To me, Independence Day is not all about picnics and fireworks. I try to imagine what life was actually like for people in 1776, and how the efforts of those people made my life possible today.Which got me thinking about one American woman made famous for sewing, Betsy Ross. Only knowing the common folklore about the lady who sewed the first US flag for George Washington, I decided I needed to know more.(1) As I learned many things, I realized most of us probably do not really know much about this amazing woman, a true survivor!
Did you know that Betsy Ross was a trained upholsterer, not a seamstress? One of 17 children in a Quaker family, she apprenticed in Philadelphia, and made curtains, Venetian blinds, bedcovers, and rugs, among other things.
She was widowed three times. John Ross was her first husband, also an upholsterer. He was not Quaker, and their marriage meant her expulsion from her family’s faith. They opened their own upholstery shop and were off to a wonderful start. But in two years John, a militia member, was killed in a gunpowder blast while guarding a munitions depot in 1775. Betsy was 24, had no children, and continued the shop, now also sewing uniforms for the Continental Army.Two years later she married a mariner, and they were expecting their second child when his frigate was captured by the British. While he was imprisoned, their first daughter died, and their second was born. However, he never knew, as he died of an illness while imprisoned. In Betsy’s era, this type of news did not travel fast. A man who had been imprisoned with her husband, whom she knew before the War of Independence, brought her the news in 1782. They actually married a couple of years later, and she was able to rejoin the Quaker church. Of their five daughters, only one survived to adulthood.
Learning how life was for Betsy Ross is a humbling experience. During her third marriage, which lasted 34 years, she not only lost several children, but most of her birth family as well. Her husband became disabled, and she cared for him even as cousins and their families moved into her home. Even after her third husband’s death, she also continued the shop with one of her daughters, making flags as well as continuing to upholster.At age 76 she retired from her 50 year career. She moved to another daughter’s farm near Philadelphia, where she attended Quaker meetings weekly even as her health failed. She lost her eyesight during that time, which must have been a struggle for someone so accustomed to hand work. Betsy died in her sleep in 1836, at the age of 84.
I learned more even about Betsy Ross’s extraordinary life, how she came to sew the first flag, and how she lived at a really wonderful website called The Betsy Ross House. Perhaps some of you will also draw inspiration from her experiences.
(1) See also References and Bibliograhpy section for more information.