Did Betsy Ross really make the first American Flag?

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Candace Keener: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Keener, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Keener: Hey, Jane. You know what's funny about American culture?

Jane McGrath: What's that?

Candace Keener: We don't really have a long history like many other nations do.

Jane McGrath: It's so true. When I research the history of European cultures in general, it's like America's a baby compared to other countries.

Candace Keener: It's true. It's like taking The Crying of Lot 49, this little novella and comparing it to A Tale of Two Cities, this huge chunky Dickinsian novel, there's just not that much to our history. Well, that's not fair. There's not that much chronologically to our history. And so I get very frustrated when a story that I've grown up believing in may not be true. And let me qualify, too - when I say that there's not much to American history, I'm not speaking about the indigenous American Indians who were here before the settlers and Colonists came. I'm talking about a timeline that starts with George Washington era.

Jane McGrath: The American nation, United States.

Candace Keener: Right. Exactly. The colonies and to the point today that we're in. And I'm especially frustrated to learn that the story of Betsy Ross making the first American flag may not be true, because I feel like there are so many men who get credit for the different aspects of our culture that shaped our nation into what it is today. I really like the idea that a woman is due credit for something that we still honor and use on a daily basis. But as it turns out, that may not be true. The credit for the American flag may actually go to a man as well.

Jane McGrath: It's a pretty complicated situation. We don't really know exactly what happened and how true it is. I was really shocked having learned all the different facets that went into the story. There's a little controversy going on about Betsy Ross.

Candace Keener: And even if you go to the official Betsy Ross House website, they say, "So historical fact or well loved legend, the story of Betsy Ross is as American as apple pie. After your visit, decide what you believe." Well, Jane and I did not get a chance to visit the Betsy Ross house, so we're going to have to decide what we believe from the confines of our cubicles in the howstuffworks.com office, so here goes.

Jane McGrath: So to give you some background on Betsy Ross herself, she was born January 1, 1752 as Elizabeth Griscom. And she was the eighth of 17 kids in her Quaker family. She was originally born in New Jersey, but when she was about three her dad, who was a pretty successful carpenter, moved the family to Philadelphia, a bustling urban area.

Candace Keener: And when you think of Betsy Ross, you may imagine her as a very humble and meek woman wearing her little calico print dress with a white apron and a little dust ruffle cap. We've heard before that she was a seamstress, but she was actually an upholsterer, which deepens my respect for her. Because I think it would be far more difficult for a woman to handle such heavy fabrics as rugs and curtains and venetian blinds, even, that she had to grapple with. And not only was she trained as a seamstress, but she apprenticed as an upholsterer in Philadelphia with another very esteemed upholsteror named John Webster. And she actually met another upholsterer with whom she fell in love, and that was John Ross.

Jane McGrath: This is a really cute story, too.

Candace Keener: It is.

Jane McGrath: Because John Ross came from an Anglican family. He was a son of a preacherman, even, because his dad was assistant rector of Christ's Church. So when John and Betsy fell in love, her Quaker family didn't approve of it.

Candace Keener: They were star crossed lovers.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it was sweet. And so they actually eloped. Because her family didn't approve of it, they had to elope. They fled across the Deleware River and married in Huggs Tavern in New Jersey.

Candace Keener: And they later returned to Philadelphia and opened a shop together, the two upholsterers. And unfortunately that didn't last too long because John was part of the local militia and was killed in a gunpowder explosion, I think only two years into their marriage.

Jane McGrath: It was really tragic.

Candace Keener: And they hadn't even had children yet at that point and Betsy was -

Jane McGrath: She was only 24.

Candace Keener: - 24, a widow at 24. So she was single for a little while and then she met Joseph Ashburn and she later married him. And he was a seaman, and while he was at sea his ship was captured by the British and he was tossed into prison. And before the British released American prisoners in 1782, he contracted a strange illness and he died. And unbeknownst to Joseph Asburn, at home, Betsy had given birth to their second child. And their first child had actually passed away.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, when she was only about nine months old, I think.

Candace Keener: So at this point, tragedy had struck three times - two husbands and one child.

