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