Most people may think of children’s stories and myths of the American Revolution when they hear the name Betsy Ross, but a recent panel discussion hosted by the American Repertory Theater and the Museum of the American Revolution highlighted various artistic and scholarly attempts to change those impressions.
“The majority of our audience are not necessarily college age or taking college classes right now, so there’s an opportunity for them to revisit some of the things they were taught or not taught as part of their education,” said Sarah Scofield-Mansur, ART’s assistant director of special events and programming who hosted the event.
ART and the Museum of the American Revolution partnered for a virtual event on March 16 discussing the life and times of Betsy Ross, the famed Philadelphia woman who has gone down in history as making the first flag of the United States.
Panelists included Marla Miller, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and author of Betsy Ross and the Making of America, Dr. Aimee Newell, director of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of the American Revolution, and Lenne Klingaman, lead actress in the Broadway show Waitress.
The main take-away from this event was that though Betsy Ross may not have made the very first American flag, she made the flag we know today, and that uncovering her history tells us more about the role of women during the Revolutionary era.
In the Spring of 1776, a committee from Congress approached Betsy Ross at her upholstery shop on Arch Street and commissioned a flag to be made from a drawing.
“She described holding up a piece of paper, folding it up just so, and with one snip of her scissors producing this five pointed star,” Miller said. “To me, that is the nut of the whole story.”
At the time, Miller said, women all across Philadelphia were being commissioned to make flags for ships. Five months after the death of her first husband, John Ross, Betsy Ross picked up one of these contracts. Her five-pointed star design was easier and quicker to produce than the common six-pointed star, and thus was born the design we know today.
Klingaman played Dawn Louise Pinkett in the Broadway musical Waitress. While researching the part, Klingaman learned Pinkett was an avid American Revolution re-enactor who played Betsy Ross at over 35 re-enactments.
“When I found out that nugget of information about Dawn — that she reenacted as Betsy Ross — it was my way into where she feels empowered and she’s a student of history and that’s where her passion lies,” she said.
Klingaman sees her character’s fascination with Betsy Ross as a way to champion the real person more than her usual place in history.
“She is comfortable in this world of history, and she has chosen Betsy, and is a student of the whole time period and how women fit into that,” Klingaman said. “She’s a feminist.”
Miller’s research focuses mainly on women’s work before the Industrial Revolution. She described how she discovered there was little scholarly conversation surrounding Betsy Ross. This served as the catalyst for beginning her work on her book.
Miller’s aim in writing her book was to bring Betsy Ross into the scholarly conversation surrounding the American Revolution.
“Surprisingly little does survive about Betsy Ross,” she said. “All we have are these family stories.”
Historical accounts based on family stories may not always be the most reliable record, Miller said.
“All of us know we are mangling our family stories,” she said. “We have to remember that we are getting the story as told, a few generations away from the original teller.”
Dr. Newell presented artifacts, showing several flags and embroidered pocketbooks from the time. She described how it’s difficult to date certain items because they usually come from family members who tend to conflate the story around a given item.
“It’s definitely a back and forth process between looking at documents, looking into the people and then looking into the objects themselves to see what they say and what they can tell you,” she said.
Dr. Newell described women throughout history as being caretakers of their families’ artifacts. She said women often made their husbands clothes and accessories, and then kept them when their husbands passed away. It is through this process that pieces of material history are preserved today.
Klingaman also described how the gendered divide between arts and crafts as historically significant may have limited a richer historical engagement with Betsy Ross.
“Crafts were deemed women’s work and not worthy of being held on a pedestal like at an art museum,” Klingaman said.
Miller said Betsy Ross’ the shift from general upholster to flag making was a huge change of pace and workload. Ross could work with an efficiency that resulted in her becoming “America’s first government contractor,” she said.
“Some of those orders I found, Betsy has got a suite of flags for a garrison in New Orleans,” she said. “In the book at one point I calculate, based on stitches per inch for a flag this size, and there are 13 stripes, it was something like half a million stitches for this one order.”
The story of Betsy Ross says that she made the first flag. Miller said Ross never claimed she made the very first flag, but only that she made a contribution to it.
There were many designs of the American flag during the revolution, but by the end, one design had been settled on.
“She saw those five pointed stars, she looked at it as her idea,” Miller said. “She recognized her contribution.”
It is this specific contribution that has led to the story of Betsy Ross we know today, and one of taking pride in a craft that speaks to the hidden role of women’s work throughout history, Miller said.
“When she’s telling her children about this moment in her early career she’s telling them she knew George Washington and she taught him something,” Miller said. “It’s artisanal pride that is resonating through that.”
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