Behind the Flag: An Interview With Betsy Ross

Carol Spacht speaks on what it's like to portray Betsy Ross at the Betsy Ross House. Yes, she actually sews flags.

betsy

I’m sewing for the first time, and it’s with Betsy Ross.

I’m helping Betsy stitch a final ring onto one of the bed curtains she’s been sewing. Or, rather, the linens Carol Spacht and two other women who portray the character at the Betsy Ross House have been sewing. Yes, the women who portray Betsy Ross at her eponymous house actually hand-sew — just like Betsy would have.

Most of the rooms at the Betsy Ross House used to be protected by plexiglass barriers. A few years ago they took down many of the barriers and made a room in Betsy Ross’s house into an actual workshop. For the last year, Spacht and two other women who portray Betsy Ross have been sewing the dressings for Betsy’s bed.

In the last few years, Lisa Acker Moulder, director of the Betsy Ross House, has been trying to make the museum less like a house and more like a home. Her house museum is like few others. A marble step in the basement has a divot from hundreds of years of people walking on it. This isn’t Washington’s Mount Vernon. This is a tiny house where a real middle-class seamstress in 18th century Philadelphia lives. “This house can take a punch,” says facilities manager Frank Fisher, who’s been at the Betsy Ross House for 18 years. This is a window into what life in Philadelphia — and urban America — was like at the time of the Revolution.

“We’re trying to get more repeat visitors, especially locals,” says collections manager Kim Staub. “We’re here! We’re not just the crazy Betsy Ross House down the street.”

Last week, I sat down with Carol Spacht to ask her about what it’s like to portray Betsy Ross for Historic Philadelphia, the group that runs the Betsy Ross House, Franklin Square and other Center City attractions. To note: Spacht is in her 50s, so technically she’s portraying Elizabeth Claypoole — Betsy during her third marriage. She’s also portrays Martha Washington, and is Mother Goose at the Please Touch Museum.

How did first come to portray Betsy Ross?

At first I have to drop everything. So, let me take my sip of water — because I am parched.

Betsy takes a sip of water, and begins to become Carol Spacht. Her voice takes on a hint of a Philadelphia accent rather than the Quaker plainspeak she uses when portraying Betsy.

I have been Betsy Ross for close to 23 years, which is a long time. I have worked here for Historic Philadelphia for — I just finished my eleventh season. It was actually through my pastor at the church that I went to. He was good friends with the organist at Radio City Music Hall, George Wesner, and he was inviting him to come for a big patriotic event, and they wanted a Betsy Ross. And as soon as I did it, I recognized that I liked it. And it was fun. I had done children’s theater. I graduated from Eastern University — I’m a local girl, I’m a real Philly girl.

I had done my theater work at Villanova and went right into children’s theater. At that time — well more than 30 years ago — there wasn’t the huge theater scene like there is now. The theater scene in Philly has grown beautifully, but at that time it wasn’t big. And so I worked for two tiny little children’s theaters, one in Germantown and one in Bryn Mawr. And then I got married, and I had kids, and I stopped. But doing Betsy Ross for my church — it was like, “You know, I’m ready to go back in.”

I put myself back in, and started going around to schools. I do schools and civic groups. And then the opportunity arrived here, it just dovetailed at the right time when they needed a Betsy. And that’s how I started — thinking I was going to do a summer job. One summer! And that was 11 seasons ago. And then they decided to expand the job and I was in the right position at the right time, and I liked it.

What drew you to wanting to work at the Betsy Ross House?

If you’re playing Betsy, don’t you want to be at the Betsy Ross House? This is an honor to do this. This is a privilege. The commonness of Betsy is attractive to me. It’s the understanding that she was one of us, she was working. She wasn’t a rich person. And she struggled. She was resilient. You meet Betsy Ross, you know Betsy was resilient. Three husbands, and she went on.

How did you come up with the voice, and how do you get into it?

It is an interpretation choice. There are two elements to my speech: The first one is that I choose to speak with what reads as a British accent, but which is not a true British accent. The vocalization of it is much more American. If you compare what I say with what a true Englishman says, I’m not going to sound exactly the same.

First and foremost, the reason I choose to do an accent is to remind people this is British America. You cannot imagine the number of people who are like, “Oh, yeah.” And that to me is the most valid reason for choosing the accent. Because I don’t want you to forget that we were under English rule. And that reminds people of that. But my voice is also distinctly American, because language took years to change. And the linguists fight it out as to what did they sound like. There are no sound recordings, so nobody knows. So that’s why it’s a choice. They have hints on certain things about the accent, I don’t necessarily choose because it won’t read as being British. Because if it’s too Americanized I lose the reason why I’m even bothering to do an accent. Some people don’t like it, I’m sure, and some people love it.

If I just speak like this now, you don’t get transported to a different time. My costume only transports so much. I don’t worry that my accent isn’t “pure British.” And some people will be offended — I don’t care. Because I am an American who is under England. And if you’re catching that drift and being pulled back into a time when this was British America, and we’re trying to decide, are we British or are we America then that’s what I want my voice to say. Are we British or are we America?

