Roman Mars [00:00:01] Whether you’re a driverless car engineer or an augmented reality designer, Squarespace is the online platform to help you stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything. With Squarespace, you can collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers, display posts from your social profiles on your website, and even use the Analytics feature to gain insights to grow your business. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial–and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Longtime beautiful nerds know that we have a thing for flags–how they’re made, what they symbolize, what makes a good flag and a bad flag. So, with another Flag Day coming up, today’s story is about a flag that you’re definitely familiar with–one that we’re probably long overdue covering on their show–the flag of the United States.
Lizzie Peabody [00:00:56] Actually, Roman, the story I’m here with today is less about the flag itself and more about its origin story.
Roman Mars [00:01:03] That’s reporter Lizzie Peabody, she hosts a podcast for the Smithsonian–that’s, like, our spiritual cousin–it’s called Sidedoor.
Lizzie Peabody [00:01:09] Most Americans probably feel like they know the story of where our flag came from. And you might have learned this back in the fourth grade, too. Roman. The Betsy Ross story.
Roman Mars [00:01:18] Yeah, I think people are probably familiar with the elementary school version of the Betsy Ross story, but we’re going to ruin that story and replace it with a better one.
Lizzie Peabody [00:01:26] Yes, but before we ruin it, let’s do a quick recap because it might have been a few–I don’t know–decades since some of us were in elementary school. So, Roman, I brought this picture with me to refresh your memory.
Roman Mars [00:01:38] Yes, between the drawing of Betsy Ross, Schoolhouse Rock, and this painting, my entire image of what Betsy Ross is from those two images. And in this painting, it’s her sitting in this big, poofy dress next to an open window. There’s, like, beautiful light pouring in. And at the bottom of the painting, it reads “Birth of Our Nation’s flag.”
Lizzie Peabody [00:02:01] Yes. And in this painting, you see George Washington and these two other guys in wigs from the Continental Congress. And the story goes that they commissioned Betsy Ross to design a new flag for this new nation that was about to come out of the Revolutionary War free of British rule. And these guys in wigs are kind of looking at George Washington, sort of waiting to see his reaction to what Betsy Ross has in her hands.
Roman Mars [00:02:25] And, of course, what Betsy Ross has in her hands is the American flag–the first design that most of us kind of know. It’s 13 red and white stripes. And in the upper left corner–that’s called a canton–is a blue square, and it has 13 five-pointed stars arranged in a circle.
Lizzie Peabody [00:02:41] Yeah. And the look on Washington’s faces like, “This is beautiful. Let me get my hands on it! I want it!”
Roman Mars [00:02:48] He is in love.
Lizzie Peabody [00:02:49] Yes. Yes. He’s like, “Gimme it.” So, over the years, this story was repeated over and over again–that Betsy Ross, flag maker to the stars, birth mother of the United States, created the first American flag. But the story we learned in school–it’s not exactly true.
Roman Mars [00:03:06] Oh no.
Lizzie Peabody [00:03:08] Don’t worry. She’s still important. Just not in the way we all think.
Jennifer Jones [00:03:12] Nobody knows where the first American flag is or who actually made it.
Lizzie Peabody [00:03:20] This is Jennifer Jones. She’s curator at the National Museum of American History. And she keeps a watchful eye over many of America’s most important historical flags, but notably not the flag in the Betsy Ross painting.
Jennifer Jones [00:03:32] I have never actually seen a 13 star in a circle original flag from the Revolutionary period. So, we really don’t know what it looked like or if it still exists.
Roman Mars [00:03:47] So she doesn’t know who made the first American flag. And she’s never actually seen, like, a 13-star flag in a circle from that period at all?
Lizzie Peabody [00:03:57] No!
Roman Mars [00:03:58] That’s really something. So then where did the Betsy Ross thing come from?
Lizzie Peabody [00:04:01] Well, if we back up, let’s talk about what came before the Betsy Ross flag. Prior to the Revolutionary War, there was a flag that was supposed to represent the colonies. It just had this problem.
Jennifer Jones [00:04:14] So we had a flag in 1776 that looked very much like a British flag.
