When I was a kid in school — maybe it was in the fourth grade, or sixth grade, or maybe the eighth grade, my classmates and I were taught that the first American Flag was made by Betsy Ross. We would read from books illustrated with paintings of her holding the flag in her lap, with George Washington looking over her shoulder.
When we were given a test with the question, “Who made the first American Flag,” nobody in the classroom would write down anything but Betsy Ross.
Betsy Ross, a widow, was an upholsterer who had a shop in Philadelphia. Her late husband was related to Col. George Ross, a contemporary and close associate of then-Col. George Washington.
According to the story often told, she was visited by Ross, Washington and Robert Morris, who said they were looking for someone to make a flag for the United States.
Betsy Ross reportedly said she would give it a try. They told her what they wanted the flag to look like, more or less, gave her a drawing Washington had made, and they left.
The legend that was handed down by descendants of Betsy Ross almost 100 years later, kept pretty close to this narrative. And there was no reason not to believe it.
Yet, as you know, historians always try to get in the way of a good story. They are like cops, newspaper reporters doctors, scientists and others who like to see some evidence of an assertion.
And here is what has been been found. Or, hasn’t been found. There is no evidence other than stories passed down by a grandson after almost 100 years, that Betsy Ross made the first flag or designed it.
There’s no question that she made flags, and there seems to be some evidence that the flags she made used five-pointed stars instead of six-pointed ones, as Washington allegedly said he wanted. The original 13-stars-in-a-circle design is often called the Betsy Ross Flag because there exists so much lore about how that design came to be.
But historians at the Smithsonian believe the actual designer may have been Francis Hopkinson, an employee of the Navy and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and who wrote a letter asking for a quarter-barrel of wine for his design. He did not get it.
Those who believe Betsy Ross was the designer or manufacturer of another famous flag also will be disappointed. She had nothing to do with the design or sewing of the original Star-Spangled Banner, the storied flag which flew over Ft. McHenry in the war of 1812, of which so much has been sung and to which so much symbolism has been attached, and which rests in the Smithsonian under considerable security and careful conservation.
According to the Joint Committee on Printing of the website military.com, the actual originator of that famous flag more likely was one Mary Pickersgill, who occupied what is now called The Flag House, which still stands today at the corner of Albemarle and Pratt Streets in Baltimore, Maryland.
Mary Pickersgill, who was a seamstress, must have been a very strong woman, and she must have had a lot of help. That flag measured 30 by 42 feet; the stripes were two feet wide and the stars were two feet from point to point.
She was paid $405.90 for her labors, and the flag was delivered to Ft. McHenry on Aug. 19, 1813, a full year before the Battle of Baltimore.
Mary Pickersgill also is credited with being in on the making of the first flags of the Revolution, which she credits to her grandmother, Rebecca Young.
Who knows who is right? It appears all these women, and probably more, had a hand in making the first flags of the Revolution, and that Mary Pickersgill supervised and did a lot of the sewing of what later became known as the Star-Spangled Banner.
If someone were to ask me tomorrow who made the first American flag, I probably would say Betsy Ross, only now I would say, “she made one of them,” and then I would change the subject. People don’t like to have their legends challenged.
When we celebrate Flag Day on June 14, we celebrate not those who made the flag, but what the flags symbolize. When you see flags flying at Memorial Courthouse Park and the city’s two cemeteries on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and when you see them flying anywhere on Flag Day, remember that it is the symbol of the greatest and most productive experience in self government that history has known, and that as long as it waves it will designate, as Frances Scott Key wrote of The Star-Spangled Banner, “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”