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Sewing History - Symbolizing a Nation

Betsy Ross FlagWhile sewing has obviously played a pivotal role in the survival of our species by providing warmth and protection from the elements, especially in harsh climates, it has also had an important cultural and historical role throughout history as well. One example of this is the apocryphal story of Betsy Ross and the origin of the iconic American flag.

First, a little background; the year 1776 was quite a pivotal one in the annals of American history. The American Revolutionary War officially began in April of 1775, when British and colonial forces exchanged fire in the battles of Lexington and Concord (in Massachusetts).

On January 1, 1776, the Continental Congress gave control of the Continental Army to George Washington. On that same day, Washington raised the Continental Colors (later referred to as the Grand Union) flag outside his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Grand Union flag had red and white stripes (which are still used today) and the upper left corner was filled with a Union Jack. The Grand Union flag had been designed in 1775 by a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harris, and Thomas Lynch. The red and white stripes were intended to represent the thirteen colonies and the inclusion of the Union Jack symbolized the relationship with Great Britain. When General Washington raised the Grand Union, the Loyalists (a group of colonists still pledging loyalty to the Crown), misconstrued the meaning, and thought this was a sign that the Continental Army was surrendering. This apparently triggered the idea that an entirely new design was needed to represent colonial independence.

According to the tale handed down the generations by Betsy Ross's family, she was visited secretly in late May, 1776 by George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross and given a sketch for a new flag by General Washington. The design included six-pointed stars and Betsy demonstrated how a five-pointed star would be easier to make and with a snip of her scissors, produced a five pointed star (click the link, it's fun!). They agreed to use the five-point star and Betsy was commissioned to sew the flag. She completed the flag in late May or early June of 1776.

On July 4th, 1776, the Colonial Congress issued the United States Declaration of Independence, which completely severed ties with Britain and established an independent sovereign nation.

The new flag, with "thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation" was adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777 (Flag Resolution of 1777).
Betsy Ross Sewing

As to the question of where the design originated, George Washington is widely quoted as having made this statement: "We take the stars from heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity, representing our liberty."

As occupation of the more western-most areas of the US occured and territories became states, the flag was revised to add additional stars, while always keeping the red and white stripes. Hawaii was the last to become a state in 1959, and the current flag with 50 stars was adopted on July 4, 1960.

Historians have since cast doubt upon whether Betsy Ross was the actual maker of the flag because there was no reference to this pivotal event until almost 100 years later, when her grandson, William J. Canby, presented a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870. Even so, this does not diminish the importance of sewing and its contribution to American history. The American flag is a popular symbol of patriotism and the United States National Anthem itselt is an an ode to the flag, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814.

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