Elizabeth, “Betsy,” Ross is often credited with having made the first United States flag, but this Philadelphia woman was also a great businesswoman and Revolution ally.
Living in Philly one often hears of the Founding Fathers and their great service to our Nation, but what about our Founding Mothers and the other women who helped shape the history of a city that has often gone hand in hand with the history of the country? March is Women’s History Month and marks a special time to celebrate the hundreds of Philadelphia women who have shaped and continue to shape the history of the city, and Elizabeth Ross is one of them.
Betsy Ross is often credited with having made the first U.S. flag. According to a story brought to light by her grandson, William Canby, in 1870, Ross managed to convince George Washington to change the six-pointed stars on his early design for a national flag by five-pointed ones, demonstrating the latter were easier and quicker to cut out, and then went on to create the very first national flag.
Canby’s story about her grandmother being the maker of the very first national flag has often been disputed, but who was the real woman behind the flag? Well, let me tell you the story of Elisabeth Griscom Ross, upholsterer and patriot.
Betsy Ross (née Griscom) was born in Gloucester City, NJ, in 1752 to a family of Quakers. She was the eighth daughter of carpenter Samuel Griscom and his wife Rebecca Griscom’s 17 children, and one of the nine to make it into adulthood. Taught to sew at a young age by her aunt Susan Elizabeth Ann Griscom, Betsy has often been portrayed as a seamstress, but in fact, her father apprenticed her to popular Philadelphia upholsterer, William Webster, after she had graduated from school.
Under Webster, Betsy learned how to make and repair curtains, bed covers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas, Venetian blinds and even mattresses. While training to be an upholsterer, she also met fellow apprentice John Ross who would soon become her husband and business partner. Unlike his wife, John was Anglican so the young couple eloped and got married in 1773 causing Betsy to be kicked out of the Quaker Community.
The Rosses established their own upholstery in Philadelphia and became quite popular. In 1774 it would seem the Rosses were hired to make linen sheets and three beds, including canopies, sheets and covers, made from cotton calico and lined with muslin for George Washington, and received the hefty amount of 55 pounds, 12 shillings and sixpence for their work, according to a receipt unearthed in 2015.
In 1775, when the Revolutionary War broke out, John Ross joined the Pennsylvania Provincial Militia and was killed shortly after in a gunpowder explosion. Betsy became a widow at the young age of 24 but she continued to run her upholstery business out of her residence in 239 Arch St., known nowadays as the Besty Ross House.
It is during this time that George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross (uncle of her late husband) are said to have visited Betsy to ask for her help in making the first national flag. While Canby’s story is somewhat riddled with holes because of a lack of concrete evidence, there is still other records that suggest she could have actually made the flag.
For example, Washington’s 1774 commission suggests that he would’ve been well acquainted with the quality of her work and the fact that during this time Betsy also took to making flags for the Continental Army and the Penn Navy ( a job that could have gotten her trialed for treason if caught) and continued to do so for the next 5o years, also suggests she was well versed in flag making.
But whether we choose to believe the “Betsy Ross Flag” story or not, the truth is that Ross was a fairly known businesswoman who showed great support for the Revolution and, like many upholsterers during the Revolutionary War, she took to making and repairing uniforms, tents, blankets and even stuffing gunpowder cartridges for the Continental Army.
After the war, Betsy moved out of 239 Arch St. and went on to marry mariner Joseph Ashburn in 1777 only to find out she was a widow once again in 1780. Three years later, she married John Claypoole, the man who had told her about her husband’s death, in 1783 and had five daughters with him. All the while, Ross continued to run her upholstery and flag-making business until 1827 when she moved away to the countryside with her daughter Susana, leaving her daughter Clarissa to run the upholstery.
Elizabeth Griscom Ross died in 1836 but didn’t become known as a Revolutionary icon until almost 40 years later when her grandson brought her story into the light. During the 19th century, there was an effort to portray her as a prim and proper seamstress who made the national flag and outlived her three husbands and several of her children. However, the real Betsy Ross was much more than just the domestic and legendary character behind the star-spangled banner, she was a cunning businesswoman and one of the Revolution’s most important allies in her native city of Philadelphia.
[Featured image: Shutterstock]