The Phenomenon of Betsy Ross

Painting depicting Betsy Ross making the first Stars and Stripes.

One of many paintings and illustrations depicting Betsy Ross making the first Stars and Stripes.

January first is usually marked on the calendar as New Year’s Day designating the beginning of each new year.  It is also the day in 1776 that George Washington raised a flag over his encampment in Cambridge, Massachusetts to mark the reorganization of the Continental Army giving the Americans a new beginning, and it is the day in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Also on January 1st in 1752, Samuel and Rebecca Griscom welcomed a newborn daughter, Elizabeth, into their family.  History knows her by her nickname of Betsy and her first married surname of Ross:  Betsy Ross who is widely credited as the maker of the first thirteen star American flag.  Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole, to include all her names, lived almost a full month past her 84th birthday, and she outlived three husbands.  Living during momentous and trying times, she proved herself a strong and independent woman, a capable business woman, a dutiful and supportive wife and an esteemed mother & grandmother.  Few women of the period of the American Revolution are as well known as Betsy Ross, and many details of her life would justify interest in her history.  Yet she is known primarily because of her association with the making of the first Stars and Stripes.

Betsy Ross House Postcard

A postcard depicting Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross House was sent out by a shoe manufacturing company with what appeared to be a handwritten message on the back, “Liberty Bell shoes fit well, look well, wear well–” using a popular story to draw attention to their product.

Her story has been labeled both history and legend, labeled both fact and myth.  Renowned flag historian, Whitney Smith, once described to me the story of Betsy Ross as a phenomenon of flag history.  He noted that adherents of the story vehemently pronounce it as unquestioned history, while detractors dismiss the story with equal passion.  Whether her story is believed or not, her name is better known than many leaders of the American Revolution.  In fact her name is as well known as Washington and Franklin.  Ask the man on the street to identify Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox or Charles Cornwallis and he may draw a blank, but almost every American—young and old—knows Betsy Ross.

What is the truth about Betsy Ross and the making of the first thirteen star American flag?  Did she or didn’t she?  Well, it is not possible to do justice to the story in one blog posting.  In future postings of we will consider the story of Betsy Ross, the story’s significance, the evidence in favor of the story, the evidence cited to disprove the story, and the surprising story of a paper star and a locked safe.

Dr. Marla R. Miller, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, recently published a 468 page book entitled Betsy Ross and the Making of America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010) which takes a long overdue look at the phenomenon of the Philadelphia needlewoman.  We will consider what perspective her exhaustive scholarly effort can provide.

Betsy Ross and the story of making the first stars and stripes has become something of a lightning rod for flag historians.  It has raised surprising passion in supporters and detractors alike.  It is easy to find books and articles pronouncing opposing views as the undeniable truth.  Whatever readers of may eventually decide, the tale of Betsy Ross is a fascinating look into our nation’s past and the history of our flag.

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