Roman Mars [00:04:21] Right. And this is the Grand Union flag. It had 13 alternating red and white stripes, just like our flag today. But in the corner in that canton is sort of a blue square full of white stars. It had a British cross–the Union Jack.
Lizzie Peabody [00:04:33] Yeah. So, members of the Continental Congress looked at the Grand Union flag and thought, “How are we supposed to use a British flag when we’re fighting the British? This is not a grand union.” So, on June 14th, 1777, they voted to create a new American flag.
Roman Mars [00:04:48] And that is why we celebrate Flag Day on June 14th.
Lizzie Peabody [00:04:51] Yes. And that thing that they voted for–Congress needed someone to design it.
Jennifer Jones [00:04:56] The congressman who is credited with actually establishing the look for the first flag was from New Jersey, and it’s Francis Hopkinson.
Lizzie Peabody [00:05:10] Have you ever heard of this guy?
Roman Mars [00:05:11] No. This is a name I do not know at all. So, tell me about Francis Hopkinson.
Lizzie Peabody [00:05:15] So Francis Hopkinson was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and kind of a Renaissance man.
Marc Leepson [00:05:21] He wrote operas, he wrote songs, and he was one of the designers of the Great Seal of the United States. You’ve seen that one; it’s the eagle clutching the arrows. And you’ll notice there’s a shield that’s red, white, and blue with stars and stripes on it.
Lizzie Peabody [00:05:35] This is Marc Leepson, historian, and author of the book Flag: An American Biography.
Marc Leepson [00:05:41] He sent a bill to Congress, which is in the National Archives itself. And that bill says, you know, “I’m charging you X amount of money for the design of the flag of the United States.”
Lizzie Peabody [00:05:52] So I have a copy of that bill that Hopkinson sent to Congress. And I love this because it’s sort of an itemized invoice of all the stuff he helped the Continental Congress with–designing currency, the great seal, and, yes, the flag. And in the last paragraph of the bill, Hopkinson writes, “for these Services, I have as yet made no Charge nor received any Recompense. I now submit it to your Honours’ Consideration whether a Quarter Cask of the public Wine will not be proper and reasonable Reward for these labours of Fancy.” It’s like the equivalent of when you help your friends move and they give you pizza and beer. He’s like, “This is the least you can do, guys.”
Roman Mars [00:06:31] Okay. So, I mean, he says he designed the flag. There’s a bill to prove it. That seems like that’s the answer to the question of “Who designed the flag?” It seems to be, you know, Francis Hopkinson
Lizzie Peabody [00:06:40] Well, not quite… Because for all his talents–opera singer, graphic designer–Hopkinson wasn’t known to sew.
Roman Mars [00:06:49] Oh, so it’s possible that he designed the flag and then George Washington asked Betsy Ross to, you know, bring the Hopkinson design to life.
Lizzie Peabody [00:06:59] It is. And ideally, there would be a paper trail laying all this history out, but there just isn’t. And Marc Leepson says there’s a reason why.
Marc Leepson [00:07:07] Nobody cared about the flag the way we do now. If you read the Annals of the Continental Congress the day that they passed the first flag resolution, there’s no mention of who introduced it. There’s no mention of any vote or discussion. There’s no mention of any flag committee. So, it’s a strong indication that it was just this thing that happened. And they went on to it, and it didn’t have a lot of meaning for people.
Lizzie Peabody [00:07:33] It was, like, in an administrative detail or something. It was, like, a footnote in the day.
Marc Leepson [00:07:38] Yes! That’s correct.
Roman Mars [00:07:39] But it’s not even a footnote. It’s a no note. It’s not notable. No one noted it at all.
Lizzie Peabody [00:07:44] I know, right? And the flag was so unimportant that the Continental Congress didn’t even bother to specify where to put the Stars and Stripes. I asked Jennifer Jones about this. So just to get this straight–according to the First Flag Act of 1777, I could make a flag that had, like, two stars up at the top for little eyes and then all the other stars arranged in a little smiley face, and that would be an American flag?