The second thing, that’s most important, is the choice to use Quaker speech. Thee, thou, and thy. Because, again, we don’t know what Betsy sounded like. But she was raised as a Quaker. And in her time, using that plain speech — thee, thou, and thy — was done. I had one woman who came up to me and goes, “You know, thee and thou are singular, and you is plural. So you should really be using ‘you.’” I said, “My dear, I am well aware of the rules of speech. But I say when I speak to friends there may be 30 in this room, but I am speaking to each of thee individually.” And she goes, “Oh.” And she got it. Yes, I understand rules of speech, and that I should be using “You.” But where would I put the Quaker in it? But that’s the choice you make as an interpreter. I am more concerned that you remember that Betsy was Quaker, rather than saying, “Oh, there’s two people in the room, I have to switch to ‘you’!” That Quaker speech sets Betsy apart.

It opens the door to talk about her. British accent, opens a door. Quaker speech, opens a door. People think, “Are you Quaker”? I have a door! I have something to talk about. “Why are you speaking with a British accent?” I have a door to open. So that’s the purpose in making those choices that allow you to open doors that allow you to interpret more fully.

At my age, one of her daughters has already been widowed. You sometimes get to talk about all of that — what it’s like to be a woman that’s working and suffering.

A few years ago they took down the glass separating the rooms and started to have Betsy actually sew in the House. How was that transition?

I knew how to sew. When I started to do her here, I made my own costumes. I sewed as a child. One of my first questions my first weekends here was, “Do you have a flag?” And I said, “If I’m going to do Betsy, I’m going to do a flag.” I’m making about a flag a year.

But I’m picking away at it. If Betsy were making a flag, she’d be making it in a week. I check my hours — that’s why when I say my flag is just about 9 feet long, almost 10, and I cataloged 40 hours. So, about a week.

Did you have to teach the other women who portray Betsy how to sew?
Some of them have come in with sewing skills, and some of them have not. But I have been so impressed with the sewing skills of the two girls we have right now. I trust them. And the one girl had never sewed, ever, and she said she felt like she had mittens on her hands trying to learn. And the other girl had had some while she was young. And they sew beautifully. And it gives me such confidence in them.

We do run it as an 18th-century shop. So, as senior Betsy — and always “old Betsy” — I have more experience than them, I run it as the master of the shop. Ours is not a strict reproduction, we are adapting from several different curtains. I do the layout, I do the major cutting. I leave the sewing to the girls. They have sewed like 90 percent of it. I am busy doing the thinking that I have to do to make sure that it’s done right. I want to measure twice and cut once.

How do you deal with large groups of children and obnoxious questions?
Learning to deal with the school groups, you have to understand the efficiency of moving that many people through. You are coming at a slow time of the year, and it seems so leisurely. Usually, it’s not. We’ve had a line from the gate through the courtyard down the street. And we have hundreds of people come through.

The girls who work Thursday and Friday, they’re younger than me – they work the harder shifts, I’m not going to lie to you. Their stamina is stronger. They get very efficient on moving them through. You need to tell them a little bit, and then move on. Right now I can leisurely take those questions. You can’t do that during school season.

What do you like to talk to patrons about?
You want people to be open. And that’s what I look for. Can you be open to hearing Betsy’s story? You hope that people come here with one set of expectations, and they do — she sewed a flag, or I don’t really believe this. And our job is to try to show them this picture and change their expectations so when they leave, they say, “Oh, I actually learned something.”

How tiring is the job?
Exhausting! And I’m not going to deny that. You work. Because if you do the job right, you are constantly interacting. I was ready to come out and take a break because my voice was being parched. You’re doing this balance, and then I had to extract myself. You have to learn how to extract yourself in a way that feels that you haven’t rushed the people, that you’re still available for them, but at the same time it was time for me to go. You’re always working this shuffling game.

It does take a lot of time. I have figured it takes two years to train a Betsy. You have to learn how to sew, how to interact with all these different sorts of groups, how to actually feel comfortable about it. At two years, you’re beginning to say, “Okay, I have the handle on it.”

What are some of your favorite events you’ve worked as Betsy Ross or another character?
This job is a privilege. If you just think it’s a job, there’s no fun. We’re doing the same thing over and over again and learning how to do the repetition is really, really hard — and to still be fresh, and to be different, that’s a challenge. But the opportunities can be interesting. I have been to the White House under the Bush administration, I did the Congressional picnics. Two days I got to spend in Washington, which was awesomely cool.

My absolute favorite was when Michelle Obama was in the city. I was the Betsy who got to have the time with Michelle and her two daughters. And let me tell you Michelle Obama is just absolutely amazing. And her daughters are just beautiful. And I’m not going to get that own my own. That’s the kind of job that is rare.

But then there’s the funny ones. Every one of us who are Betsys have been filmed for different things, or we’ve met sports celebrities. One of the girls did something for the NBA Draft. I’ve done something for the Flyers and sewn a Flyer flag. One of the girls: This drag queen came, and she got to be Betsy with a drag queen.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.