|13 HAND-EMBROIDERED STARS AND EXPERTLY HAND-SEWN STRIPES ON AN ANTIQUE AMERICAN FLAG MADE IN PHILADELPHIA BY SARAH M. WILSON, GREAT-GRANDDAUGHTER OF BETSY ROSS, SIGNED & DATED 1911
|Frame Size (H x L):
|13.75" x 18.75"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|5.75" x 10.5"
|13 star American national flag, entirely hand-sewn by Sarah M. Wilson, great-granddaughter of Betsy Ross. The stripes are constructed of silk ribbon carefully pieced with tiny stitches and a degree of precision seldom seen on American textiles. The five-pointed stars are executed with lineal lines like a spokes on a carriage wheel or the rowel of a spur. These are sewn with silk floss on a blue silk canton. There is a hand-sewn cotton binding along the hoist.
Beginning around 1898, Rachel Albright, Betsy's granddaughter and the mother of Sarah, began producing flags like this one in the East Wing of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. She sold them to tourists and probably sometimes gifted them to individuals who made donations to the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association. She was elderly and sometime around 1902, as her health began to fail, she was joined by her daughter, Sarah Wilson, and the two women operated their tiny cottage industry until 1905, when Rachel relocated to Fort Madison, Iowa. She passed in the same year.
Sarah was probably assisting her mother for some time before she completely filled her shoes. Though Rachel could certainly sew with expert skill, I believe that she may not have been able to write well, due to her age, and that Sarah was actually inscribing the flags at Rachel’s direction. Years ago I acquired a flag that was accompanied by a wonderful, hand-written account of the Ross story, penned in 1903, entitled "A sketch of Betsy Ross, who made the first Flag of our nation. June 14th 1777. And also of her Grand-daughter Rachel Albright, who made copies of the original Flag, and has them for sale." At the end of the booklet it is signed "Rachel Albright. Signed with permission." The text of the booklet is very obviously done by the same hand that inscribed Rachel's flags.
The story Rachel tells in this account describes how her mother, Clarissa (b. 1785), eldest daughter of Betsy Ross and John Claypoole, had been living in Baltimore, but moved back to Philadelphia after her own husband, Jacob Wilson, died in 1812. John Claypoole, who dies in 1817, was paralytic in 1812 and took a good deal of Betsy's attention, so Clarissa assisted with the business of flag-making and upholstery, eventually inheriting it.
The booklet describes how Rachel was born three months after her father's 1812 death, after her mother moved back to Philadelphia. This is how it came to be that Rachel was born in Betsy's house, raised by both her mother and grandmother, and "learned her first letters, at her [Betsy's] knee. It also describes how, with the War of 1812 under way, and flag demand on the upswing, that when Rachel first "saw the light [she] was cradled among the Flags made for the United States shipping at the Navy Yard." Rachel, in turn, learned the trade from her mother.
The Albright and Wilson flags are extraordinary because of their tiny size and silk, hand-sewn construction. They are extremely easy to identify because their characteristics are so distinctive. There is nothing else like them among 13 star flags made during this period. That having been said, they were individually made and do exhibit a small degree of personalized variation. The sleeves or hoist bindings vary in width and some have tiny, hand-sewn grommets.
Sarah's flags typically either came with a separate note or with a direct signature along the hoist binding. This particular flag is signed along both sides. On the obverse (front) it reads: "Made by Sarah M. Wilson, Great-grand.daughter of Betsy Ross." And on the reverse continues: "East Wing of Independence Hall Philadelphia. May 12th 1911."
Rachael and Sarah proudly proclaimed that a circular wreath pattern was the design on the very first flag in 1777, but no hard evidence exists to substantiate it. In fact, no one knows precisely what the star configuration was on the first flag, but it is unlikely that it had a perfect circle of stars. Of the very few colonial examples that survive, none are in this pattern. Further, while there are thousands of 13 star flags that still exist today, having been made during the 19th century for all manner of patriotic and utilitarian purposes, almost none made prior to the 1890’s survive that have their stars arranged in what has become widely known as the “Betsy Ross” pattern.
Research conducted by the National Museum of American History notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the very first American flag for General George Washington, in the company of George Ross and Robert Morris, entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 centennial. The tale was immensely popular among an American public eager for stories about the Revolution and its heroes. The first documentation of it appeared shortly beforehand, in 1870, in a paper written by Betsy’s grandson, William Canby, for the Pennsylvania Historical Society. At the time, Canby made no mention of how the flag was designed, save for the fact that it had 5-pointed stars, per his grandmother’s suggestion. Because no earlier documentation supports the story, most flag scholars feel it was a grand hoax, fabricated by Canby for his own interests. Nothing survives in the collective writings of the three men, for example, nor in records of their words and deeds, which are fairly extensive. As with most things, reality is perhaps somewhere in the middle ground, with some of the details based on fact and some on fiction, made up, misinterpreted, or imagined from family accounts.
The first time that a star configuration gets attached to the Ross story appears to have occurred during the last decade of the 19th century. In 1892, Charles Weisgerber painted a nine-by-twelve-foot rendition of the fabled meeting between Betsy and George Washington, in which there is a flag with a circular wreath. Shortly afterwards, in 1898, Rachel began making these little flags while disseminating family folklore. In that same year, Weisgerber and a “group of concerned citizens” sought to preserve Betsy’s former Philadelphia residence at 239 Arch Street, where she lived at the time the flag would have been sewed. Weisgerber moved his family into the house and immediately opened to the public the room in which Betsy was said to have worked her magic. Ten-cent memberships were sold to fund renovations and donors received a small calendar, to which a cotton 13 star Betsy Ross pattern parade flag was affixed. The effects of these events caused the Ross legend to stick, and the story, with the corresponding flag design, has appeared ever since in more places than one could ever hope to count.
One of these small flags appears on the Betsy Ross House website (http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/house/room9.html). A signed example is picture in “The Stars and the Stripes” by Mastai, (1973, Knopf, New York), p. 228.
Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.
The solid and veneered, mahogany, American frame dates to the period between 1830 and 1850. Spacers keep the textile away from the glazing, which is U.V. protective glass Feel free to contact us for more details.
Condition: The obverse side of the canton has experienced significant fading. There is a pinprick-sized hole in the top center of the canton and there is some fabric breakdown in the red stripe at the bottom of the hoist end.
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