Was the Betsy Ross House the Birthplace of the U.S. Flag?

Betsy Ross Presenting the Old Glory, Walter Haskell Hinton, 1950

Betsy Ross Presenting the Old Glory, painted by Walter Haskell Hinton in 1950 - nearly two centuries after the alleged scene took place.
This scene is set at some point in May or June 1776, just prior to the nation's Declaration of Independence on July 4.

The three gentlemen pictured, from left to right, are General George Washington, commander of the American Continental Army, and two members of the Continental Congress - both of whom would sign the Declaration.

The figure in the center is Colonel George Ross, the uncle of Betsy's first husband, John Ross, who had been killed in an accidental explosion, while on militia duty, less than six months earlier, in January 1776. The other, on the right, is Robert Morris, known as the "Financier" of the American Revolution, due to his invaluable services in keeping the fledgling nation solvent.

But did anything in this scene actually take place? Read more... and draw your own conclusions...

Betsy Ross House

The Betsy Ross House, 239 Arch Street (Arch Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets)

View The Betsy Ross House in a larger map

As for the question in the headline-

Was the Betsy Ross House the Birthplace of the U.S. Flag?

We're not really sure.

And if we had to guess, probably not.

So why should you visit the Betsy Ross House, you might understandably ask?

Here's the reason. Although she probably did not sew the first American flag, Betsy Ross was, in fact, a real 18th century American, living in what is now Old City Philadelphia. Elements of the story are true.

Ross led a particularly colorful life, against the backdrop of stirring historical events. She was, in fact, a skilled tradeswoman- namely, an upholsterer (although often described as a seamstress) in Philadelphia.

Ross was also a genuine patriot, who buried two husbands, both of whom died while serving the American cause, one in the militia and one as a merchant sailor. And it is worthwhile to visit her house, regardless of whether she owns the distinction of having sewn the first American flag.

The Betsy Ross House is unique, among Philadelphia's plethora of historic places to visit. The main reason being that it is the only one of the major attractions, in which genuine doubt exists, as to whether the traditional story is correct. To use but three of the most prominent examples, nobody doubts the origins of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Franklin Court, or of the surrounding events.

In marked contrast, historians have substantial doubt, about the legend of the American flag's origins with Betsy Ross and her house in Old City.

For what it's worth, we believe that the core of the Betsy Ross story - that is, her alleged sewing of the first American flag - is primarily a legend.

But in some ways, that makes her story more enjoyable. America's relatively short history is also relatively short on figures couched in myth and oral tradition, and this is undoubtedly the strongest example related to Philadelphia.

It is worth noting that Betsy Ross never claimed credit for sewing the first American flag during her lifetime, nor was it ever officially - that is, specifically - documented. There is a reference to her making "ship's colours", but not the American flag, specifically, or the first one.

It is possible that Betsy Ross's silence on the subject, could be attributed to Quaker modesty. However, she was willing to marry a non-Quaker and join the "Fighting Quakers", both of which also ran contrary to fundamental Quaker tenets. Accordingly, it does not seem plausible, that her silence was primarily due to compliance with Quaker social mores, on the question of taking public credit for one's accomplishments.

However, in the 19th century, as American nationalism was burgeoning, there was a strong interest in the exciting events, which had enveloped the nation's birth, in the preceding, 18th century. The fact that there was no suitable story for the flag's origins, was a significant problem for those storytellers, who were trying to shape an American epic saga.

And so when one of Betsy Ross's descendants claimed that family tradition held that his ancestor had sewn the first flag, many were willing - even eager - to take him at his word.

However, the legend, given its comparatively late provenance, and the unpleasant reality that there is insufficient historical documentation of it, means that historians do not accept it as literal truth.

In summary, they do not believe that Betsy Ross actually sewed the first flag. And we agree with them.

But even though the legend - probably - isn't true, a visit to the Betsy Ross House is still an enjoyable time in Philadelphia. (And you never know. Maybe the legend is true, and we'll all be proven wrong someday.)

So then, who was the historical Betsy Ross? Click here to read more about the life of this extraordinary American patriot.

Do you have questions on her life? We try to separate the many aspects of her remarkable legend from historical fact in our Betsy Ross: Frequently Asked Questions.

You can also read our timeline of her life, "Thrice Married, Thrice Widowed, Thrice Buried" - The Chronology of the Life of Betsy Ross, by clicking here.