Jennifer Jones [00:08:12] Correct. There was no set determination of any arrangement of the stars or the stripes.
Roman Mars [00:08:18] Wow. So, people could play really fast and loose with the Hopkinson design?
Lizzie Peabody [00:08:22] Yeah, really fast, and really loose. And that’s not even the half of it because the original plan for the flag was to add a star and stripe every time a state joined the union.
Roman Mars [00:08:32] Well, that would have been a mess. We had a lot of states in the 1800s. It would have been a very big flag or, you know, had very narrow stripes.
Lizzie Peabody [00:08:39] Yeah. It’s a lot of seams to sew. So, yeah, flags would basically be made and almost immediately outdated, so people just could not keep up. So, in 1818, Congress was like, “All right, let’s go back to the original 13 stripes, and then we can just put one star for each state every year on the 4th of July. It’s like a system update, you know?
Roman Mars [00:08:59] Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense.
Lizzie Peabody [00:09:01] So that’s what they did. And really not much else changed with the flag until 1861.
Marc Leepson [00:09:06] There are very few things in history that change almost immediately, but that’s what happened with the flag.
Lizzie Peabody [00:09:14] In April 1861, a rebel army captured Fort Sumter and raised a Confederate flag, starting the Civil War.
Marc Leepson [00:09:23] Almost overnight, when the war started in the North, you saw flags in front of people’s houses, schools, churches. Women wore little flags in their hats, lapel pins. They put them on wagons. And this is the time in American history where what historians call “the cult of the flag” started.
Lizzie Peabody [00:09:44] For decades leading up to the war, the flag was basically used as an instrument of the military. It was a way to command troops on the field and command ships at sea. But during the Civil War, the flag became a symbol for the Union–something for Northerners to rally around. So it was during this time that the flag went from being mostly a tool to an icon. And coincidentally, this is also the time when the legend of Betsy Ross first pops up.
Marc Leepson [00:10:09] America did not know the name Betsy Ross until 1870, almost 100 years after the fact.
Lizzie Peabody [00:10:18] And by this time, Betsy Ross was long dead. But her grandson, William Canby–he was alive and well, and he had grown up being told that his grandmother sewed the first American flag. So, in 1870, he gave a speech to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Jayson De Leon [00:10:37] “Mr. President, and gentlemen of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania…”
Lizzie Peabody [00:10:40] This is a long speech that just kind of goes on…
Jayson De Leon [00:10:44] “These facts, being laid before the Executive Council of this Society…”
Lizzie Peabody [00:10:49] And on…
Jayson De Leon [00:10:51] “Had this zealous commander at the time no faint glimmerings of independence?”
Lizzie Peabody [00:10:55] And on…
Jayson De Leon [00:11:01] “The leaders of the Revolution were men of intelligence and experience in military matters.”
Lizzie Peabody [00:11:03] But then Canby drops this bomb. He tells the crowd that the Continental Congress actually adopted the American flag during a secret session in early 1776. And then he reveals who made that flag that George Washington presented during that meeting.
Jayson De Leon [00:11:19] “Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Ross. This is the lady–the one–to whom belongs the honor of having made with her own hands the first flag.”
Lizzie Peabody [00:11:28] And almost overnight, Betsy Ross became a celebrity. The story really stuck with people.
Roman Mars [00:11:35] So how did this very long, reportedly kind of boring speech capture the imagination enough to put Betsy Ross on a map, like, a hundred years after the fact?
Lizzie Peabody [00:11:46] Well, Canby had impeccable timing. The country was healing after a brutal civil war, and having a single flag was a powerful symbol. And people wanted to celebrate and have a story to tell about our country. At the same time, the women’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum. So, with Betsy Ross’ story, Americans didn’t just have founding fathers to celebrate. They had a founding mother, too. But for historians like Marc Leepson, Canby’s story is a little flimsy.
Marc Leepson [00:12:13] The Betsy Ross story is based 100% on family stories. And when historians judge the merits of historical evidence, you know what’s on the bottom?
Roman Mars [00:12:27] Oh, I bet family stories are on the bottom. It is in my family; that’s for sure.
