The real Betsy Ross was a hard-nosed, snuff-loving businesswoman.

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July 2 2010 10:25 AM

Sew Tough

The real Betsy Ross was a hard-nosed, snuff-loving businesswoman.

Betsy Ross. Click image to expand.
"The Birth of Old Glory," one popular depiction of Betsy Ross 

Any second grader can tell you that early in the American Revolution, a Philadelphia woman named Betsy Ross made an American flag. She often appears in this flag creation account as a demure seamstress simply eager to help out the Revolutionary effort in any way she could. This is the narrative you'll hear in countless children's books—think Betsy Ross and the Silver Thimble. But what books like Silver Thimble won't tell you is that she also accepted a hefty £14 payment (roughly $2,000 in today's dollars) for that "first" flag. Or that she was married three times. The Betsy Ross that emerges in recent research is no sweet seamstress, but rather a tough businesswoman fond of dark snuff and storytelling. Until now, Betsy Ross hasn't received much serious attention by historians, who have treated her story something like young Washington and his cherry tree. That's starting to change. April saw the publication of the first scholarly biography of Ross, historian Marla Miller's affectionate, meticulously researched Betsy Ross and the Making of America. In October, an exhibit called "Betsy Ross: The Life Behind the Legend" will open at Winterthur, a Delaware museum focused on historical Americana. So how did a defense contractor rejected by the Quaker church become the milquetoast matron of the story told to schoolchildren? It was a combination of Ross's own self-mythologizing, her descendants' familial boosterism, patriotic interest in the U.S. centennial, and the tale's alignment with notions of proper 19th-century femininity.

According to the whitewashed legend, Betsy Ross was a mild-mannered seamstress living in Philadelphia. Sometime in 1776, General George Washington and two other members of the Continental Congress entered the Widow Ross' humble home and asked her to make a flag. Washington had the idea to incorporate six-pointed stars, but Ross demonstrated a clever folding method that produced a five-pointed star with a single snip of the scissors, making it easier to mass-produce. The general approved the design, and the rest is history.

The cleaned-up version of Ross's story couldn't have been more appealing if it were written by Frank Capra. Fundamentally democratic, it includes an ordinary American rewarded for cleverness and common sense, a woman triumphing through domestic arts, and the approval of George Washington himself. Historian Michael Frisch has written that Ross occupies a similar place in American history as the Virgin Mary occupies in the Christian story: "Washington [as God the Father] calls on the humble seamstress Betsy Ross in her tiny home and asks if she will make the nation's flag, to his design. And Betsy promptly brings forth—from her lap!—the nation itself, and the promise of freedom and natural rights for all mankind."

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It would be easy to blame the tidying up of the Ross story on fusty historians with an aversion to outspoken women, but the truth is more complicated. Ross apparently told a version of this yarn herself in her dotage, but it was her grandson, William Canby, who propelled it into the national consciousness. In 1870, he read a paper expounding on it to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, based on affidavits signed by several other descendents. The tale was an immediate hit.

The timing was right, too. The U.S. centennial in 1876 prompted a flurry of interest in Canby's tale. There were few prominent female figures in the standard story of the country's early years, so artists, teachers, and politicians eagerly latched on to Ross, along with Abigail Adams and Molly Pitcher. Her celebrity snowballed throughout the 20th century, when you could find Betsy Ross dolls, songs, sewing machines, pageants, pianos, decanters, paintings, and even Pez dispensers. And though the veracity of her story was publicly questioned as early as 1872, she remains a popular figure. More than 260,000 people toured her home in Philadelphia last year.

In myth, Betsy Ross is clever and girlish. Chauncey Hotchkiss's 1901 biography Betsy Ross: A Romance of the Flag has her teasingly correcting George Washington about his initial flag design, blushing at her own charming impudence, and finally, "with two great tears hanging on her lashes," giving Washington credit for the flag. In Canby's account, Ross replies to Washington "with her usual modesty and self reliance, that 'she did not know but she could try; she had never made one but if the pattern were shown to her she had not doubt of her ability to do it.' " Her legend also has her crafting lace for Washington's shirt, which Miller concludes is almost certainly apocryphal but nonetheless adds to her delicate image.

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