Visiting the Betsy Ross House

For the most up-to-date information on visiting the House, the best option is the official Betsy Ross House web site, and, in particular, its "Visit" page.

The Betsy Ross House is located at 239 Arch Street in Old City Philadelphia - i.e., on Arch, between 2nd and 3rd Streets, in the heart of the most historic square mile in America.

Admission (a donation suggested by the House) is $3 for adults and $2 for children.

The House predates the Revolutionary War itself, having been constructed around 1740 or so - over thirty years before the war started in April 1775. The building was not occupied solely by Betsy Ross herself, of course, nor was it built by her or her family.

Prior to Ross, it was home to a shoemaker, a shopkeeper and an apothecary. It is estimated that Ross lived there, between 1773 and 1785 (i.e., the era of the Revolutionary War, which began in 1775 and was not officially ended, until 1783).

In the 19th century, the House was eventually purchased by a German immigrant family by the name of Mund, which used the House for a variety of businesses - a tailor shop, a cigar shop, and a tavern.

The Munds tried to capitalize on the legend, posting a sign on the House which claimed that "First Flag of the US Made in This House". The long-standing belief that it was the home of the flag, had been established by the time of the nation's Centennial celebrations in 1876. During that year, the Munds made a more elaborate assertion. They hung out the following advertisement for their tavern:

"Original Flag House, Lager, Wine, and Liquors. This is the house where the first United States flag was made by Mrs. John Ross."

Victorian Times: Charles Weisberger and His Family Effectively Promotes Betsy Ross as the Maker of the First American Flag

Birth of Our Nation's Flag by Charles Weisberger via Betsy Ross House

Birth of Our Nation's Flag, by Charles Weisgerber, 1892. Courtesy of the Betsy Ross House. This painting, more than any factor, is primarily responsible for the widespread belief that Betsy Ross sewed and/or designed the first American flag during the Revolutionary War. But it was not painted, until well over a century, after the alleged event took place.

In 1892, an individual by the name of Charles Weisberger painted a version of the event titled Birth of Our Nation's Flag, which showed Betsy Ross presenting the Stars and Stripes to her husband, George Ross, George Washington, and Robert Morris, another signer of the Declaration of Independence. Morris, the wealthiest man in America at the time, was justifiably known as the "Financier of the Revolution", and there is a statue of him near Independence Hall.

However, late in the 19th century, the increasing industrialization of the area had meant the demolition of many of the 18th-century buildings.

As early as 1898, a citizens' group was formed to save the Betsy Ross House, named the American Flag Group and Betsy Ross Memorial Association. Their goal was to purchase the house from the Munds, restore it to its 18th-century appearance, and preserve the memory of Betsy Ross and the flag.

Weisberger, a leading member of the Association, moved his family into the house in 1898. Upon doing so, he opened two rooms to the public - a room to view the flag's origins, and a souvenir shop.

To raise the funds for purchasing the House, the Association sold lifetime memberships, for the then-considerable sum of ten cents. Each was encouraged to recruit other members and form a subgroup of 30; the founding member of each group received a ten-inch chromolithograph of Weisberger's painting, suitable for framing.

Much like nearby Elfreth's Alley, the Betsy Ross House was fortunate to escape the wrecking ball, during the 20th century. By the 1930s, the pace of continued industrialization had led to Old City Philadelphia being very rundown and dilapidated. The Betsy Ross House was the only 18th-century house, on that block, still in existence.

In another parallel with Elfreth's Alley, the decisive act that preserved the House took place in that decade. With the House badly needing renovation, the radio tycoon Atwater Kent put up the funds for the necessary work.

Betsy Ross House

Plaque commemorating the "patriotic generosity" of Atwater Kent, which saved the Betsy Ross House from demolition - dedicated 1937

Following the restoration, in 1937, the House was formally made into a museum, thus preserving it for future generations. Kent also purchased the two properties immediately adjacent to the House, in order to provide a "civic garden", and the expanded site was then given to the City of Philadelphia in 1941.

The fact that the House was widely held to have been the birthplace of the American flag, was the only reason it survived the massive social changes, that had taken place since Ross's occupancy in the 18th century.

So even if the story isn't literally true, it can accurately claim credit, for protecting the Betsy Ross House, from almost certain demolition.

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