For centuries, little has been known about Betsy Ross’s actual life, but she’s been an American icon almost from the beginning: as legend has it, she’s the woman who created the first American flag. Yet considering the myth-like role in the American Revolution, it’s shocking to realize that no biography had ever been published about Ross’s life until Marla R. Miller decided to write Betsy Ross and the Making of America. Even more unfortunate is the fact that so much of Ross’s life is now lost to the winds of history; few records remained by the time of her death, and much of what did survive was either destroyed or lost. Most historians — Miller included — also agree that Ross probably didn’t create the first American flag. So who was this woman, and how did she end up with such a storied role in United States history? Miller manages to piece together an impressive biography as she set out to answer those questions.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom was born on New Year’s Day in 1752, the eighth of seventeen children. Her parents were Quakers, though their children — including Betsy, who was supposed to marry within the church but didn’t — would clash with the church years down the road. She picked up her sewing skills by being an upholsterer’s apprentice, a job that would serve her well and keep her family fed in the nation’s rough first decades. Widowed twice by the time she was thirty (first by John Ross, then by Joseph Ashburn), it was John Claypoole whom she would be with for most of her life.
Most notably, the time frame that her legend stems from comprises only a tiny slice of her life, occurring during her two-year-long first marriage to John Ross. Her husband was a member of the local militia, and women were also encouraged to participate in the war effort by buying American products, being virtuous and patriotic, and having some knowledge of politics; these were all efforts that headstrong and decisive Betsy embraced.
Legend has it that George Washington came into her upholstery shop with flag ideas, and that Ross gave her input and later created the first American flag. There were a few other women in the area who were making flags at the time, and it’s impossible to say who made the first one. In any event, it’s unlikely that Ross created the first one. Instead, Miller writes:
The Betsy Ross story is usually treated as a matter of design, but it is not — it is a matter of production. Perhaps Hopkinson (or Washington) sketched a design involving red and white stripes, a blue canton and a field of six-pointed stars, which the craftswoman Ross…improved by demonstrating the efficiency of five points. The experienced upholsterer simply pointed out that if the rebel government needed a lot of these — and fast — then five pointed stars were much easier to make. She was speaking as a fabricator — a prospective contractor in need of cash, who surely hoped that a large government order might come her way.
Regardless of her actual role in the making of the flag, I was fascinated just learning about flag-making during that era in general, as everything had to be sewn by hand. Later in the book, Miller describes an order that Ross filled:
Betsy’s whole home around this time occupied just 468 square feet per floor; an 18-by-24-foot flag unfolds to 432 square feet. Each article demanded some twenty-four feet of seams for each of the thirteen stripes (and these seams were felled, which means that the length was stitched twice), not to mention the assembly of the canton, the application of the stars, and so forth. In all, each flag required more than one hundred thousand stitches.
She also mentions the work of flag makers Rebecca Young (whose descendants also claim made the first American flag) and her daughter, Mary Pickersgill. Pickersgill is most known for creating the actual Star Spangled Banner (with the help of family, friends, and servants); the flag was thirty-by-forty-two-feet long and incorporated hundreds of yards of fabric. As someone who occasionally sews (and gets impatient sewing a couple of straight yards on a sewing machine!), I can’t imagine doing all of that stitching by hand. And it wasn’t just flags that were sewn; upholsterers at the time did everything from creating curtains, ropes, and tassels, to covering furniture, to building mattresses by hand — all painstaking work that required speed, skill, and strength.
Not only does Miller manage to create a readable, vibrant portrait of Betsy Ross from scattered historical records, she also paints a fascinating picture of Philadelphia and of the city’s working women. Even more interesting is that the actual flag-making Besty Ross section is only a small part of the book; most of it is about Betsy as Betsy Claypoole, who lived a long and eventful life. It was the Claypoole grandchildren, descendants of her third marriage, who seized the opportunity of the nation’s centennial celebration in order to establish their grandmother’s place in history. Though the myth is likely false, Betsy rightfully deserves this in-depth exploration of her life.
Betsy Ross and the Making of America was originally released on hardcover in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company. It was released on paperback by St. Martin’s Griffin on June 7, 2011.