Lizzie Peabody [00:12:33] Yes. So, let’s take a closer look at the family story William Canby told the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1870. Where did he get that from?
Marla Miller [00:12:43] He got the story from Betsy’s daughter, Clarissa.
Lizzie Peabody [00:12:47] This is Marla Miller. She’s the author of Betsy Ross and the Making of America.
Marla Miller [00:12:51] She allegedly sits her nephew down, William Canby, and says, “I want you to take this down. This story’s important.”
Lizzie Peabody [00:12:58] And she tells Will how his grandmother created the first flag. And Canby’s like, “That is a great story. But what if people don’t believe us?”
Marla Miller [00:13:07] And so he asked all of these relatives to go to an attorney–go to a notary–and tell the story as you remember hearing it. And then that became sort of the archival basis for the story as it was in 1870.
Roman Mars [00:13:22] Oh, I see. So instead of the story getting distorted generation over generation, like a game of telephone, Canby wanted to make sure at least the one in 1870 was, like, locked and frozen in time–and that he had receipts. He got them notarized and everything.
Lizzie Peabody [00:13:39] Yeah, like he left a voicemail.
Roman Mars [00:13:42] I mean, I guess that, you know, a bunch of people writing it down–getting it notarized–it does add some credibility that it’s more than just an old family story.
Lizzie Peabody [00:13:50] Yeah, I think it was kind of the best he could do at that point. And so, the Ross family story–it is a big hit, and it sort of starts to take on a life of its own.
Marc Leepson [00:13:59] When I do talks, when I get to Betsy Ross, I say, “I know what you’re thinking.” They’re thinking of that picture–Betsy Ross sitting in her parlor on Arch Street.
Roman Mars [00:14:10] And this is the painting that we were talking about earlier.
Lizzie Peabody [00:14:12] Yes.
Marc Leepson [00:14:13] That picture is completely made up. Of course, it was painted in 1893–115 years after the fact.
Lizzie Peabody [00:14:20] Yeah. The painting, The Birth of Our Nation’s Flag, was done by this guy named Charles Weisgerber. And it is entirely a product of his imagination.
Marc Leepson [00:14:28] It was part of Weisgerber’s promotion of the Betsy Ross myth and–not coincidentally–the Betsy Ross house, which he owned and was his tourist attraction.
Lizzie Peabody [00:14:41] Weisgerber was such a Betsy Ross superfan that he actually bought what he thought was the house she grew up in. Although the neighborhoods in Philadelphia have changed so much, it’s hard to say if it actually was.
Roman Mars [00:14:51] Okay.
Marc Leepson [00:14:52] I don’t want to say he was a huckster, but he was a real good promoter, okay?
Roman Mars [00:14:57] I mean, “huckster” implies that he wasn’t genuine, but he might have been genuine.
Lizzie Peabody [00:15:00] Yeah. I mean, he did spend the rest of his life promoting Betsy Ross’ legacy. He even named his son Vexil Domus. You know what that’s Latin for, right?
Roman Mars [00:15:12] He named his kid “Flag House?”
Lizzie Peabody [00:15:17] Yes, he did.
Roman Mars [00:15:19] He’s committed to the bit.
Lizzie Peabody [00:15:19] Yeah. He even dressed Vexil up in an Uncle Sam suit and paraded him around the Betsy Ross house, reciting patriotic quotes for visitors.
Roman Mars [00:15:29] Oh, I love everything about what you just said. My only problem with it is I wasn’t there to see it.
Lizzie Peabody [00:15:38] Yeah. So, thanks in part to Weisgerber, Betsy Ross’ story was permanently woven into the American fabric. And yes, historians have tried to correct the record ever since, but the myth persists.
Roman Mars [00:15:55] So if we dispense with the myth, who actually was Betsy Ross?
Lizzie Peabody [00:16:00] All right, let’s take it back to the beginning. Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom, and she was one of 18 children.
Marla Miller [00:16:07] Not all survived to adulthood, as is common in that time and place. But she was in the middle of a big family. So, she had, you know, these several older sisters.
