Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Betsy Debunked

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Susan reports:

There's history, and then there's history legends. Most Americans learned their share of the legendary stuff in grade school. The Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, Abraham Lincoln as a rail-splitter. Sure, there's a grain of truth in these stories somewhere, but over time they've become so well-varnished by successive generations that they just beg to be debunked.

Step up, Betsy Ross.  You're next.

Most of us Americans can recite her story: the humble seamstress who sewed the first stars-and-stripes flag for General George Washington, a noble heroine for the cause of freedom. Here in Philadelphia, Betsy's house is one of the most visited tourist attractions in a city filled with them. Only trouble is, Betsy's story probably didn't happen.  Seems that most of the "proof" of Betsy and her flag-sewing skills came via a 19th century descendent who claimed to have the scoop. Modern historians doubt it, even as the curators of Betsy's house scramble to defend their woman by saying, "Well, it could have happened."

We NHG do want them to get the history right, especially when telling it to kids on field trips. Really, we do.  But we're also in the story-telling biz ourselves, and the Betsy Ross story is a dandy, complete with a strong, resourceful heroine.  There aren't many of those in any country's history. So is it worth trashing the legend for the sake of purifying history? Or is a good fictional story loosely based on the truth worth keeping around for its entertainment value alone?

Above: The legend (and more anachronisms per pixel than you can shake a cursor at): The Birth of Old Glory by Percy Moran, c. 1917, Library of Congress.


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

That's a toughie Susan. I grew up hearing about Betsey Ross sewed the first American flag. I've been to the Betsey Ross house in Philadelphia and it was nice to see a piece of US history from that time particularly since we Americans have no qualms about tearing down historic buildings to build skyscrapers. I do think that both sides of the story should be told, the myth and the reality. Perhaps how the myth gained traction over the years.

Vanessa Kelly said...

Yes, the myth could always be placed in its historical context, along with the genuine contributions Betsy (and other American women) made to history.

Is it just me, or does George look fairly unimpressed with Old Glory? Maybe his teeth were hurting him.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I don't have an answer to this myself. This kind of "history as entertainment" does act as an introduction for a lot of people (esp. children) who might not otherwise give it another thought. If visiting Betsy Ross's house and seeing the interpreter cut the five-pointed star makes them curious to discover more, than that's a really good thing. I think Elizabeth Kerri is right, though, that the story should be presented in context as an excellent myth, and how and why it has evolved.

Vanessa, don't get me started on that picture! From the palatial room in which the humble seamstress is working, the carpet on the floor, the furniture in styles from long after the Revolution, the strange window treatments....as I said, don't get me started!

But perhaps the weirdest thing about George is that on his cheek there's something that looks suspiciously like a lipstick kiss. Oh, Betsy! *g*

Carrie said...

I was Betsy Ross once for Halloween, with a little wood sewing hoop and everything. It was the BEST costume. What a bummer that she's been debunked!

News From the Holmestead said...

I too feel a little bummed that the Ross story is probably just that--a story. I love legends, but one must realize that most legends are composed of a small bit of truth and a lot of creative embellishment. Alas. What is it about mankind that we cannot resist embellishing a basic story?

Susan, thanks for mentioning some of the anachronisms in that picture. The minute I read your comment that it was full of anachronisms, I tried to see what they were, but of course I am not a great historian nor an art critic. I didn't realize that room in the picture was supposed to be hers. I thought she had transported the flag to the White House and was showing it to Washington in one of the elegant White House rooms. Shows how much I know! I do love the romance of the picture, though.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

Say it ain't so, Susan! Oh, but Betsy was my hero, and I can't tell you how many times I enacted her life by dressing up my Barbie in little Colonial outfits, w/ Ken as brave Minuteman. TMI? And I adored historic Philadelphia, Betsy Ross House, etc., some fondest childhood memories. Hung out at church where Liberty Bell (allegedly, perhaps, was hidden) and any other Phila hist hot spot I could find. Ah, well...

I love that Carrie had the costume. Awesome.

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