Marla Miller's 'Betsy Ross and the Making of America,' review by Marjoleine Kars

Sunday, July 4, 2010


By Marla R. Miller

Henry Holt. 467 pp. $30

Maybe Betsy Ross's star is waning. If in the 1980s she still ranked high on the list of American historical heroes, today Rosa Parks, another seamstress, has overtaken her. When Jay Leno asked random passersby to identify Betsy Ross during Women's History Month a few years ago, one 40-something woman answered that she made a quilt on a bus.

Not quite. For the record, Ross is associated with the first American flag. George Washington himself, so the legend goes, came to her upholstery shop in Philadelphia to commission it. Tinkering with his design, Ross famously replaced his six-pointed star with an easier-to-produce five-pointed one. Her prototype became the official flag of the new United States.

In this engaging biography of Ross, Marla Miller, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, carefully unravels the tale spun by Ross's descendants after her death. There is no doubt that Ross designed and sewed flags. Trained in the upholstery trade, she was well positioned to take advantage of the military's urgent demand for bedding, tents and yes, flags. Flags, after all, were the cellphones of the day, enabling sailors and soldiers to communicate long distance. Many female artisans, Ross included, created standards, ensigns, jacks, vanes, pennants and signal flags for militias, naval forces and the Continental Army.

But while we know that by 1777 Ross worked as a flagmaker for the revolutionary government of Pennsylvania, the archival record does not support the notion of just one maker of the Continental flag. Rather, Miller reminds us, the flag, "like the Revolution it represents, was the work of many hands."

Though she demolishes the legend of Ross as our national seamstress, Miller offers in return someone much more interesting: a real-life artisan, wife and mother whose fortunes and travails were closely tied to the new nation.

Born in 1752, Ross came of age in the tumult preceding the revolution. These years saw women drawn into politics for the first time. Their every decision became politically charged: whether to drink tea, whether to wear homespun cloth, even whom to keep company with. Churches, especially the Society of Friends (or Quakers), in which Ross grew up, struggled to respond to the revolution without compromising their pacifist principles. And not only churches but families, including Ross's, divided as people lined up on opposite sides of the conflict or, like her father, tried to remain neutral.

For artisans and shopkeepers such as Betsy and her first husband, fellow upholsterer John Ross, economic protest required adroit manipulation of the marketplace. As enthusiastic patriots, they supported the boycott of British goods, and as craftspeople, they appreciated the increased demand for all things American -- but they also had to deal with shortages of the foreign materials on which their businesses depended.

The war years were no easier. By the time the peace treaty was signed, Ross had lost two husbands to the revolution, given birth to two daughters and buried one, weathered scarcity and inflation, survived the British occupation of Philadelphia and through it all supported her family with her needle. When she married John Claypoole, her third and last husband, in 1783, she was just over 30.

In the early years of the republic, her family enjoyed a tentative prosperity: Their business rode the postwar upswing, and John obtained a federal appointment. But by the turn of the century, a stroke had disabled him. Once again, Betsy supported her family (now grown to six daughters) with her craft. And once again, she made flags as the nation prepared for war. Over the next two decades, she housed and employed numerous husbandless sisters, daughters and granddaughters. After she retired in 1827, her daughter Clarissa continued the family business for another 30 years.

So, no, Ross did not birth the first flag (or sew quilts on buses), but the artisan portrayed in this eloquent biography, and the many plucky revolutionary American women workers like her, should be firmly stitched in our collective memory.

Marjoleine Kars is writing a book about the 1763 slave rebellion in Dutch Guyana. She teaches history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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