Mary, not Betsy

Two narrow brick houses in two East Coast cities, two historic sites, two women separated by less than forty years, both seamstresses. One’s name is known to every American student, one’s name unknown in history. One’s story is built on solid and abundant historical evidence, one’s is built on cherished but undocumented wishful thinking.

Americans identify Betsy Ross as the woman who sewed America’s first stars and stripes. You can visit her restored house several blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. But the story linking Betsy Ross to the first flag is one of our treasured myths. Historians can find no definitive documentary evidence to support the story that Betsy sewed the first flag at the request of General Washington. Yes, she was a well-known seamstress in Philadelphia during the Revolution, and she knew various members of Congress. Yes, she sewed flags. But the crucial link to this notable first, a solid piece of historical evidence, is missing. Let’s see a receipt, journal entry, letter, news article… anything. If she were alive today, she would likely be surprised to hear her story. Historians credit her grandson, William Canby, with manufacturing the legend in 1870.

Since Flag Day is this week, it’s appropriate to honor the woman whose name should be in history textbooks, who should have a place in patriotic parades… Mary Pickersgill, the woman who sewed the Star-Spangled Banner, inspiration for the national anthem.

The Star-Spangled Banner story begins with Mary Pickersgill who was born in appropriately in Philadelphia in 1776. Her mother, Rebecca Young, a well-known flag maker, made blankets, uniforms and flags for George Washington’s Continental army. Given the small community of flag makers, we can assume Rebecca probably knew Betsy Ross. Mary learned her mother’s trade. Later, when Mary’s husband died suddenly, she decided to move with her daughter and mother to Baltimore where her sister and brother-in-law, a sea captain, lived. Flag making was a flourishing craft in Baltimore due to flags needed for military and maritime industries. Mary settled into a small two-story house at 60 Albemarle Street in the Old Town neighborhood and opened a business.

In early summer 1813, Major George Armistead, the new commander of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, sent one of his staff to place an order with Mary. He ordered two flags for the fort, a storm flag and a garrison flag. The smaller storm flag would be flown in bad weather. The garrison flag, 30 X 42 feet and about one-quarter the size of a basketball court, was standard size for a fort and would be flown in fair weather. Its size guaranteed that people could see it from great distances. The flags were delivered to Fort McHenry in August. At the end of October Mary received $168.54 for the storm flag and $405.90 for the garrison flag, which we now call the Star-Spangled Banner. Today the organization that runs the restored Pickersgill home as a museum owns the original receipt. The flag is proudly displayed in a state-of-the-art case in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

If you are in Baltimore, a trip to Fort McHenry should be complemented by a trip to Mary’s house. It’s well worth the visit. In Philadelphia? I’d skip Betsy’s house.

Fun fact: The Star-Spangled Banner was so huge that Mary and her daughter used the larger space in a nearby brewery to spread the flag out and finish it.

Have you been to either house? What did you think?

more info: http://www.flaghouse.org/

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2 Responses to Mary, not Betsy

  1. Pingback: Think you know American history? You may be wrong. | historyplaces

  2. Pingback: Bits from the books… impress your friends with fun bits of history trivia | historyplaces

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