Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Friday, June 14, 2013

The conservation of a Betsy Ross flag

by Gwen Spicer

Not long ago this small and sweet flag came into the studio. I have read about these but had never had the opportunity to treat one. Often referred to as "Gift Flags" these were very small hand-sewn silk flags. This particular flag measure 5 5/8" H x 9 5/8" W, others were similarly sized. The flags are typically attributed to Betsy Ross' granddaughter or great-granddaughter. This particular one has been nicely labeled and we know (from the two inscriptions that are present on the hoist) that it was: "Made by Sarah M. Wilson, Great-granddaughter of Betsy Ross" which is printed on the obverse side, and "East Wing of Independence Hall. Phila. November 21st 1908" which is printed on the reverse side.  

Betsy Ross Gift flag, repair, framing, mounting of historical flags by Flag conservator Gwen Spicer
Obverse-side of the small silk flag

Many of these small flags were sold by Ross's descendants, and can be found in other collections. These flags are mentioned as being made by either Sarah Wilson or Rachel Albright (Albright being the granddaughter of Ross) and were sold as souvenirs from the East Wing of Independence Hall. It also appears that some of these flags were also given to larger contributors to the Betsy Ross Association, which was an organization to preserve the house which was believed to be inhabited by Ross when she sewed the First American Flag (more about that below).  

Betsy Ross gift flag, flag conservator, repair, mounting and conservation of historic flags
Reverse-side of the flag

The Betsy Ross story is probably one of the most heavily (and heatedly) debated legends. Volumes have been written, and both sides of the argument have valid points. But one thing that is not disputable is that Betsy Ross was a flag maker (if not THE flag maker) and a great legend has grown around her. My guess is that we will never know without a doubt if she did sew the first flag.  

Betsy ross gift flag, conservation of historic flags, 13 star flag, flag conservator, textile
Detail of the obverse-side of the hoist

The "ring of star" or 13 five-pointed stars found on the canton is considered the Betsy Ross pattern.  

It has been proposed that perhaps the only reason we know about Betsy Ross is that her grandson, William Canby, was a great promoter. He appeared before the Historical Society in Philadelphia in 1877 to announce his grandmother's contribution to history, his proof was in the form of signed affidavits from Ross' daughter, granddaughter and niece. But no other evidence exists to prove that what they swore was totally true, slightly embellished, or completely fabricated.

We have all heard the story; Betsy Ross sits in her shop on Arch Street in Philadelphia, surrounded by the girls who do needlework for her, when in through the door walks George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross (two members of the Continental Congress). They show her what they think the flag should look like, Betsy makes some suggestions, most importantly the use of a 5-pointed star, rather that than a six-pointed, and she shows the gentlemen how to make one with a particularly folded cloth and a snip of the scissors. The men take their leave and Betsy gets busy sewing the flag with the iconic circle of 13 stars.

239 Arch Street, which was originally 89 Arch Street, aka "The Betsy Ross Flag House" - shown left in 2012 and right,  c. 1900. No one is sure if Betsy Ross really lived here (it could have been the house next door) as she and her husbands always rented, to further muddle the mystery the house numbers in Philadelphia have changed over the years.

Weisgerber's painting.

To further the legend, Charles Weisgerber, an amateur painter, enters a contest to portray a historical Philadelphia event (see his painting above). He creates a purely fictional scene for the painting which he titles: "Birth of our Nation's Flag". Interesting to note that the painter and another gentleman purchased the Betsy Ross House and created the Betsy Ross Memorial Association. The two men would be later accused of financial impropriety for selling "subscriptions" to the association (the association saw little of the funds). The association tried to rid themselves of the house as it was now surrounded in accusations of faulty morality and historians were beginning to cast serious doubt to the Betsy Ross legend. The men tried to sell the house to the federal government and then the City of Philadelphia, both refused due to disputes of the homes authenticity. Weisgerber moved to Washington DC where he devised a similar scheme to solicit funds to restore the home of Francis Scott Key.  Weisgerber returns to Philly after this scheme fails and tries to resurrect interest in the Ross house. The house is finally donated to the City of Philadelphia in 1937 with the condition they excuse 30 years of unpaid taxes. Since that time, the house was refurbished and returned to its 1776 style and continues to remain home to legend of Betsy Ross.

Who can resist this calendar?

Charles H. Weisgerber's painting Birth of Our Nation's Flag as depicted on a stamp. It was
awarded the first prize of one thousand dollars in a 1893 City of Philadelphia competition.

So many websites, articles and books condemn the Betsy Ross story as just that, a story. Read more about the house and the debate here: http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/prove239.html  Another great article can be found here: http://www.nava.org/documents/raven/vol12/NAVA_Raven_v12_2005_p087-099.pdf, this last article however, approaches it from a different point of view and provides a fun diagram of how to cut Betsy's star - you should try it, because it is nothing if not fun. And the next time you see one of these sweet little flags you will know just what it is and the story behind it.

So, what do you think?  Fact or fiction, did Betsy Ross sew the first flag?

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

1 comment:

  1. These days, I think doubt can arise regarding everything and anything, especially if it's public and/or historical. I see no reason to doubt that a woman uphosterer named Betsy Ross was brought a design, tweaked it a bit, and went about sewing the first (a prototype, really) version of the American flag as it has been handed down to us, the circle of 13 five-pointed stars now being a field of 50 of them. Where's the "legend" in that? A lot of people have descendants who want to get something out of an ancestor's moment in history. Tacky relatives shouldn't get in the way of appreciating a relatively simple event in American history.