March is Women’s History Month and Liberty Stitching Company is honoring four women and their contributions to world of stitching. We will begin in the in the early colonial days of America with Betsy Ross and then jump across the pond to England where embroidery artisan May Morris lives. She helped establish the Royal School of Art Needlework in 1872 and is important to American needlework because her opening an art school to preserve the craft, influenced two women, Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller, to do the same in the United States; just in time for the 1920’s Post-war revival of needlepoint, when women took a huge interest in Colonial Samplers again. These needlework pioneers laid the groundwork for not only the craft of needlework and embroidery but the job opportunities they afforded women, as well. Follow along this month as we are inspired by each of their story’s.
Early Life of Betsy Ross
Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom to parents Samuel Griscom and Rebecca James in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 1, 1752, the eighth of 17 children. She grew up in a household where the plain dress and strict discipline of the Society of Friends (Quakers). Betsy went to a Quaker public school. For eight hours a day she was taught reading, writing, and received instruction in a trade – probably sewing. After completing her schooling, Betsy’s father apprenticed her to an upholsterer, John Webster. She spent several years under Webster, learning to make and repair curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas and Venetian blinds, as well as working on other projects that involved sewing.
Marriage to John Ross
Betsy fell in love with fellow apprentice, John Ross, who was the son of an Episcopal assistant rector at Christ Church. Quakers frowned on inter-denominational marriages. The penalty for such unions was severe — the guilty party being “read out” of the Quaker meeting house, which meant an irrevocable split from her family and her church. One’s entire history and community would be instantly dissolved.
On a November night in 1773, 21-year-old Betsy eloped with John Ross, regardless of the consequences They ferried across the Delaware River to Hugg’s Tavern in New Jersey, where they were married. When the news of the marriage reached her parents, the Griscoms disowned Betsy.
Despite all this, they were happy and found a spiritual home at Christ Church. George Washington, America’s new commander-in-chief, and his wife Martha Washington sat in an adjacent pew. Less than two years after their wedding, they started their own upholstery business. Betsy and John had no children.
The Revolutionary War
Philadelphia was divided in its loyalties during the American Revolution – many felt they were still citizens of Britain; others were ardent revolutionaries. Betsy and John Ross keenly felt the impact of the war. Business was slow and fabrics were becoming scarce.
John joined the Pennsylvania militia. While guarding an ammunition cache in mid-January 1776, Ross was mortally wounded when the gunpowder exploded. He died on January 21, and was buried in Christ Church Cemetery, leaving Betsy a childless widow at the age of 24.
Betsy continued to run her upholstery business, making extra income by mending uniforms and making tents, blankets, musketballs, and cartridges for the Continental Army. Betsy returned to the Quaker fold, in a way – Quakers are pacifists and forbidden to bear arms. This led to a schism in their ranks. When the Fighting Quakers — who supported the war effort — banded together, Betsy joined them.
Sewing the Flag
In May 1776, Betsy Ross had that fateful meeting in her home with the Committee of Three: George Washington, Robert Morris, an owner of vast amounts of land and George Ross, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and her late husband’s uncle. Her daughter recalled that, “It was partly owing to his [Washington’s] friendship for her [Betsy] that she was chosen to make the flag.”
According to Betsy, Washington showed her a rough design of the flag that included a six-pointed star. Betsy, an expert with a pair of scissors, demonstrated how to cut a five-pointed star in a single snip. Impressed, the committee entrusted Betsy with making our country’s first flag. She finished the flag either in late May or early June 1776.
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress, seeking to promote national pride and unity, adopted the national flag: “Resolved: 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.” The Congress left no record as to why it chose the colors red, white and blue.
During the winter of 1777, Betsy’s home was used to lodge British soldiers, whose army had occupied Philadelphia. Through it all, she managed to run her upholstery shop, and after the soldiers left, she wove cloth pouches which were used to hold gunpowder for the Continental Army.
Marriage to Joseph Ashburn
Betsy was married again on June 15, 1777, this time to sea captain, Joseph Ashburn, in a ceremony performed at Old Swedes Church in Philadelphia, and they had two daughters, Zilla and Elizabeth. Joseph was often at sea, leaving Betsy, a new mother, alone in Philadelphia.
On a trip to the West Indies to procure war supplies for the Revolutionary cause, Captain Ashburn was captured by the British. Ashburn and the crew were charged with treason and taken to Old Mill Prison in England. While he was there, nine-month-old Zilla died. Joseph died of an unknown illness before the British released the American prisoners in 1782. Betsy learned of her husband’s death from an old friend, John Claypoole, who had also been imprisoned at the Old Mill.
Marriage to John Claypool
On May 8, 1783, Betsy was married for the third time to John Claypoole. Betsy convinced her new husband to abandon the life of the sea and find employment on the mainland. Claypoole initially worked in her upholstery business and then at the U.S. Customs House in Philadelphia. The couple had five daughters (Clarissa, Susannah, Rachel, Jane and Harriet). Betsy was finally able to enjoy a long and happy married life, though there were challenges along the way.
In 1784, Betsy returned to her Quaker roots when she and John joined the Society of Free Quakers – a sect that, unlike the pacifist traditional Quakers, supported America’s fight for freedom from British rule. After the birth of their second daughter, the family moved to larger quarters on Second Street in what was then Philadelphia’s Mercantile District.
John Claypoole died in 1817, after twenty years of ill health as a result of his earlier war injuries, and Betsy never remarried. She continued working until 1827, bringing many of her immediate family into the business with her.
Later in Life
Over the next couple of decades, Betsy and her daughters continued to sew upholstery and create flags and banners for the new nation. By 1833, Betsy was completely blind. She spent the last few years of her life with her daughters Susanna and Jane. One of her daughters, Clarissa, took over the shop.
Betsy Ross died peacefully in her sleep on January 30, 1836, at the age of 84. She was survived by one daughter with John Ashburn, Eliza, and four daughters with John Claypoole: Clarissa, Susanna, Jane, and Rachel, and one sister, Hannah Griscom Levering (1755–1836), who herself died about 11 months later. She was buried in three locations: first at the Free Quaker Burial Ground. Twenty years later, her remains were exhumed and reburied in the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in the Cobbs Creek Park section of Philadelphia. In preparation for the United States Bicentennial, the city moved her remains to the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House in 1975.
Betsy Ross’ Legacy
Betsy Ross represents what most Patriots were in 1776, not leaders of armies or famous statesmen, but rather simple, hard-working people who wanted their country to be free. She was a successful entrepreneur from humble beginnings who sewed flags for her country and whose husband died in its defense. She took the skill of sewing that she had been taught as a young girl and developed that skill into a successful business that flourished for decades to come; a business she had to pass down to the women of her family, who would come to run it with their daughters for many more years.
She is a reminder of what everyday Americans did to give us our independence from England. Moreover, the Betsy Ross flag represents a time when our nation was in its purest form. A time when our people were united in a common cause against a common foe. If our nation needs a symbol of that earlier day as an inspiration of what we can and ought to be as a country, the Betsy Ross flag would be a great choice.
American Corner, https://www.americanacorner.com/blog/betsy-ross, obtained March 4, 2023.
History of American Women, https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2010/04/betsy-ross.html, obtained March 4, 2023.
Philadelphia Life, https://philadelphialife.weebly.com/clarissa-claypoole.html, obtained March 6, 2023.
ThoughtCo., https://www.thoughtco.com/betsy-ross-biography-3530269, obtained March 5, 2023.
Wikipedia: Betsy Ross, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betsy_Ross, obtained March 6, 2023.