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The Legend of Betsy Ross

Almost everyone knows the legend of Betsy Ross and her design of the stars and stripes that became the American flag.

It was usual in that day for upholsterers to be flag makers. As Betsy Ross prayed in the pew next to George Washington and had already sewn buttons for him, and she was a niece of George Ross, it is not exceptional that these members of the Flag Committee formed by the Continental Congress would call upon Betsy Ross to make the flag.

In an affidavit made public in 1870, Betsy Ross's daughter, Rachel Fletcher, testified :

"[The committee] showed her [Betsy Ross] a drawing roughly executed, of the flag as it was proposed to be made by the committee, and that she saw in it some defects in its proportions and the arrangement and shape of the stars. That she said it was square and a flag should be one third longer than its width, that the stars were scattered promiscuously over the field, and she said they should be either in lines or in some adopted form as a circle, or a star, and that the stars were six-pointed in the drawing, and she said they should be five pointed." She used a clever folding method that produced a five-pointed star with a single snip of the scissors, making it easier to mass-produce. The general approved the design, and the rest is history.

From an article called Sew Tough in Slate, ‘Though myth has Ross contributing to the flag's design out of devout patriotism, in reality she was a businesswoman. And though early storytellers call her a "seamstress," conjuring visions of prim needlework in the parlor, she was, in fact, an upholsterer, a profession that attracted both women and men. Eighteenth-century upholstery work included heavy tasks like assembling curtains, stuffing mattresses, and covering chairs. Flag-making itself was no delicate enterprise. In 1810—Ross's most prolific flag-making years were during Jefferson and Madison's presidencies, not the early years of the Revolution—she made six garrison flags for a military installation on the Gulf Coast. Each flag required 100,000 stitches and measured 432 square feet. But she wasn't one to turn down work; she took eager advantage of the money that flowed into Philadelphia as it became the national capitol and as successive wars funneled military contract money into the city.’

Women who sew have a long history of changing the design and improving their projects…

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© Marcy Tilton