Lizzie Peabody [00:16:19] And at the age of 21, she rebelled against her strict Quaker upbringing by marrying John Ross, who was not a Quaker. And this sort of put her on the outs with her family. So, she and John ran off to the big city, Philadelphia, and they opened up an upholstery shop. And things were really good for a couple of years until John died.
Marla Miller [00:16:38] So there she is. It’s January of ’76, and she is a young widow. And at that time, in the course of the revolution, Philadelphia is fearful that the British Navy is going to appear. They’re worried they’re going to be invaded. And so, there is a mad scramble to create what’s essentially the first Navy.
Lizzie Peabody [00:17:00] And what does the Navy need besides ships?
Roman Mars [00:17:02] Well, they need flags.
Lizzie Peabody [00:17:04] Right. And anyone who could push a needle through a piece of fabric was competing for government contracts to sew these flags. It didn’t matter if you were a dressmaker, a saddler, an upholsterer–the government was desperate for flags, and Betsy Ross no longer had her family or husband to help support her. She was desperate, too.
Marla Miller [00:17:21] Betsy Ross saw that happening–in need of an income, newly widowed–and wanted to get on the rolodex for those contracts. And so, I always say, like, it’s “Betsy Ross government contractor” is what we need to be thinking.
Roman Mars [00:17:36] Okay, so if this was like a game of Clue, we’ve got, like, “Betsy Ross, a government contractor in Philadelphia in 1776.” So, all this stuff is there for her to be the person who sewed the first flag. But is there any other evidence that any part of the story we heard in school is true?
Lizzie Peabody [00:17:53] Well, it’s all pretty circumstantial. Marla Miller says historical records put George Washington in Philadelphia the month this was all set to take place. So that checks out. And actually, one of the men who allegedly joined the visit to Betsy Ross’ shop is George Ross–Betsy Ross’ uncle who actually knew Washington. So, the logic goes, he could have made the introduction. But Marla Miller says the story gets a key detail about him wrong.
Marla Miller [00:18:18] George Ross was not a member of Congress in the spring of ’76. He’s elected later that year, I believe, at the end of the summer. And so, he would not have been on a congressional committee charged with acquiring a new flag.
Lizzie Peabody [00:18:33] Yeah. And that’s not the only problem with the story. The other powdered wig who supposedly joined Washington on that trip to Betsy Ross shop–he was famously opposed to American independence. So that doesn’t make sense.
Roman Mars [00:18:46] Okay. So, Marla Miller doesn’t seem to think that there’s much truth to this whole scene at the Betsy Ross shop.
Lizzie Peabody [00:18:52] No. Lots of it does not pass the smell test. But she did say that there is one thing that rings true to her. And you’ll like this woman because it has to do with design.
Roman Mars [00:19:01] Excellent. Okay. Design. Hit me.
Lizzie Peabody [00:19:04] So remember how we said Frances Hopkinson designed the first flag?
Roman Mars [00:19:07] Yes. I could never forget Frances Hopkinson.
Lizzie Peabody [00:19:10] Well, many historians think that the first flag Hopkinson designed for the U.S. had six-pointed stars on it–and that would be consistent with heraldry design at the time and the other things that he designed for the revolution. So, Marla miller thinks it’s Hodgkinson’s six-pointed star design that George Washington ultimately showed Betsy Ross. But Betsy–being a skilled seamstress–she’s like, “Well, if you’re going to need a lot of these flags, let me show you a little shortcut.”
Marla Miller [00:19:40] She pulls out– We don’t know if it’s fabric. We don’t know if it’s paper. But she folds out a little scrap just so–folds it up just so. And with one snip of the scissors, out pops this five-pointed star.
Lizzie Peabody [00:19:54] Miller says this–the five-pointed star–is likely Betsy Ross’ contribution to the American flag.
Marla Miller [00:20:01] That story is not her saying, “I made the first flag.” What she was proud of–and this just resonates with everything we know about the period–is that the father of our country, the nation’s biggest celebrity in that period, came into her shop and she taught him something. That resonates for me; that’s the kind of moment a woman like her would remember forever.
