Score one more for Betsy Ross' supporters
Newly uncovered evidence shows that George Washington knew Betsy Ross from previous work she had done for him, lending more credence to the story that she helped create the first American flag.
The "Did she or didn't she?" debate over Betsy Ross and the creation of the country's first flag in 1776 has gone on for centuries. The anti-Betsy faction usually advances these arguments: There's no paper trail. The Ross family made up the story of her quick fingers folding a piece of paper and creating — with one snip — a five-pointed star in front of George Washington. Americans choose to believe the tale because they wanted a female to balance out the "Founding Fathers."
The pro-Betsy group counters: Members of the Ross family signed affidavits attesting to the truth of their matriarch's role in history, and they were devout Quakers and wouldn't lie. In the 1920s, a five-pointed paper star was found in a safe that had once belonged to Samuel Wetherill, one of Ross' friends, and it had to have had significance or wouldn't have been locked up.
And now, Betsy's supporters also have this: George Washington knew Betsy and her husband, John Ross, because he'd hired the couple two years earlier to do work for his home at Mt. Vernon. Last March, Mt. Vernon Associate Curator Amanda Isaac found a receipt for "five half joes" made out to a Mr. Ross of Philadelphia for bed furnishings. That's 55 pounds, 12 shillings and six pence — a very large sum at that time — to completely outfit at least three beds plus labor and materials, including a cotton calico print and muslin for lining. That's everything from canopies to sheets and covers.
"It's the only documentation we have that these two icons of the American Revolution, Betsy and George, actually met. Before, it was all mythology," Isaac said. "For years, Betsy Ross has been a shadowy, mythical figure and ... she's coming into focus as a real-life person. Someone who was creative, ambitious and an entrepreneur, not a quaint domestic figure we might associate with women of the Revolution."
The information had been in Mt. Vernon's collection for years, but the discovery was only made recently as curators launched a bedroom-renovation project at the historic home. While they knew from one of Washington's ledgers that he'd spent that money at that time, they decided to access his day books, where he kept more detailed records about the purchases and vendors. The receipt naming "Mr. Ross" of Philadelphia was among the detailed cash memorandums.
"The only Mr. Ross is John Ross, the husband of Betsy Ross," Isaac said. "I was pretty excited."
Even more excited? Lisa Acker Moulder, director of the Betsy Ross House in Philly.
"One of the issues the naysayers raise is how would this lowly upholsterer know George Washington, of all people? Now we know how. He knew she was good at what she did and it makes perfect sense that he would ask her to make the first American flag," she says.
Besides adding legitimacy to Ross' role in the flag's creation, the discovery also shows that Betsy and John Ross were good at their work and well on their way to successful careers in the upholstery field, Moulder said. Each was only 22 years old when they'd started their business a year earlier.
The Washington commission would have been the second large order they'd received within a week, she said. A close friend of Washington's had hired the couple to outfit his daughter's entire house with textiles a few days earlier. There's evidence the two men had dined together between that commission and Washington's personal order.
John Ross died in January 1776. Legend has it that Washington visited his widow about creating a flag five months later. Washington thought a six-pointed star would be best. Ross folded a piece of paper and with one cut created a five-pointed star, the one that eventually went on the flag.
"Betsy Ross had that upholstery firm for decades in Philadelphia between the 1770s and 1820s. We see men and women working in partnership. We see women in business," said historian Marla Miller, director of the Public History program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Betsy Ross and the Making of America.
"People ask, 'Was it unusual to have those skills that she had and lead the enterprise?' And no, it wasn't at all unusual in Philadelphia in that period. We have, as a culture, forgotten that."
Many paintings and drawings of Ross depict her sitting in a rocking chair and sewing in her parlor. Or she's in that formal room with other women, putting the flag together. But Ross was a craftswoman running a business that eventually employed many of her younger family members.
"There was an effort in the late 19th century to make her a domestic figure when, as we know, she had this upholstery shop. ... There's a clear effort to pull her out of the labor history context where she really belongs," Miller said. "The culture has never imagined her working, stuffing a mattress or doing the work we knew she did."
Today, the upholstery shop inside the Betsy Ross House on Arch Street is a featured attraction. The museum has three Betsy Ross interpreters who are not only fine actors but also accomplished sewers, Moulder said. They are in the process of sewing new beddings for the home while engaging with visitors. With the Mt. Vernon receipt now uncovered, "Our interpreters can say, 'This is something I did for George Washington in 1774,'" Moulder said.
"Visitors to our house find she has a story they can relate to. She is a counterpart to the modern-day American woman. ... She was not wealthy. She was not famous. She had times when business was doing well and then some years when business was so bad that she had to accept financial aid like shoes and clothing from the Quaker meeting house."
Miller's research showed that Ross's company did work for the federal government in the early 1800s, producing large garrison flags sent to New Orleans and other Mississippi Valley locations. Ross also partnered with a local painter on the creation of flags for the Indian Department. They were sent west.
So Ross was definitely a flag maker. But was she the flag maker?
"I think there is probably a germ of truth at the bottom of the whole story. What resonated for me was that moment when she claims to have folded the paper and snipped the five-pointed star. I think she took a lot of pride in having taught George Washington something," Miller said.
"But in the book, I encourage people to let go of the idea of the first flag. There is no first flag. ... I think a lot of people contributed and it was a gradual process and there is every reason to believe that Betsy Ross was one of those people."