Friday, July 6, 2012

Stars, Stripes, and Circles

"The Birth of Our Nation's Flag" by Charles H. Weisgerber
See Washington swooning on the far left.

Everyone knows that Betsy Ross designed the first American flag. She got the job because she astonished George Washington with her unrivaled ability to cut out a five pointed star from cloth (seriously, that’s the lesson I learned in school).

If you’re not a USian, this is probably not a familiar story at all, so lemme put up a version of what an average school history book says:

“George Washington was a frequent visitor to the home of Mrs. Ross before receiving command of the army. She embroidered his shirt ruffles and did many other things for him. He knew her skill with a needle. Now the General of the Continental Army, George Washington appeared on Mrs. Ross's doorstep around the first of June, 1776, with two representatives of Congress, Colonel Ross and Robert Morris. They asked that she make a flag according to a rough drawing they carried with them. At Mrs.Ross's suggestion, Washington redrew the flag design in pencil in her back parlor to employ stars of five points instead of six.” [*

And then she sewed it up, and everyone swooned at its awesomeness, and it was the FLAG OF AMERICA.

So there has to be dozens of proclamations, records of the momentous event, and an ancient statue somewhere immortalizing her amazing ability to cut pretty 5 pointed stars and arrange them in a circle.

Well, no. Not really. 

To be sure, there was a woman named Betsy Ross. Actually, her full name was Elizabeth Griscom Ross; she was born in 1752 and she ran an upholstery shop. Her husband was killed in a munitions explosion in 1776, leaving her solely in charge of the business.

According to the legend, she was asked in June 1776 to make the flag for the new country. This was the flag that was in use to represent America at the time:

If you’re familiar with naval history or English history, it probably looks familiar – it’s simply a Red Ensign with white stripes sewn on it:

Why? Because this was a navel flag. The Covenantal Forces needed a quick way to be able to distinguish American ships from British ships, which means they needed a lot of flags – and fast. So they took the flags the ships were already flying and modified them by adding some white stripes.

In June 1777, the Continental Congress declared “that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation." [**]

Notice something? Not a word on what the arrangement of the stars were supposed to be, or how many points the stars were supposed to have. In fact, it wasn’t until 1912 was it stipulated how the stars had to be arranged to count as a legal American flag. You could arrange them any old way you liked, and as long as it had the right number of star-ish looking objects and stripes, you were good to go.

Which is why when my home state of Oregon was added in 1859, this was a legal (and used) US flag:

Way more fabulous, in my opinion.

Prior to 1921, it wasn’t “the American flag” but “the stars and stripes.” It was the stars and stripes that mattered, not the stars arrangement (or even really the color -- until 1932 any old red or blue was kosher).

So what does this mean? It means that while Betsy Ross may have made a flag, she could not have made “THE” American flag. Because “the” American flag, as a single representative design, didn’t exist.

So how did Betsy Ross get tied to it?

Because of her grandson, William J. Canby said she made the “first American flag.” How did he know she did? Because, he said, she whispered the story to him on her deathbed, when he was eleven. He just didn’t get around to telling anyone about it until 1870, thirty-four years later. 

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