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  The Origins of the American Flag, Betsy Ross

& Mary Pickersgill


By John T. Marck

  America became independent from Great Britain upon the American Revolutionary War, they had not yet had the flag that is so well-known to all Americans, and the world.

On April 19, 1775 the American Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord and lasted until October 19, 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. The war was not officially over until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783.

Under the Second Continental Congress, America’s first flag was known as the “the Continental Colors.”  This Congress passed a resolution on June 14, 1777 that read: “Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”  This day too began the origin of Flag Day, celebrated each June 14th since.  

The first flag consisted of 13 stripes, and no stars. The stripes represented Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. This flag was in use from December 3, 1775 to June 14, 1777.

 The following flags, known as the “Stars and Stripes,” were then issued. Each flag consists of 13 red and white stripes that represent the original 13 states, and the number of stars represent each state of the Union.

(2)       In use from June 14, 1777 to May 1, 1795, for eighteen years, having 13 stars representing the 13 original states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. Total states: 13

Each of the following flags has stars that represent the original 13 states plus any new states added. The new states are as follows:

NOTE: An Act of April 4, 1818 provided for 13 stripes and one star for each state, to be added to the flag on the 4th of July following the admission of each new state, signed by President James Monroe.

(3)       In use from May 1, 1795 to July 3, 1818, for twenty-three years, adding Vermont and Kentucky. Total states: 15.

(4)       In use from July 4, 1818 to July 3, 1819, for one year, adding Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee. Total states: 20.

  (5)       In use from July 4, 1819 to July 3, 1820, for one year adding Illinois. Total states: 21.  

 (6)       In use from July 4, 1820 to July 3, 1822, for two years, adding Alabama and Maine. Total states: 23.

(7)       In use from July 4, 1822 to July 3, 1836, for fourteen years, adding Missouri. Total states 24. The words “Old Glory” was first used to describe this flag.  

(8)       In use from July 4, 1836 to July 3, 1837, for one year, adding Arkansas. Total states: 25.

(9)       In use from July 4, 1837 to July 3, 1845, for eight years, adding Michigan. Total states: 26.

 (10)     In use from July 4, 1845 to July 3, 1846, for one year, adding Florida. Total states: 27.

 (11)      In use from July 4, 1846 to July 3, 1847, for one year, adding Texas. Total states: 28.


(12)     In use from July 4, 1847 to July 3, 1848, for one year, adding Iowa. Total states: 29.


(13)     In use from July 4, 1848 to July 3, 1851, for three years, adding Wisconsin. Total states: 30.


(14)     In use from July 4, 1851 to July 3, 1858, for seven years, adding California. Total states: 31.


  (15)     In use from July 4, 1858 to July 3, 1859 for one year, adding Minnesota. Total states: 32.


 (16)     In use from July 4, 1859 to July 3, 1861, for two years, adding Oregon. Total states: 33.


(17)     In use from July 4, 1861 to July 3, 1863, for two years, adding Kansas. Total states: 34. 

 (18)     In use from July 4, 1863 to July 3, 1865, for two years, adding West Virginia. Total states: 35.


  (19)     In use from July 4, 1865 to July 3, 1867, for two years, adding Nevada. Total states: 36.


(20)    In use from July 4, 1867 to July 3, 1877, for ten years, adding Nebraska. Total states: 37


  (21)     In use from July 4, 1877 to July 3, 1890, for thirteen years, adding Colorado. Total states: 38.


 (22)     In use from July 4, 1890 to July 3, 1891, for one year adding Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington. Total states: 43. 

  (23)     In use form July 4, 1891 to July 3, 1896 for five years, adding Wyoming. Total states: 44.

  (24)     In use from July 4, 1896 to July 3, 1908, for twelve years, adding Utah. Total states: 45.

 NOTE: An Executive Order of President Taft, June 24, 1912, established proportions of the flag and provided for arrangement of the stars in six horizontal rows of eight each, a simple point of each start to be upward.

(25)     In use from July 4, 1908 to July 3, 1912, for four years, adding Oklahoma. Total states: 46.


 (26)     In use from July 4, 1912 to July 3, 1959, for forty-seven years, adding Arizona and New Mexico. Total states: 48.

