June 14 is Flag Day in the United States. It commemorates the day in 1777 when Congress adopted the national flag. It’s not a federal holiday and most communities don’t hold celebrations, though many people fly a flag. I’m repeating the post from last year to do my part to clear up historical misinformation. You can help by sharing this post with friends and introducing them to a woman named Mary Pickersgill.
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/
I am not ready to give up on Betsy so quickly. After all, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. A lot of events in history survive only in people’s memories, and memory is not to be entirely discounted. And Betsy Ross (under her subsequent husband’s name) also deserves some credit for sewing the flags the Lewis & Clark expedition carried.
I want to know what the flags flown in the West during the American Revolution looked like. The British commander who tore down (and trampled underfoot) the American flag flying at Fort Ouiatenon on the Wabash River in 1778 described it as a “striped flag.” No mention of stars. Does that mean there were no stars? Absence of evidence again.
Carolyn – It is my understanding from Lonn Taylor’s research about the Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History that the star field (canton) design was not standardized at the time Mary Pickersgill sewed the flag and that it only became standard at a later date. Interesting, huh?
I forgot that Betsy sewed the flags for Lewis and Clark. I guess my intent is to make sure people hear about Mary’s story, which is also interesting, and to acknowledge scant evidence about Betsy. Brings to mind a comparable historical character… Sacagawea.
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It is so refreshing to read a patriotic AND entirely accurate tribute to two early American flag makers — Mary Pickersgill and her mother, Rebecca Young. Thank you! Submitted by Earl P. Williams, Jr., U.S. flag historian (paleovexillologist)
This is a VERY belated message (June 16, 2021) to Carolyn, who wrote on June 15, 2012, that “I am not ready to give up on Betsy [Ross as the maker of the first American flag]. After all, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” However, this is not the way recorded history works. There are categories of evidence. The story of Betsy Ross and the first American flag is based on oral history, which if uncorroborated (as in the Betsy Ross story), is the weakest type of evidence. Add to that the fact that the story was passed down for a century in the Ross family before it was publicized in 1870, and it passes from reliable history to something else — folklore. Oral history is important if it can augment recorded history, but alone and uncorroborated, it is unreliable. Further complicating the Ross story is that Philadelphia was the state of Pennsylvania’s capital AND the Nation’s Capital at the same time. Pennsylvania’s Founding Fathers worked for the state government and the National government at the same time in Pennsylvania’s State House, aka, Independence Hall. We know only that Mrs. Ross made flags for Pennsylvania during the Revolution. In re-telling the story, the Ross family probably confused Pennsylvania officials with U.S. government officials. Since Carolyn’s entry of June 15, 2012, new information on the historical vs. legendary Betsy Ross has been uploaded to the annotated Wikipedia article on Betsy Ross (as of June 2021). For example, during the Revolutionary War, Mrs. Ross made flags that did not resemble the American flag for Pennsylvania’s navy. After the Revolution, she made U.S. flags for 50 years and cut five-pointed stars, as opposed to the popular six- and eight-pointed stars in the U.S. flag at the time. Her method saved time and material because she didn’t need crossed triangles to make six-pointed stars or crossed squares to make eight-pointed stars, which required two pieces of cloth. Furthermore, Mrs. Ross was born in Gloucester City, New Jersey — not Philadelphia.
Also, the annotated Wikipedia article on the real designer of the official U.S. flag — Francis Hopkinson — has been updated (as of June 2021). Francis Hopkinson was a Congressman from New Jersey. He designed a Stars and Stripes flag for the United States with 7 white stripes and 6 red stripes. He also designed a flag for the U.S. Navy with the reverse — 7 red stripes and 6 white stripes for better visibility at sea. Ironically, Hopkinson’s naval flag became the preferrred National flag. The Continental Marine (maritime) Committee sponsored the U.S. Flag Resolution of June 14, 1777. Francis Hopkinson became a member of the Marine Committee in June 1776 but stepped down from Congress to run the Continental Navy in November 1776. The Navy reported to the Marine Committee. Francis Hopkinson was running the Navy when Congress adopted the official U.S. flag on June 14, 1777. Submitted by Earl P. Williams, Jr., U.S. flag historian (paleovexillologist)