Roman Mars [00:20:28] This is really interesting because in heraldry, the five-point star is pretty recent. It showed up here and there, but its prominence on the U.S. flag is said to have really caused it to take off on many other flags that followed.
Lizzie Peabody [00:20:42] Yeah. So, Betsy Ross could have been behind that shift. And there is another clue Miller uncovered while researching her book to support the star version of the story. It’s still something from a family member, but from a different perspective.
Marla Miller [00:20:55] One of Betsy’s extended family members is an illustrator named Joseph Boggs Beale. He was very important in the 19th century as an artist.
Lizzie Peabody [00:21:06] Miller came across one of Boggs Beale’s diaries. And while she’s leafing through it, she finds an entry from February 1857. Boggs Beal is over at Clarissa’s house for a big family gathering.
Marla Miller [00:21:17] All the players are there. And in the diary, although he’s an artist, there are no other doodles. At the bottom of this page is a five-pointed star. And I looked at that, and it gave me a chill. And it’s hard not to think he came home from that and wrote up, you know, his evening and that he heard a story that night about a five-pointed star.
Lizzie Peabody [00:21:50] So the family stories could have some truth, or they could be just that–stories. But Marla Miller says it doesn’t really matter. She thinks this is the problem with being fixated on the first. We really miss the rest of the Betsy Ross story.
Marla Miller [00:22:06] I mean, she was a woman in her early twenties when that flag moment–whatever it was–unfolded. Then she just goes on to this long and interesting career. She marries a second time. She’s widowed a second time. She survives the occupation of Philadelphia in 1777. Her sons and nephews go on to be ship captains. She is paying attention to global events. She is writing the Navy Department to remind them, like, “I’m still in business. Do you need anything?” Her world is so big. And so that’s why the parlor images really get under my skin because her horizons were broad–they weren’t confined to that parlor, and they certainly weren’t confined to the spring of 1776.
Roman Mars [00:23:03] When we come back, a flag that we know exists. And we know who made it, too. After this. This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. When you’re at your best, you can do great things. But sometimes life gets you bogged down, and you may feel overwhelmed or like you’re just not showing up the way you want to. Working with therapists can help you get closer to the best version of you. And when you feel empowered, you’re more prepared to take on everything life throws at you. Some people respond to negative talk and negative feelings, and it makes them pick themselves up by their bootstraps. I am not one of those people. I need to feel good if I want to exercise, get up early, or make dinner. You know, like, I need positive reinforcement and support to be my best self. If you’re thinking of giving therapy a try, BetterHelp is a great option. It’s convenient, flexible, affordable, and entirely online. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist. And switch therapists any time for no additional charge. If you want to live a more empowered life, therapy can get you there. Visit betterhelp.com/invisible today to get 10% off your first month. That’s betterhelp.com/invisible. I’ve also picked out some of my favorite episodes of 99% Invisible to share, and the audio is conveniently embedded even on mobile. Try it yourself. Go to squarespace.com/slash invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. Is the New Year making you want a new look for your space? Article is the easiest way to make your space beautiful. Their team of designers focuses on beautifully crafted pieces, quality materials, and durable construction. When I moved into my new place, I wanted new, quality furniture. I was tired of a poorly made hodgepodge of stuff that I’d collected over the years. So, I bought Article everything. My big dining room table. The Zola black leather dining chairs–which are simply the best dining chairs and existence–I have eight of them. My sofa, coffee table, end table, media unit sideboard–I basically have an Article showroom in my rented house. I go for the walnut mid-century styles, but whether you’re mid-century modern, industrial, or traditionalist, you’ll be able to find something at a fair price. And this is because Article cuts out the middleman. There are no showrooms–except for the one in my house–no salespeople, and no retail markups. Article is offering our listeners $50 off their first purchase of $100 or more to claim. Visit article.com/99, and the discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s article.com/99. Get $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. 99% Invisible is supported by BetterHelp online counseling. I’m sure you, like me, know a lot of people in counseling or are in need of counseling. So, I’m back with Lizzie Peabody. And you have another story for us that might undermine our elementary school education that we had in the ’80s. Is that right?
