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Debate Over US Flag Designer Continues

  • Ted Landphair

In this 1917 painting by Edward Percy, Betsy Ross presents the flag of the new U.S. nation to George Washington. (Library of Congress)

In this 1917 painting by Edward Percy, Betsy Ross presents the flag of the new U.S. nation to George Washington. (Library of Congress)

Betsy Ross sewed it, but did she also design the red, white and blue?

It’s going to be a busy day at Betsy Ross’s house in Philadelphia on Thursday. She won’t be there, since she died in 1836, but hundreds of tourists will be going through her house.

You see, Thursday is Flag Day in the United States. The unofficial holiday commemorates the adoption of the stars-and-stripes design of the American flag by the Continental Congress 235 years ago, on June 14, 1777.

According to lore, the Ross House is the birthplace of the nation’s flag. That’s open to debate, but it’s a story that schoolbooks still tell.
Betsy Ross is believed to have created the American flag in some upstairs rooms she rented in this Philadelphia house. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Betsy Ross is believed to have created the American flag in some upstairs rooms she rented in this Philadelphia house. (Carol M. Highsmith)


Betsy Ross was a seamstress, busy upholstering furniture in Philadelphia, which was the focal point of the American revolution against British rule.

The Declaration of Independence by the colonists was signed there, and so was the new nation’s Constitution after independence was won.

Widowed when her husband, a member of the local militia, was killed in a gunpowder explosion, Betsy Ross often mended the clothes of the rebels’ leader and future U.S. president, George Washington.

According to what some say is history and others a stretch of what really happened, Washington asked Ross to design and sew the new nation’s flag.

The story was promoted by Ross’s grandson, who wrote that Betsy Ross had “made with her hands the first flag.”

She became a role model for girls - a shining example of women’s contributions to the nation’s history.
This is a poster from 1917, a year after President Woodrow Wilson declared June 14th “Flag Day,” and 140 years after the Continental Congress adopted the US flag’s design. (Library of Congress)

This is a poster from 1917, a year after President Woodrow Wilson declared June 14th “Flag Day,” and 140 years after the Continental Congress adopted the US flag’s design. (Library of Congress)


Most research indicates that Ross did sew the first flag.

She’s credited with substituting artful five-point white stars for six-pointed ones in the upper-left blue field.

But many other accounts indicate George Washington brought the design to Ross and simply asked her to stitch it together.

In a letter, Washington wrote: “We take the stars from Heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her. And the white stripes shall go down to posterity [as] representing liberty.”

That’s deeper thinking than a humble seamstress would have come up with, according to those who doubt that Betsy Ross created the first American flag from scratch.
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