Jane McGrath: So she had a really tough life. We don't usually think about Betsy Ross in that way, but a two-time widow by this time. It was about 1783 when she married again. This was also a cute story because she was old friends with a man named John Claypoole and they rekindled their relationship after the death of her second husband. What's also sweet about this, is that during this marriage she was able to rejoin the Quaker friends. And this particular sect of the Quakers was actually not traditional, because they supported America's fight for independence. And you might know that Quakers traditionally are passivists. So this is an interesting facet about her faith. By this time, Betsy had about - well, she had five daughters with John Claypoole, but unfortunately one daughter died young.

Candace Keener: And John and Betsy were married for 34 years. But he actually became disabled later in life due to some battle injuries, and so she was caring for him in addition to caring for four daughters. And then in 1793, her mother, father, and sister were all killed by an outbreak of yellow fever. So she got custody of her niece. So at this time, she has six children living under her care plus a disabled husband and she's running the household. So her daughter Clarissa is actually helping her with her business. And by this time, this Betsy is supplementing the income she makes as an upholsterer with helping out with tents and soldiers uniforms and things like this from the war, so she can make a little extra pocket money on the side. And she actually continued her business for 50 years, and then she finally retired.

Jane McGrath: She retired, and by 81 years old she was officially blind, unfortunately. And a few years later she died, in 1836.

Candace Keener: Peacefully, in her sleep.

Jane McGrath: That's true. So even though she had a hard life, she died peacefully.

Candace Keener: She did. And so to know this background of who Betsy Ross was really helps to enhance my understanding of the Betsy Ross myth. Because you hear that George Washington and this congressional committee - or at least they called themselves a congressional committee of Robert Morris and George Ross - supposedly turned to Betsy, who was not only a fixture in the community as an esteemed upholsterer and an esteemed business woman, but she was seen as a good community member. I think she was a friendly woman and obviously, to care for a household like that, she had to have had a really plucky spirit and hearty sense of business about her.

Jane McGrath: Right. And to give you a little context about the famous flag story, this occurred pretty soon after the death of her first husband John in 1776. So like you mentioned, these three men - George Ross - that might spark interest because they have the same last name. He was actually a relation of her late husband. He was his uncle. So it's plausible that these three men would come to Betsy. And also, in addition to that, part of the story is that George Washington was actually a friend of the family, a friend of Betsy's and he had calle d on Betsy a few times socially and professionally at her upholsterer shop. So these three men come in. Like you said, they say they're a part of a congressional flag committee. And George Washington takes out a scrap of paper, and on it is a sketch of what he sees as his idea for the flag of the new nation. And he asks if she can sew it. And like you mentioned, she said, "I do not know, but I will try."

Candace Keener: And undaunted spirit.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And one cute part of the story - my favorite part - is that she suggested an alteration to the design. I mean, the gall to go up to George Washington and say, "I don't really like your design. I'm going to do something different." She actually suggested five pointed stars rather than six pointed stars, which was not standard at that time.

Candace Keener: Right. And I read that she actually took out a pair of scissors and just snipped off one of the points of the star to show them how greatly it could be improved with this minor alteration. And the flag was not only a symbol for the fledgling nation, it was also an important tool for helping to identify sides in different skirmishes that were breaking out during the war. Because up until this point, they'd been using the Union Jack, which was the British flag, inside the design of another flag. And that could be pretty confusing. So they needed something that looked different, something that was distinctly a part of the young United States.

Jane McGrath: And apart from the practical reasons, obviously you're breaking from your colonizers. You want to have a flag that's drastically different from Britain at this time. So the flag, I think, both practical and very symbolic reasons - close to their hearts.

Candace Keener: Right. So my perception of Betsy Ross would be that she was a pretty gregarious outgoing woman, hard worker. I can't imagine she was the sort of woman who went home at the end of day and hung her head and didn't say hello to her neighbors. And I don't think this congressional committee had bound her to secrecy in any way. So that's why it's so peculiar to me that none of the colonists at the time heard this Betsy Ross story. Put yourself in her shoes, Jane. Say that Barack Obama came up to you and said, "I really think we need a new flag for our nation." And you said, "Okay, Barack. I think what you've got going here is pretty good, but instead of navy blue, why don't you use teal?" And you make this brand new flag. You would tell people, wouldn't you?