            NOTE: An Executive Order of President Eisenhower, January 3, 1959 provided for the arrangement of the stars in seven rows of seven stars each, staggered horizontally and vertically.

            An Executive Order of President Eisenhower, August 21, 1959, provided for the arrangement of the stars in nine rows of stars staggered horizontally and eleven rows of starts staggered vertically.

 (27)     In use from July 4, 1959 to July 3, 1960, for one year, adding Alaska. Total states: 49.

(28)    In use from July 4, 1960 to the present day of this writing (2019), for fifty-nine years, adding Hawaii. Total states: 50.


 Interestingly, should there ever be the addition of a new state added to the flag; it would require a new design to accommodate the additional star.

             Such as in November 2012, Puerto Rico voted to become a U.S. State. Nothing happened as the legitimacy of the election was disputed. Then on June 11, 2017, another referendum was held with 97% of the voters in Puerto Rico voting for statehood. Again this was turned down as only 23% of voters turned out. In a similar election in November 2016, a statehood referendum was held in the District of Columbia, whereby 86% of the voters approved statehood.  Also, it was been discussed to divide California into two or more states.            

The origin of the stars and stripes design is rumored that it is from the Washington family coat of arms, shown in a window of Selby Abbey, which is an Anglican parish church in the town of Selby in North Yorkshire, England.  The coat of arms of the Washington family was first used in the 12th century when the Washington family took possession of Washington Old Hall in County Durham, England. This same coat of arms was used by George Washington, who was president of the United States from 1789 to 1797.  

            As shown here, the three red stars above the two red bands on a white shield are on the Washington coat of arms and are a model for the American flag. Known as the Washington Window at Selby Abbey, it can be found in the south clerestory window of the choir and is made from 14th century glass.


Betsy Ross

            She was born Elizabeth Griscom Ross on January 1, 1752, one of seventeen children born to Quakers Samuel and Rebecca James Griscom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the eighth born of these children of which only nine survived childhood.

            Known as Betsy, she is widely known as the maker of the first American flag. According to her family tradition, they were visited by General George Washington, who then was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, in 1776. It is said that Washington had a sketch of a flag with stars consisting of six points. Betsy told Washington that it was easier and faster to cut material for five-point stars, thus how the stars were made. However, there is no evidence anywhere that substantiates this story, and it appears that it first was told by her grandson in his writings in the 1870s, about one-hundred years later from when she was alleged to have sewn the flag. Through research by the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., revealed that this story of Ross making the first American flag came into being about the same time as the 1876 centennial celebration held in Philadelphia. It seems that her grandson William J. Canby presented a paper he had written to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania claiming that he grandmother had “made with her hands the first flag.” Canby further claimed that he received this information from his aunt, Clarissa Sydney (Claypoole) Wilson in 1857, twenty-years after the death of Betsy Ross.  The claim was made based on Washington’s historic journey to Philadelphia in the spring of 1776, one year before the Second Continental Congress passed the first Flag Day celebrated June 14, 1777.

            Betsy grew up in a house hold of very strict discipline of the Quakers. She was also in plain dress, and learned to sew from her great aunt, Sarah Elizabeth Ann Griscom. Upon her completion of her education at a Quaker-run state school, her father apprenticed her to an upholsterer by the name of William Webster. It would be here that she fell in love with another apprentice named John Ross. John was the son of George Ross, Jr., one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. They eloped and married at Hugg’s Tavern in Gloucester City, New Jersey in 1773. During their marriage they had no children.

            Her marriage caused her to split from her Griscom family and her expulsion from the Quakers congregation.  Soon after their marriage they started their own upholstery business, and joined the Christ Church. Its congregation included George Washington, and his family as well as other delegates and notable people from the Continental Congress. As this church was located in in Alexandria, Virginia, it was not far from Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.

            Because of the belief that Betsy Ross has sewn the first flag, she had been commemorated in many ways over the years. The United States Post Office issued a commemorative stamp on January 1, 1952 in celebration and honor of the 200th anniversary of her birth. This was done of course when the stories and legend were still believed and accepted by the American public, before historical evidence existed.

