The fascinating tale of Betsy Ross, from sewing Washington’s bed linens to Nike controversy

The 13-star flag is one of a number of symbols co-opted by some hate groups. The Post talked to flag expert Jeffrey Kohn to understand its controversial roots. (Blair Guild, Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

She was a single mother and a businesswoman. She was widowed twice before the age of 30 and crafted the bed linens George Washington slept on at Mount Vernon. Like many women during the American Revolution, Betsy Ross was just trying to get by. So she made flags.

The legend of Betsy Ross has captivated Americans for more than a century. She is credited with creating the first American flag. Whether or not she really did, she is undoubtedly one of the few female figures to feature in Revolutionary War history.

By telling her story, Ross’s descendants cast light on the life of a woman who lived during a time when women were largely left out of the history books.

She and her flag became the subject of controversy this week as we celebrate America’s independence: Nike halted the sale and production of sneakers that sport the Betsy Ross flag after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick — a Nike spokesman — told the company the design was offensive, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Painting depicting the story of Betsy Ross presenting the first American flag to General George Washington, by Edward Percy Moran, c. 1917

The flag has been used at times by white-supremacist groups, who idolize the time in American history when power was exclusive to white men, and women and people of color had no voice. There are photos of the white-supremacist group Aryan Nations using the flag in the 1980s, according to Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, though Nazi symbols and the Confederate flag are used more often than the 13-star original.

It is perhaps ironic then that the flag that harks back to a time of white-male superiority is believed to have been crafted by a woman.

Ross, born Elizabeth Griscom in 1752, started her life in New Jersey and later moved with her family to Philadelphia. One of 17 children, she went to school until about the age of 11, when she began an apprenticeship with a Philadelphia upholsterer, John Webster, according to Lisa Moulder, director of the Betsy Ross House.

An actor at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia raises an American flag on Flag Day on June 14. (Matt Rourke/AP)

It was during her apprenticeship that she met the man who would become her first husband, John Ross. He was Anglican and she was a Quaker, and her faith did not allow for them to marry. So she and Ross eloped — traveling all the way across the Delaware River to wed at Hugg’s Tavern in Gloucester, N.J.

After they completed their apprenticeships, John and Betsy started their own upholstery business. Around that time, according to Moulder, they met George Washington, who was in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress in 1774. Washington “commissioned them to make a full set of bed hangings and pillows and mattresses for his home in Mount Vernon,” she said.

Word has it that a group of men, including Washington and John Ross’s uncle, visited Betsy in an upholstery shop and commissioned the original American flag. It was to be red, white and blue — that much hasn’t changed. But instead of 50 stars, there were only 13, one for each colony, organized in a circle.

According to the story in some elementary school history books, Betsy Ross told Washington to change the stars from six points to five. As a “craftswoman,” Ross probably told Washington “that five-pointed stars were more practical, from a production standpoint, than the six-pointed stars he initially envisioned,” Marla Miller, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told The Washington Post.

Written by Morgan Krakow

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