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I would publicize it. I would probably first say, "I can't sew. I can write an article for you."

Candace Keener: I do not know, but I will try.

Jane McGrath: But, yeah, it is weird.

Candace Keener: So Betsy didn't tell anyone. And it wasn't until almost a century after this even supposedly went down that her grandson William Canby, in 1870, addressed the historical society of Pennsylvania with a speech about his paper, The History of the Flag of the United States. And this paper was based on oral stories he'd heard from his grandmother Betsy.

Jane McGrath: And this is an important part. Canby was very open about the fact that he had no hard evidence to support the story. This was, like you mentioned, almost a century - 1870, when he made the speech. So he could only rely on stories he had heard from his late grandmother. If you hear a story from your own grandmother, you're likely to believe it. And so you can see why Canby wanted to publicize this fantastic story. But it is sad that he had not evidence to back himself up.

Candace Keener: It was all anecdotal. And the refrain we keep repeating, "I do not know, but I will try." Supposedly, that's a line that kept being handed down in every retelling of the story. And obviously, he very much was loyal to his grandmother and watned to get this down for the history books, that his grandmother had created the first flag of the United States. And there are definitely reasons to suspect that that's true. Like we said before, if George Ross was her late husband's uncle, he might've known that Betsy could've been struggling financially and she needed a little bit of extra work to help out with the home. And so he could've told George Washington and Robert Morris, "Let's go to Betsy. She can help us with this flag. She could really use the money."

Jane McGrath: One problem with that, though, is that if there were actually a congressional flag committee, you'd think that there would be records of it. Because Congress is pretty good about keeping recoreds. And there's no evidence of such a committee. One writer, Ed Cruise, brought up the point that if there were such a committee, it's unlikely that George Washington would be a member of it because he wasn't a member of Congress.

Candace Keener: And so my response to that would be, well maybe Betsy d idn't quite understand how they were identifying themselves.

Jane McGrath: That's a good point.

Candace Keener: Maybe she embellished the story. She didn't really know what sort of representation they were making of themselves. She just called them some sort of congresstional committee. Or maybe she even said, "These men came," and family members later retold the story and said they were a congressional committee.

Jane McGrath: You're really gungho for Betsy's story, aren't you?

Candace Keener: I really like Betsy. Come on. But June 14, 1777, Congress passed a law about the flag and clearly identified the flag as having 13 red and white stripes and 13 stars on a blue background, not dissimilar to the one that Betsy was said to have helped make.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, so that's one piece of evidence we know. We know by that point they knew what the flag was going to look like.

Candace Keener: And even more concrete evidence would be that on May 29, 1777, the Pennsylvania State Navy Board paid Betsy for making flags. The problem here is, did they pay her for making the first original American flag? Or did they pay her for recreating and making more of the same design that someone else had already created.

Jane McGrath: And not to play devil's advocate - I think you're going to lynch me in a few seconds for bringing up all these holes in the story. But there's no evidence to show that George Washington actually knew or dealt with Betsy. Like the story says, he was supposed to be a family friend who had called on her many times. And there's no evidence in letters or anything. Washington never mentioned her name or anything like that. That's not to say that this is evidence against, it's just lack of evidence. So we need to keep that in mind when we're thinking about the historical accuracy of the story, I guess.

Candace Keener: So this brings us to part two of the grand American flag story. And that is a real Renaissance man - and a looker judging from his old portraits - and that's Francis Hopkinson, who was descended from an Englishman who was actually friends with Benjamin Franklin. And his father died when Francis was pretty young, and his widowed mother made it a priority to give Francis a good education. I think most mothers look at their children and think, "Oh, they're very gifted. I want to do right by them." But in this case, she knew Francis was something special. And he was and I suspect I knew it, too.

Jane McGrath: You think he's arrogant, don't you?

Candace Keener: I do. But he graduated from the College of Philadelphia and became a lawyer. And in addition to law, he also dabbled in science, music, poetry, painting - and he was known for his satirical quips.