            Another flag maker in Philadelphia was Rebecca Young, who is historically credited with having made the flag of 1775-1776 that consisted of the British Union Jack of the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew in the upper corner and 13 alternating red and white stripes that represented the 13 colonies, made for the Continental Army and used by the navy.

Mary Pickersgill

            Rebecca Young had a daughter, Mary Young Pickersgill, born on February 12, 1776 and lived to 1857. It would be Mary who made the flag consisting of 15 stars and stripes in 1813 that was raised over Fort McHenry. Pickersgill made this flag at her house, but completed on the floor of a nearby brewery.  It was delivered to the commander, Major George Armistead of Fort McHenry the year before the famous Battle of Baltimore on September 12-14, 1814, during the war of 1812. Two flags were made. A large 30 by 42 foot one, known as the  “garrison flag,” and a smaller one, known as the “storm flag,” that was the one seen by Francis Scott Key that was the inspiration for his poem that would became the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

            Following the battle, Major Armistead took the flag, and upon his death in 1818, he went to his widow. Louisa Hughes Armistead. She kept it for 4o years; during which time she permitted it displayed on a few occasions, and removed pieces of it given as gifts which were a common practice of the day. When she died in 1861, the flag was given tom her daughter, Georgiana, then later to her grandson, Eden Appleton. The flag was then moved to various places over a 40-year period until 1907 when it was loaned to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  In December 1998, the flag began an $18 million conservation treatment, which was not a restoration, and then became the centerpiece of the National Museum of American History, where it remains today.

            The small 1793 row-house still stands in Baltimore, and is today open for visitors known as the “Flag House and Star- Spangled Banner Museum.” 

            Pickersgill was sadly widowed at age 29, but became very successful in her flag making business that enable her to purchase the Baltimore house, that she had been renting previously. In addition to her flags, she became active in social issues, assisting disadvantaged women with jobs and housing. From 1828 to 1851 she was the president of the Impartial Female Humane Society that had been founded in 1802, and incorporated in 1811. Through Pickersgill’s help and leadership, the organization built a home for aged women first, then another for aged men, adjacent to the women’s. It would be these two homes that evolved into the Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson that opened in 1959, and named after her in 1962.

            Mary Pickersgill died on October 4, 1857 at the age of 81, and is buried in Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore. Her daughter, Caroline had a monument erected in her honor there, as a well as a bronze plaque placed at the foot of her grave by the United Daughters of 1812 and the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House Association. Her home, now the Flag House as mentioned herein became such in 1927, after the house was saved through the efforts of these two organizations who thankfully sought to preserve it.

            Mary Pickersgill’s daughter, Caroline interestingly wrote a letter in 1876 to Major George Armistead’s daughter, Georgiana Armistead Appleton, which read:

“The large flag contained over 400 yards (370 meters) of fabric, and included 15 stripes and 15 stars, one for each of the 15 states of the union. The stars were made of cotton and the stripes and blue canton were of English wool bunting. Each stripe was two feet (61 cm) wide and each of the stars measured 24 inches (61 cm) across from tip to tip. The women did much of the work in the evening after the brewery closed, sometimes working until midnight, and Pickersgill delivered the flags to Fort McHenry on August 19, 1813, a full year before the Battle of Baltimore. The main flag weighed about 50 pounds (23 kg), and it took 11 men to raise it onto a 90-foot (27 m) flagpole. The result was an enormous American flag that could be seen for several miles from the Fort. On October 27, 1813 a receipt was given to Pickersgill and her niece Eliza Young in the amount of $405.90 for the larger flag, and $168.54 for the smaller one (which was also used at Fort McHenry as a storm flag).  The small flag may have been flying when the British initially attacked Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on September 13, because of the inclement weather that night with the driving rainstorm (which would have made the woolen bunting material soggy and too heavy to blow out in any breeze).”

Painting of c.1917 that depicts what is presumed to be Betsy Ross and two children presenting the Betsy Ross flag to George Washington and three other men by Edward Percy Moran, Library of Congress 


Copyright 2019 by John T. Marck. Portions of this article in part from Wikipedia, Flag of the United States, and information from history.com and grandnewflag.com.  


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