Remember ‘founding mothers’ as flag unfurls

Posted June 29, 2009, at 6:09 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:25 a.m.

When we honor the Stars and Stripes, the flag of our country, it’s usually with thoughts of those who died in its defense. But it seems to me another layer of honor could be acknowledged when the colors are raised or pass by — the anonymous women who stitched, by hand, the first flags that flew over the infant United States of America as it evolved from British colony to sovereign nation.

Only one female name is associated with the design and making of the first American flag, and that is Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom Ross. It’s a story most of us learned in elementary school — how George Washington visited her in 1776 and how after that visit she set to work making the flag. Whether that story is true in every detail is still open to question. However, it is known that in 1777 she was paid by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board for making “ship’s colors,” a fact that establishes her as a maker of flags.

Remember, 1776 was a time before the invention of the sewing machine. Every stitch Betsy Ross and other flag makers took was by hand. Remember, too, that this was a time of war when the normal flow of goods between Great Britain and its American colony had been interrupted. It would not be easy to obtain steel needles if one broke, became dull or was lost. Fabric, too, was not a commodity easily acquired. There were few, if any, American cloth-making factories then. Cloth in America was woven in the home on room-size looms, or imported from some other country — like Great Britain.

Betsy Griscom was born Jan. 1, 1752, in Philadelphia, one of 17 children, the daughter of Samuel and Rebecca James Griscom, who were Quakers. She was apprenticed to an upholsterer named William Webster.

In 1773, Betsy married John Ross, a fellow apprentice, son of Aeneas and Sarah Leach Ross and a member of the Anglican church. Together, they established an upholstery business, which Betsy took over and ran after John was killed in January 1776 while on militia duty.

A year later, Betsy married Joseph Ashburn, a sailor, who died in prison in 1782, after his ship was captured by the British in 1781.

Betsy married again in 1783. This time her husband was John Claypoole, who had been in prison with John Ashburn. Claypoole died in 1817, leaving Betsy a widow for a third time.

Betsy died at age 84 in 1836 in Philadelphia.

What interests me about Betsy Ross more than the legend that she may have stitched the first U.S. flag, is that she was an educated woman who apprenticed to learn the upholstery trade and that she was engaged in that business with her husband or husbands.

Upholstery is the business of covering furniture with padding and material. It’s possible that as normal trade relations with Great Britain waned as armed conflict grew near, Betsy found her upholstery business in jeopardy for lack of materials to work with. Perhaps she took a look around at the rapidly changing society and asked herself what it needed that she could provide. Military uniforms might have come to mind. But she was not a tailor or maker of clothing.

The need for flags always may have been a source of extra revenue for those in the upholstery trade — before the revolution it was the British colors that shops made for ships and public buildings in America to fly. Perhaps, in response to the national conflict, Betsy fastened on the idea of increasing flag production, which surely the young nation would need. No one will ever know for sure because Betsy Ross Ashburn Claypoole remained silent on that point. But even so, her actions point to the fact that she had a flair for business.

It was one of Betsy’s grandsons who told the story of her role in the making of the first American flag — told nearly 100 years later, plenty of time for information to become lost, distorted or embellished. Nevertheless, the grandson’s story was published in Harper’s Monthly magazine in 1873, and it became legend, transforming Betsy Ross into a “founding mother” of America, a role previously noticeably absent, given the long roster of the nation’s “founding fathers.”

Regardless of whether or not Betsy Ross actually made the first U.S. flag, one thing is certain, she is now stitched securely into the history of the nation.

Snippets

The Corinth Historical Society will hold its Doll Show and quilt raffle 1-5 p.m. Sunday, July 12, at the Historical Society Museum, 306 Main St. Admission to the Doll Show is by donation. Raffle tickets will be available for purchase at the show.

The crib-size quilt to be raffled is in the Sunbonnet Sue pattern and made by Carol Walker.

Tickets are $1 or seven for $5. The drawing for the quilt will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 9.

The doll show and raffle are the society’s major fundraising events of the year.

The Corinth Historical Society Museum is open 2-7 p.m. Wednesdays or by appointment.

ahamlin@bangordailynews.net

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