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."

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.

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.

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Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.