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Saturday, 24 August 2013

US Culture: The Woman Behind the Flag

Betsy Ross (January 1, 1752 – January 30, 1836), of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been widely credited with making the first American flag.
This American patriot worked as a seamstress and upholsterer, carrying on her husband's upholstery business after he was killed in the American Revolution. According to legend, in 1776 she was visited by George Washington, Robert Morris, and her husband's uncle George Ross, who asked her to make a flag for the new nation based on a sketch by Washington. She is supposed also to have suggested the use of the five-pointed star rather than the six-pointed one chosen by Washington. Though Ross did make flags for the navy, no firm evidence supports the legend of the national flag. In 1777 the Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the U.S. flag.
Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Samuel and Rebecca James Griscom. Young Elizabeth probably attended Quaker schools and learned needlework there and at home. When she married John Ross, an Anglican, in 1773, she was expelled from the Friends Meeting for marrying outside the meeting. John and Elizabeth (Betsy) Ross began an upholstery business together, drawing on her needlework skills.
John was killed in January 1776 on militia duty when gunpowder exploded at the Philadelphia waterfront. Betsy acquired property and kept up the upholstery business, beginning to make flags for Pennsylvania as well.
In 1777 Betsy married Joseph Ashburn, a sailor, who had the misfortune of being on a ship captured by the British in 1781. He died in prison the next year.
In 1783, Betsy married again -- this time, her husband was John Claypoole, who had been in prison with Joseph Ashburn, and had met Betsy when he delivered Joseph's farewells to her. He died in 1817, after a long disability.
Betsy lived until 1836, dying on January 30. She was reburied in the Free Quaker Burying Ground in 1857.
Today, a tour of Betsy Ross' home in Philadelphia (there is some doubt about its authenticity, too) is a "must-see" when visiting historical sites. The home, established with the aid of two million ten-cent contributions by American schoolchildren, is still an interesting and informative tour. One can begin to see what home life was like for families of the time, and to remember the disruption and inconvenience, even tragedy, that war brought to women as well as to men.
Even if she did not make the first flag -- even if the visit by George Washington never happened -- Betsy Ross was an example of what many women of her time found as the reality in time of war: widowhood, single motherhood, managing household and property independently, quick remarriage for economic reasons (and, we can hope, for companionship and even love, too).

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