Lizzie Peabody [00:26:21] You know me. Undermining everyone’s elementary school education one story at a time.
Roman Mars [00:26:28] Excellent.
Lizzie Peabody [00:26:28] Yeah. So, I do have another story. And this one I sort of found by accident while reporting the piece on the Betsy Ross flag. So, while reporting this piece, I went to the National Museum of American History because that seemed like the place to go to find the Betsy Ross flag.
Roman Mars [00:26:46] Absolutely. That’s where I’d look. And since you have proximity, that’s where I would imagine you would look.
Lizzie Peabody [00:26:50] Right. But, as we know, I went over there to chat with curator Jennifer Jones, and she could not show me the flag.
Roman Mars [00:26:58] Right, because it does not exist.
Lizzie Peabody [00:26:59] Yes. And it’s very hard to show somebody something that doesn’t exist. But she did have a flag that she could show me. This one does exist, and it is arguably more famous than the so-called “Betsy Ross flag.” So, this is the Star-Spangled Banner?
Jennifer Jones [00:27:15] This is the Star-Spangled Banner. That’s correct.
Lizzie Peabody [00:27:17] So there’s only one Star-Spangled Banner?
Jennifer Jones [00:27:19] That’s right.
Lizzie Peabody [00:27:20] And it’s this flag?
Jennifer Jones [00:27:21] Correct.
Lizzie Peabody [00:27:22] So a lot of people probably hear “Star-Spangled Banner” and immediately think, “Oh, the national anthem.”
Roman Mars [00:27:27] Right. But The Star-Spangled Banner isn’t just a song. It’s, like, a real tangible flag from the War of 1812 that you can actually go see.
Lizzie Peabody [00:27:35] Yes, you can. And I did. Have you ever been to see it at the Smithsonian, Roman?
Roman Mars [00:27:40] I have not. I’ve been to lots of parts of the Smithsonian–actually quite a while ago at this point. But I don’t remember seeing that specifically, no.
Lizzie Peabody [00:27:48] So it’s a 15-star, 15-stripe flag, and it’s right in what Jennifer Jones calls “the heart of the museum.” So, when you go in the main entrance, you sort of turn off the main drag down this dark hallway, and it opens out into this movie theater-like room. And in front of you is the flag laid out behind glass in this sealed chamber, which protects it from breaking down.
Jennifer Jones [00:28:13] It’s about 14% oxygen in there.
Lizzie Peabody [00:28:16] Oh, wow.
Jennifer Jones [00:28:17] We breathe about 22% oxygen. And so, when we go in there, two people have to go in.
Lizzie Peabody [00:28:24] Two people have to go in in case one person passes out from lack of oxygen?
Jennifer Jones [00:28:27] That’s right. Oh my gosh. You get a big headache when you walk in there.
Lizzie Peabody [00:28:31] Conservation is dangerous work.
Roman Mars [00:28:34] I guess so! I had no idea. I was like, “How about no oxygen?” if it really causes the problem, but now I see why. Okay.
Lizzie Peabody [00:28:41] Yes, I was pretty shocked, too. So here is the thing that I wanted to get to, Roman. The Star-Spangled Banner–this flag that we do have–we actually do know who made it.
Roman Mars [00:28:51] Oh, good. Well, that’s a relief.
Marc Leepson [00:28:53] We know–100% for sure–who made the Star-Spangled Banner. The bill of sale for that is in the National Flag House and Museum in Baltimore. It was made by a woman named Mary Pickersgill. You didn’t learn about Mary Pickersgill in fourth grade?
Lizzie Peabody [00:29:10] No.
Marc Leepson [00:29:10] Why? She didn’t have a Charles Weisgerber, right? She didn’t have the publicity machine going.
Roman Mars [00:29:19] Huh. So, tell me more about Mary Pickersgill.
Lizzie Peabody [00:29:23] Okay. So, I love this because in a strange way, Mary Pickersgill’s story runs parallel with Betsy Ross’. Mary Pickersgill comes from a family of flag makers. Her mom, Rebecca Young, was known to sew flags during the revolution for George Washington’s Continental Army. And in fact, Young lived in Philadelphia at the same time as Betsy Ross. So, they were contemporaries and might have known each other.
