Betsy Ross (1752-1836) – A three-cent stamp issued in 1952, for the bicentennial of her birth
Like many other colonial women, Betsy Ross was a businesswoman throughout her long life, during which she was married three times and widowed twice. She is known by the name of her first husband, even though that was the briefest of her marriages. Nor was her primary occupation the seamstress work that might be expected: she ran a thriving upholstery business in Philadelphia, at a time when that was the nation’s largest city.
Named Elizabeth Griscom at birth, she married John Ross in November 1773; in January 1776, he died in an accidental gunpowder explosion while on militia duty. George Washington is said to have commissioned Betsy Ross to make an American flag six months later, in June of 1776, presumably offering her the job because an uncle of her late husband was a friend to Washington. She remarried a year later and also lost her second husband, Joseph Ashburn, to the Revolution; he died in a British prison in 1782. A final marriage changed her name to Claypool, and she bore seven children by the two husbands who were not named Ross.
Betsy Ross’ place in American history rests solely on the flag-making episode, yet it is possible that this event—the only glimpse of women’s history in many older textbooks—never occurred. That there was no contemporaneous record of it is not surprising: the independence that was declared in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776 (a month following the presumed flag commissioning) was, of course, treason to the prevailing government. It therefore would be understandable if Washington and Ross conspired secretly—but if the event was of the historical importance that has been attached to it, what is surprising is that Washington never spoke of it, although he generously praised the contributions of other women. More significantly, the first written record of the story did not appear until 1870, nearly a century later.
Numerous flags were used during the Revolution by various military units, and in all probability, Betsy Ross did create at least one: Pennsylvania disbursement records include a payment to her for “ship’s colours, etc.” – but there was no mention of her when Congress adopted a flag of “thirteen stripes in alternate red and while…and thirteen stars, white in a field of blue.”
She may indeed have played a role in the evolution of the flag, for she clearly did manufacture “colours.” The point that is lost in the legend, however, is that many other women were involved in the sewing of the era’s several flags. Instead of a singular seamstress, Betsy Ross should be remembered as an enterprising woman who twice survived widowhood. She also invested in land, and when she died at 88, left a valuable estate and a business that was run by her daughter.