May 4, 2020
By Wendy Stanley
On February 12th, 2020 I visited the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia to investigate whether she did indeed make the first American flag and why the house is so important to American national culture. After my site visit, I researched my way through an interesting cornucopia of opinion through the ages, left for us in books and papers and letters, including the most intriguing one, a paper presented to the Bucks County Historical Association in 1909 by Oliver Randolph Parry, who reprinted the family testimonials from 1870/71. Thanks to Archive.org and the Library of Congress, you can read this fascinating article in layout format here:
The most striking feature of my visit and research, however, was the house itself. (Although after my research, I do believe Betsy did make the first flag. I hope someone finds evidence in a dusty box or old chest one day – a receipt or the sketch of the flag from 1776, perhaps signed or marked in some way.)
Parry's paper to the Bucks County Historical Society, 1909
The Betsy Ross House as it appeared in the 1930s (?). Note the location of the door.
As professor Marla R. Miller documents in her scholarly book, Betsy Ross and the Making of America, the front room of the house at 239 Arch Street dates from 1740. Betsy’s father, Samuel Griscom, a carpenter, purchased the property and significantly changed the imprint, adding on to the back of the house and adding its winding stairs. Miller reports that Betsy and her family moved in in 1764 (Betsy was twelve) and lived there until her marriage in November 1773 to John Ross. She may have moved back in for a few years after his death. The house was sold in 1781 to another family.
Eighteenth century homes were designed to be multi-functional. A place of business was run from the front street-facing room while the family lived above. A large front window could advertise the goods or service available within. Over the years, 239 Arch Street had many lives: shoemaker’s shop, retail shop, tailor’s, beer tavern, and more.
Photo dated 1900 - Firmly a tourist attraction under Weisgerber's care
The house was eventually purchased sometime in the 1800s by the Mund family, probably in the 1830s. Amelia Mund’s testimonial is in the Parry paper mentioned above. She became aware of the house’s historical value and had a sign placed outside highlighting Betsy Ross and the first flag. When the pine floor of the front room threatened to fall into the cellar below, Mrs. Mund let visitors take pieces of it for relics in 1881 when the floor was being redone. One of these pieces of floor ended up at Parry’s presentation in 1909, donated by the journalist who had interviewed Mrs. Mund in 1881 when he obtained the floorboard remnant from the famous “Betsy Ross” house. After Mrs. Mund’s death her son tried to use the house as a tourist attraction and sold Betsy Ross branded cigars out of his store.
1862 photograph on a postcard. The tree was cut down not long afterwards when it was damaged. Hard to miss what was placed over the front window.
By 1890 the house was in bad repair and in trouble. Located in a valuable manufacturing area of the city, the house was slotted for demolition to make more manufacturing space. Artist Charles Weisgerber walked past and spotted the sign outside identifying it as the site of the first flag. He was inspired to enter a competition being run by the City of Philadelphia for the best artistic rendering of a local historic event. The prize was $1,000. Weisgerber entered the contest with his large 9x12 foot painting, “The Birth of our Nation’s Flag,” and won the grand prize. He later exhibited the painting at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, creating a buzz of interest around Betsy Ross and the flag. (The painting was restored in 2000 for $40,000 and is now at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.)
Weisgerber became interested in saving Betsy’s house. He organized a group, the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association, to fund the effort. Subscribers received a print of Weisgerber’s painting and a certificate in their name. The fundraising was successful, and Weisgerber was able to purchase 239 Arch Street from the City of Philadelphia in 1899 for $25,000.
Weisgerber's painting as currently depicted in the Betsy Ross House - display
Weisgerber moved his family into the house around 1900 and used the lower floor as a Betsy Ross tourist attraction and gift shop. When Weisgerber died in 1932, the house was falling into disrepair. Weisgerber had been unsuccessful with his attempts to sell it. The house was saved by A. Atwater Kent, a wealthy radio manufacturer, who purchased 239 Arch Street and the buildings on either side of it. He had the house substantially repaired by a historic architect and donated it to the City of Philadelphia in 1937. It reopened the same year to visitors, on Flag Day. A private non-profit organization, Historic Philadelphia, Inc., began leasing the property from the City of Philadelphia in 1995 and continues to manage the site. The site sees at least 200,000 visitors a year and is now well maintained.
Due to this legacy, the Betsy Ross House has been a tourist attraction in some form, formally or informally, from the mid-1800s, which is astounding in itself. If you’re in Philadelphia, visit this old house for its sheer architectural interest and say hi to Betsy’s father as you admire the bones of the house. Whether the nation’s first flag was made here or not, the age of Samuel Griscom’s woodworking handiwork is a treat by itself, even if restored in the 1930s. I found some fascinating old photos and postcards of the house over the years. Here is a sampling of my photos and vintage images:
The house in the mid-1800s before the tree was cut down.
Color postcard, undated
The house as it looks now.
My photos 2/12/2020
Street signs outside the house on Arch Street
Parlor, with some of the original blue and white tiles still in place around the fireplace. According to the Betsy Ross House website, "The rooms are furnished with period antiques, 18th-century reproductions and objects that belonged to Betsy Ross and her family. Highlights of the collection include Betsy Ross' walnut chest-on-chest, her Chippendale chair, her eyeglasses, and her Bible."
Draperies play an important part of the decor throughout the house, honoring Betsy as skilled upholsterer
The cellar, which transports one back into time. It looks like it has changed very little, even without being staged for the 18th century.
Stone stair bowed and worn down with use in the cellar.
Betsy and John Claypoole's grave in the courtyard
I can't help but wonder at the sturdy stairs that Samuel Griscom put in ... still looking well constructed 275 years later
One corner of the upholstery room in the rear of house, as described in her niece's affidavit
Entrance to the Betsy Ross House today, where a quarter of a million visitors enter each year (prior to COVID-19)