Jane McGrath: One thing I like about Hopkinson is that he was an accomplished harpsichord player. And he actually composed a lot of songs, secular and religious songs. And also, a man after my own heart, he wrote a lot of literary essays. And so you can see that he was an incredibly accomplished guy.

Candace Keener: And in addition to those attributes, he was also a congressman of New Jersey and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. So nothing to sneeze at right there. And in addition to that, he was a judge later in life and he was a big pusher for the Constitituion. He wrote a lot of articles that pushed for Pennsylvania to ratify it, so he was an influential politician as well.

Candace Keener: So his name comes up in this debate about the American flag because supposedly he wrote a lot of letters requesting payment for his design of the American flag. And he certainly designed a lot of things. And even his personalized book plate, which got circulated inside a book that he lent to someone and got tossed around through a few hands and eventually came back into this possession. He had a book plate that had three six-pointed stars. And as you'll recall, the six-pointed star was the design that Betsy shot down and improved upon. But I guess it became a trademark of Hopkinson's - or at least associated with his name.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And among other things we know he designed or helped design - such as the seal for the state of New Jersey, Continental Board of Admiralcy seal, seal for American Philosophical Society.

Candace Keener: Seal for the Treasury, too, right?

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and for the great seal of the United States. Apparently he had a hand in that. And as a side note to that, there were suggestions that he was a Mason and he helped incorporate these Masonic symbols and clues into the great seal of the United States. But that's a whole podcast on it's own.

Candace Keener: So he started this letter writing campaign after he supposedly created the flag, because he wanted to be compensated for his work. And he started with a letter to the Board of Admiralty, and then one to Congress which actually included a bill for all of his designs.

Jane McGrath: My favorite part of the story is that when he wrote the original letter he wanted compensation in the form of a quarter cask of public wine. Like you mentioned to me earlier, Candace, I think I should get paid that for writing my articles.

Candace Keener: I think so, too. I'm not going to argue with that. And I think the second letter to Congress got lost or it got ignored in the beaurocratic shuffle of the Board of Treasury. So he resubmitted another letter. And this time he itemized all the different charges for all of his different designs. We know for a fact that there are journals from the Continental Congress that give some evidentiary support to the fact that Hopkinson made the flag. But the Board of Treasury really stood firm by the idea that - and this is a direct quote - "he was not the only person consulted on the flag's design." Which leads me to believe that perhaps Betsy Ross came up with the very nacent design for the flag and then it was passed along to Hopkinson for approval or embellishment.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. Or I would think actually the other way around because of his six-pointed -

Candace Keener: Oh, that's right.

Jane McGrath: So maybe it passed to Betsy after that and maybe it was part of the scrap of paper that she supposedly looked at and based her design on.

Candace Keener: Well, in the end we can't be sure. And if you look at different websites out there about the American flag, and especially ones that are devoted to Hopkinson or devoted to Ross, there's some very biased points of view. So we've been walking a fine line in presenting information. Obviously, I'm swaying toward the Betsy Ross side because I'd like to see the woman get some credit where I think it's due. But the moral of the story, if there is one, is keep good records. Keep good records. There's no reason that as young as our nation is, that the information about who created the first flag shouldn't be on file somewhere.

Jane McGrath: Well now we have picture phones and stuff. If George Washington or Barack Obama comes in, we can snap a picture to prove it.

Candace Keener: There you go. Exactly. And not too long ago, I actually blogged about the story of the Star Spangled Banner, based on a flag that was flown at Ft. McHenry. And Francis Scott Key was inspired by the battle so much that he wrote the Star Spangled Banner. And that blog post was actually based on a reader request. And that's what we do on the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog. We're just that kind of podcast, you guys. You write to us with questions and we will do our best to answer them.

Jane McGrath: That's right. Me and Candace write every day. We post on the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on howstuffworks.com. Come and take a look and leave comments and let us know what you think.

Candace Keener: And as always, you can still reach us by email at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com. And we certainly hope that you will visit the website to read this great article that Jane wrote called, Did Betsy Ross Really Make the First American Flag? On howstuffworks.com.

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