Pulse: Chatter: Her Story: True Colors

An exhibit at the Betsy Ross House shows the flag-maker in a new light

I visited the Betsy Ross House at 2nd and Arch the other day to see a new re-creation of the upholstery shop where Betsy worked. I don’t recall learning in fourth grade that she slipcovered chairs, built Venetian blinds and hung wallpaper for a living, and was tossed out of her Quaker meetinghouse for eloping with a fellow apprentice, the Anglican John Ross. Nor did I know that after John died in a gunpowder explosion, Betsy married twice more — to Joseph Ashburn, who died in prison in England, and then to John Claypoole, who brought her the news of Ashburn’s death. She also bore seven daughters, took in a widowed daughter and her six children, and, when upholstery commissions were scarce, packed musket balls for the Continental Army in her cellar.

And I never realized, till I toured her house, how subversive Betsy’s flag-making was. An act I’d always pictured as tranquilly domestic was in fact totally treasonable. That, explains BRH director Lisa Acker Moulder, is why Betsy received the flag’s commissioners — George Washington, her uncle George Ross, and Robert Morris — in a back parlor, and sewed the flag clandestinely. “She helped a cause that wasn’t popular at that point,” Moulder notes. “And she was a Quaker — a pacifist by upbringing. For her to take a side in the war was brave.”

Moulder and her staff have been restoring the house and revamping Betsy’s image as a mob-capped dilettante. Their efforts should be helped by the publication in May of a first-ever scholarly biography, Betsy Ross and the Making of America, by UMass-Amherst historian Marla R. Miller. “Betsy Griscom Ross went to work in the upholstery trades as a teenager,” Miller notes. “She worked through three marriages and three widowhoods. She lived through the upheaval of the Revolution, the early years of nation-building, the War of 1812 — and all along, she worked six days a week to provide for her family.” She sewed flags for U.S. military outposts from New Orleans to Fort Niagara, and didn’t retire until she was 76 and going blind.

At Betsy’s house, Moulder and I make our way down a narrow, twisting staircase. Everybody thinks the houses are tiny because people were smaller then, but Moulder says that isn’t so;  it’s just that they lived in less space. The same could be said of women. Crowded off the world’s stage by men, they made history in back rooms and basements, with needle and thread, molten lead and gunpowder, breast milk and rocking chairs. “Women have always juggled work and family,” Miller says, “even at the nation’s founding, and in the making of its most important symbol.” This is Women’s History Month. Celebrate by taking your daughter to meet the real Betsy. Better yet, take your son.