Roman Mars [00:29:46] So is there any thought that Rebecca Young actually sewed the Betsy Ross flag?
Lizzie Peabody [00:29:52] We’re reopening the can of worms. So, the family actually claims–and, you know, here we go into family stories again–that Young sewed the first Grand Union flag that Washington flew. So, there is a school of thought that says, “Hey, you know, there’s some circumstantial evidence to say Rebecca Young might have had something to do with the Betsy Ross flag, too.” We really don’t know. But we do know a lot about her daughter, Mary Pickersgill, who, like Betsy Ross, was widowed at a young age and also took up flag making to support her family. And after the death of her husband in 1805, Mary and her mom moved to Baltimore. And a few years later, the war of 1812 is underway, and we’re fighting the British again. And it’s in the summer of 1813 that Pickersgill, who is 37 years old at the time, is asked by the leaders of Fort McHenry–the fort in Baltimore–to make a very large flag. Specifically, I think he said a flag that was, quote, “so large that the British will have no trouble seeing it from a distance.”
Roman Mars [00:30:54] He wanted, like, an in-your-face flag–a car dealership on Memorial Day-style flag.
Lizzie Peabody [00:31:00] Exactly. So that’s why they made it 30 feet by 42 feet. And it was actually so big they had to move their sewing operations to a nearby brewery because the flag was larger than the footprint of their house. So, it took Mary Pickersgill six weeks of around the clock sewing to finish the flag, but she did not do it alone. She had the help of her mother, her daughter, two nieces, and an indentured servant named Grace Wisher. And there’s actually a painting of the moment this flag was being sewn–also done well after the fact.
Roman Mars [00:31:33] Yeah. Okay, so I see again another woman in a poofy dress, sitting down. This time she is holding a flag of considerable size–the star is as big as her torso, for example. And up front in the foreground–it’s actually kind of hard to make out–there’s a dashed line of the sort of missing person, the indentured servant that you mentioned.
Lizzie Peabody [00:31:54] Yeah. It looks like she’s holding a lantern or something.
Roman Mars [00:31:56] Yeah. Yeah.
Lizzie Peabody [00:31:59] So by the time the flag was finished, it weighed about 50 lbs., and it was hoisted up the flagpole for all to see.
Roman Mars [00:32:07] And it’s this image of a beautiful flag flying high the morning after the battle of Baltimore that inspires Francis Scott Key.
Lizzie Peabody [00:32:16] Right. To write the song we all know, The Star-Spangled Banner.
Roman Mars [00:32:23] Well, I mean, this is a really striking image of her sewing that flag. It’s too bad that she didn’t have a Weisgerber to promote it the same way the Betsy Ross story was promoted. But you can be the Weisgerber of this story, I suppose.
Lizzie Peabody [00:32:36] Or you can!
Roman Mars [00:32:37] Okay!
Lizzie Peabody [00:32:38] Mary Pickersgill has a Roman Mars. She doesn’t need a Weisgerber.
Roman Mars [00:32:41] That’s right. Well, thank you so much for telling the story. And thanks for, you know, all the work you do on the Sidedoor podcast. I really enjoy it.
Lizzie Peabody [00:32:50] Well, thanks so much. It’s been such a pleasure sharing this story with you.
Roman Mars [00:33:01] 99% Invisible was produced and edited this week by Lizzie Peabody, James Morrison, and Jayson De Leon. Mix and tech production by Martín Gonzalez. Music by our director of sound Swan Real. Fact checker Sona Avakian. Delaney Hall is the executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. Special welcome this week to our intern Sarah Baik! The rest of the team includes Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to the team at Sidedoor: Ann Conanan, Jess Sadeq, Sharon Bryant, Lara Koch, and Tami O’Neill. If you want to hear more stories that span history, art, science, and culture, you can find Sidedoor by visiting the Smithsonian site at si.edu or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. 99% Invisible is part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org. Okay. My apologies for this. O, say can you Stitcher, from SiriusXM!
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