Any schoolchild can recite the story of Betsy Ross.
It is a story as simple and evocative as any good fable, impressing upon generations of Americans a collective memory of the humble seamstress in her demure white cap, the first stars and stripes unfurled over her lap.
Yet that may be the least interesting part of her tale.
What's more, no one can say with certainty that Betsy Ross made the first flag. Or that there even was a first flag. That's the kind of story this is. As one historical consultant has put it, "these are complex as well as vexed matters."
To suggest that her story is more legend than historical fact is to trifle with the mythology of the American Revolution and, in no small part, with the affections of Americans.
But that is exactly the question that has been debated very nearly since her grandson first went public with the family story in the 1870s. The country was in a patriotic fervor then, preparing to celebrate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. And Betsy Ross fulfilled a certain yearning. As historian Sandy Mackenzie Lloyd pointed out, she is the only woman placed in our memory alongside the Founding Fathers.
It is always possible that indisputable evidence someday will surface. But absent that -- and beyond the question of, "Did she or didn't she?" -- there is a compelling, real woman just beneath the sanitized surface. A patriot who lost two husbands to the Revolutionary War, a businesswoman who trained at least one of her seven daughters to carry on the family flag-making business, a Quaker who defied the pacifism of her religion to support the Revolution. A woman who lived and worked in wartime Philadelphia, and who offers a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Americans caught up in those great events.
How her story came to be told reveals something about how Americans remember their history.
"I think the fascinating aspect of the family story is the conscious effort that (the) grandson makes just before the centennial to bring the family story into a national focus," said Karie Diethorn, chief curator at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. "To say my family is everybody's family."
It says something, too, about how much credence we give to historical voices when there is little or no evidence to corroborate their stories.
"This really is a dual story," said Lloyd, a consultant to the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. "It's a story of the real Betsy Ross and the story of the story."
"And it's worth telling."
The key to both is the parallel story of the American flag.
"So much love, patriotism and sacrifice are symbolized in the flag that it is hard for present-day Americans to realize that it did not have some dramatic moment of birth," wrote Roger Butterfield in a history of the American flag. Debate this summer over a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration shows how powerful a symbol the stars and stripes have become.
But the Continental Congress was consumed by the business of war. And not just against any foe -- against the greatest power on Earth. The earliest record of congressional action on an American flag was brief, and not even mentioned in the press for weeks. The flag's design was recorded on June 14, 1777, now celebrated as Flag Day. That's the same year the British Army occupied Philadelphia, where Congress was meeting.
Congress dictated that "the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."
A recognizable flag may have been more critical for American ships than foot soldiers, so that the ships did not attack one another. At any rate, there appears to have been no hurry to get the flags to the battlefield. "Congress failed to supply (George) Washington's army with official Stars and Stripes flags until 1783, when all the big battles were over," according to "The History of the United States Flag: From the Revolution to the Present."
"Meanwhile," the authors wrote, "the American army and navy fought under a confused array of local, state and homemade flags adorned with pine and palmetto trees, rattlesnakes, eagles, red, blue and yellow stripes, blue and gold stars, and other variations."
The powerful symbolism of the flag, as we would know it, did not begin to take hold until the 19th century. It inspired Francis Scott Key to write the "Star-Spangled Banner" during the War of 1812, and served as a unifying force after the Civil War ended in 1865. Just 11 years later, the centennial was celebrated.
And that brings us directly to the Betsy Ross legend.
There is a need, Nona Martin believes, to place our history somewhere. And Americans have transferred their love of the flag to Betsy Ross and, by extension, the house in Philadelphia that has been marked as hers since the 19th century.
"And if we're going to build a temple, somebody has to be in that temple," said Martin, director of the Betsy Ross House, which is operated by the city of Philadelphia.
The house at 239 Arch St. stands alone as a relic of the 18th-century city street that Betsy Ross would have known. It is thought that she is more likely to have lived in the house next door, a mirror-image of the house that survives. A late 19th-century fund-raising campaign saved this house. When the survivors of Pickett's Charge, from the Civil War's Gettysburg battle, met there in 1898 a sign hung from the building: "The first flag was made in this house."
There are few clues to visitors here that this probably was not where Betsy Ross lived or that there is scholarly debate over whether she made the flag. This house tells the story told by her descendants. But it serves perhaps a greater purpose: When they walk inside, Americans walk into the life of a woman who lived through the Revolution.
"She's not mythological," said Diethorn of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, which includes Independence Hall among 40 historic buildings.
"I think," she said, "that all roads lead back to Betsy Ross's reality as a person."
At her death in 1836, 84-year-old she left behind a young grandson, William Canby. He first told the family story of Betsy Ross making the flag to a meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in March 1870. He consistently, Lloyd noted, refers to his grandmother as Betsy Ross -- the name she would have had at the time the flag was said to be made. The story was said by Canby to come from Betsy Ross herself, who spoke of making the first flag "with her own hands."
Then Canby brings in George Washington -- and the skeptics. He describes a meeting between a secret congressional flag committee, one of whom was the general of the Continental Army, in the back parlor of his grandmother's house. And how she showed them with a snip of her scissors how to make a five-point star.
"I think that's where it becomes a story of the 1870s, where George Washington is the seal of approval," said Lloyd. "She becomes a mother figure to George Washington's father figure. That's the piece that you can understand as national mythology."