The real Betsy Ross was a hard-nosed, snuff-loving businesswoman.
Though it's hard to be confident about personality quirks from a distance of more than 200 years, the Ross that emerges in Marla Miller's biography was apparently made of much tougher stuff than Hotchkiss' tearful "little widow." Born Elizabeth Griscom in 1752, she was widowed three times and remarried twice with a speed that Miller points out was unusual for the time. Her first wedding was held in a New Jersey tavern. Since it took place outside the Quaker society of her youth, she left the church; she would later join the upstart Free Quakers, a group made up of former members who had been "disowned" for various infractions. Ross further defied her pacifist Quaker upbringing in support of the Revolution.
Though myth has Ross contributing to the flag's design out of devout patriotism, in reality she was a businesswoman. And though early storytellers call her a "seamstress," conjuring visions of prim needlework in the parlor, she was, in fact, an upholsterer, a profession that attracted both women and men. Eighteenth-century upholstery work included heavy tasks like assembling curtains, stuffing mattresses, and covering chairs. Flag-making itself was no delicate enterprise. In 1810—Ross's most prolific flag-making years were during Jefferson and Madison's presidencies, not the early years of the Revolution—she made six garrison flags for a military installation on the Gulf Coast. Each flag required 100,000 stitches and measured 432 square feet. But she wasn't one to turn down work; she took eager advantage of the money that flowed into Philadelphia as it became the national capitol and as successive wars funneled military contract money into the city.
Maybe the strongest reason the myth caught on is because it gave Americans a comforting image of womanhood. As historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich put it in a 2007 paper, "Betsy became famous, not because of what she did or didn't do in the 1770s, but because her story embodied nineteenth-century ideas about the place of women." The Ross of legend is resourceful, dexterous, patriotic, modest, and a skilled craftswoman who has lost her husband but receives a stamp of approval from a powerful man. That this just-so story could also serve as a nationalist creation myth made it all the more attractive.
Ross is not the only early American to be transformed into a wholesome Norman Rockwell figure for public consumption, of course. Think of deist Thomas Jefferson, philandering Ben Franklin, and even Johnny Appleseed, who, as Michael Pollan pointed out, was actually planting those apple trees for distilleries. It's an American habit to scrub clean the ones we love. In Betsy Ross's case, however, there's plenty to admire in the scruffier original. In fact, that pragmatic capitalist mom is more authentically American than any character a storybook writer could dream up.
Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.
"The Birth of Old Glory" by Percy Moran, courtesy the Library of Congress.