“A Look Inside the Betsy Ross House” by Tom Snow
In her article “How Betsy Ross Became Famous”, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich claims that the story of Betsy Ross making the flag is no more credible than the one of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. She goes on to complain how popular the legend has become, including the fact that the “supposed Betsy Ross House”, as she calls it, remains the third most visited historic site in Philadelphia. As someone who works at the “supposed Betsy Ross House”, I was frustrated that the article so badly misjudged the mission statement of the museum, which has little to do with the story of Betsy Ross making the flag. Lisa Acker-Moulder, the museum’s director, states that the purpose of the museum is to show visitors what life was like for ordinary people who lived during the Revolution. “The traditional behind-the-velvet-rope furniture tours of “dead white guys’ ” homes are becoming irrelevant”, she says, as they do not portray how people actually lived. “To break down these barriers, we must connect the stories that we’re interpreting to contemporary issues. A great way to do this is to encourage the visitors to make a connection to our sites by creating spaces that feel more authentic.” As a result, visitation to the Betsy Ross House has gone up every year, despite an overall decrease in the visitation of historic houses.
When visitors arrive at the museum, they have a chance to take a tour of the original house that was built in the 1740s. Before going into the house, visitors can first explore the gallery, where Collections Manager Kim Staub puts on a different exhibit every year. This year’s is called “Historic Threads: 250 Years of Flag Making in Philadelphia,” which, according to Staub, “tells the story of Philadelphia being a hub for flag-making since the Revolutionary period.” Staub says the exhibit is not just about flags, but also about the role women had in making them. “Women like Betsy Ross, women like the women who today still stitch and embroider flags at the Defense Logistics Agency,” Staub said, “the women who stitched in these private warehouses, you know, we have their names in a register, but otherwise they’re largely unknown.”
The first room visitors see when they enter the house is the parlor, which is where Washington allegedly asked Ross to make the flag. After that, tourists get to climb up the narrow, spiral staircase that was common in colonial row homes, and many appreciate just how difficult something as routine as climbing the stairs was for people back then. On the second floor, visitors can view Betsy Ross’ chamber and that of the owner of the house, Hannah Lithgow. Lithgow was an elderly widow who owned several boarding houses in the vicinity, and her room is currently being renovated to allow visitors to get a better view of her quarters. This will allow them to compare the lifestyle of an upper middle-class woman, such as Lithgow, to that of a working-class woman like Betsy Ross. In Ross’ chamber, tourists will notice a life-size replica flag, which depicts where she would have made flags to avert the attention of British soldiers or Loyalist spies.
After descending another spiral staircase, visitors get to see Ross’ upholstery shop and meet with a first-person interpreter of the woman herself. The interpreter of Ross tells visitors more than just the story of the flag, but also how to stitch bed curtains liked they did in the colonial period. What visitors seem to appreciate the most, however, is when the interpreter demonstrates how to cut out a five pointed star, which was allegedly one of the few alterations Ross made to the original design of the flag. Acker-Moulder insists that the purpose of having an interpreter is to make the Betsy Ross House seem like a “living, breathing home,” which will allow visitors to “leave here feeling a connection to Betsy and her story.”
The final part of the house visitors see is the basement, where an exhibit called “Woman at Work in Revolutionary America” demonstrates what domestic life was like during the period. As part of the exhibit, visitors can meet Phillis, an interpreter of a free African American woman who demonstrates how people did laundry in the colonial period. The purpose of this exhibit, according to Acker-Moulder, is to appeal to visitors of different backgrounds. “America is becoming more diverse”, she says “and some of these diverse populations don’t think historic institutions are telling their stories. I’m hopeful that the diversity – Betsy was a middle-class white woman, Phillis is a free black woman – will appeal to more audiences.” She also states that the exhibit in the basement is “something modern audiences can relate to. Everybody has to do laundry and shop for food.”
What makes the Betsy Ross House so successful is that it tells the story of more than just one woman. By touring the Betsy Ross House, visitors learn what life was like for ordinary people during the colonial period. While most museums let you see the kind of things people owned, the Betsy Ross House shows how people actually lived. Not only do visitors have more access in the house compared to other historic homes, but they can also meet first person interpreters who demonstrate everyday chores in the colonial period. By including woman like Phillis and Hannah Lithgow, the Betsy Ross House also appeals to a diverse populations in a way that other museums do not. That is why, in the end, the Betsy Ross House is more than just an exhibit about the woman who “allegedly” made the first American flag, but really a small sample of what life was like for most people living in the eighteenth century.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. “How Betsy Ross Became Famous.” Common Place: The Journal of Early American Life 08, no.1 [October 2007] http://common-place.org/book/how-betsy-ross-became-famous/ [accessed December 27th, 2017].