Arago: Exhibits

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The Legend of Betsy Ross

The story about the creation of the American flag is shrouded in as much legend as fact. Elizabeth Griscom Ross, better known as Betsy, was a seamstress who lived in Philadelphia. According to legend, George Washington employed Betsy to embroider his shirt ruffles. His knowledge of her skill lead to a meeting on June 1st when he, accompanied by Colonel George Ross and Robert Morris, presented Betsy with a rough sketch for a flag. Betsy’s descendents claim that the three men requested her to create the depicted flag. At BetsyRoss’s suggestion, Washington re-drew the design with five-point stars rather than six-point stars

Generations of the Ross family passed down the story of Betsy Ross’s involvement with the creation of the first official American flag. In 1870, William J. Canby, a grandson of Betsy, recounted the story at the Pennsylvania Historical Society. The legend of Betsy Ross and the creation of the flag spread until it became accepted as canon for most Americans. Historians, however, have another viewpoint of the story. In the years since this tale first came to light, historians have not been able to verify the claims of Canby, even after numerous and vigorous searches through diaries, letters, and journals of the Continental Congress. No record exists of a flag being discussed around this time. While many Americans still believe that Betsy Ross was responsible for the first American flag, and while it makes for a nice story, sadly, it is most likely false.

A 3-cent stamp featuring the tale of Betsy Ross designing the flag for Washington was issued on January 1, 1952, to commemorate the bicentennial of Betsy’s birth. Immediately, the Post Office Department was flooded with letters from stamp collectors and historians alike who agreed that there was no authentic information to suggest that Betsy Ross had any role in designing the flag. The Post Office Department disagreed, claiming it had research and backing from the Library of Congress to proceed.

3c Betsy Ross single

The 3-cent Besty Ross stamp was issued January 2, 1952. (Scott 1004)