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Introduction

Perhaps the best-known figure from the American Revolutionary era who wasn’t a president, general or statesman, Betsy Ross (1752-1836) became a patriotic icon in the late 19th century when stories surfaced that she had sewn the first “stars and stripes” U.S. flag in 1776. Though that story is likely apocryphal, Ross is known to have sewn flags during the Revolutionary War.

Elizabeth Griscom was born on January 1, 1752, in the bustling colonial city of Philadelphia. She was the eighth of 17 children. Her parents, Rebecca James Griscom and Samuel Griscom were both Quakers. The daughter of generations of craftsman (her father was a house carpenter), young Betsy attended a Quaker school and was then apprenticed to William Webster, an upholsterer. In Webster’s workshop she learned to sew mattresses, chair covers and window blinds.

In 1773, at age 21, Betsy crossed the river to New Jersey to elope with John Ross, a fellow apprentice of Webster’s and the son of an Episcopal rector—a double act of defiance that got her expelled from the Quaker church. The Rosses started their own upholstery shop, and John joined the militia. He died after barely two years of marriage. Though family legend would attribute John’s death to a gunpowder explosion, illness is a more likely culprit.

In the summer of 1776 (or possibly 1777) Betsy Ross, newly widowed, is said to have received a visit from General George Washington regarding a design for a flag for the new nation. Washington and the Continental Congress had come up with the basic layout, but, according to legend, Betsy allegedly finalized the design, arguing for stars with five points (Washington had suggested six) because the cloth could be folded and cut out with a single snip.

The tale of Washington’s visit to Ross was first made public in 1870, nearly a century later, by Betsy Ross’s grandson. However, the flag’s design was not fixed until later than 1776 or 1777. Charles Wilson Peale’s 1779 painting of George Washington following the 1777 Battle of Princeton features a flag with six-pointed stars.

Betsy Ross was making flags around that time—a receipt shows that the Pennsylvania State Navy Board paid her 15 pounds for sewing ship’s standards. But similar receipts exist for Philadelphia seamstresses Margaret Manning (from as early as 1775), Cornelia Bridges (1776) and Rebecca Young, whose daughter Mary Pickersgill would sew the mammoth flag that later inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In June 1777, Betsy married Joseph Ashburn, a sailor, with whom she had two daughters. In 1782 Ashburn was apprehended while working as a privateer in the West Indies and died in a British prison. A year later, Betsy married John Claypoole, a man who had grown up with her in Philadelphia’s Quaker community and had been imprisoned in England with Ashburn. A few months after their wedding, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Revolutionary War. They went on to have five daughters.

Over the next decades, Betsy Claypoole and her daughters sewed upholstery and made flags, banners and standards for the new nation. In 1810 she made six 18-by-24-foot garrison flags to be sent to New Orleans; the next year she made 27 flags for the Indian Department. She spent her last decade in quiet retirement, her vision failing, and died in 1836, at age 84.

The records of the U.S. flag’s origins are fragmentary in part because at the time Americans were indifferent to flags as national relics. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written in 1812 but did not become popular until the 1840s. As the 1876 U.S. Centennial approached, enthusiasm for the flag increased.

It was in that environment, in 1870, that Betsy Claypoole’s grandson William Canby presented the family tale to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. At the time several claims on the first flag were surfacing, ranging from other Philadelphia seamstresses to a New Hampshire quilting bee said to have fashioned the banner out of cut-up gowns.

Most such stories, however wishfully sourced, expressed a national desire for symbols of female Revolutionary patriotism, of women materially supporting their fighting men and (just perhaps) showing George Washington a better way to make a star.