Many countries commemorate their national flags on various dates, but it’s always on the 14th of June—during National Flag Week—that U.S. citizens celebrate our bold heritage, with flags symbolizing our liberty. With great pride, Cincinnatians join these festivities.
We might better understand the freedom our flag represents if we learn about the context of its design and its designer:
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress replaced the British Grand Union flag with a new design featuring 13 white stars in a circle on a field of blue and 13 red and white stripes – one for each state. This flag is thought to have been made by Elizabeth Griscom Ross, or Betsy, who was an official flag maker for the Pennsylvania Navy, although there’s no historical evidence to support this.
Betsy, daughter of Samuel Griscom, was born on January 1, 1752. She had 14 brothers and sisters, although her mother’s name is unknown. Just a year before William Penn founded Philadelphia, Betsy’s great-grandfather, Andrew Griscom, a successful Quaker carpenter, had already emigrated from England to New Jersey. He moved to Philadelphia to become an early participant in Penn’s “holy experiment.” There, he purchased 495 acres of land. His son and grandson, Betsy’s father, both also became carpenters. Their names are inscribed on Carpenters Hall in Philly, home of the nation’s oldest trade organizations.
As a girl, Betsy was taught reading, writing, and probably sewing in a private Quaker school. She went on to become an upholsterer. At her job, Betsy met another apprentice, John Ross, the son of an Episcopal assistant rector at Christ Church. One night, they eloped. Because Quakers didn’t approve of interfaith marriage, her wedding caused an irrevocable split from her family. John also split with his father, who was a Loyalist.
Betsy and John founded their own upholstery business. This was a courageous move, since Betsy had been “read out” of the Quaker community. On Sundays, she could be found at Christ Church sitting in pew 12 with John. Some Sundays, George Washington, America’s Commander in Chief, was sitting in the adjacent pew.
In January 1776, Thomas Paine, a disenfranchised British activist living in Philadelphia, published the pamphlet Common Sense, remembered by the quote “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The city was fractured in its allegiance.
The same year, according to Betsy, she met with the Committee of Three: George Washington, George Ross, and Robert Morris, which led to her sewing the first American Flag.
Betsy Ross died on January 30, 1836, at the age of 84. While it may never be proven that she created the first American flag, it seems fitting that she’s recognized for her brave personal statement on behalf of human rights.