|13 HAND-EMBROIDERED STARS AND EXPERTLY HAND-SEWN STRIPES ON AN ANTIQUE AMERICAN FLAG MADE IN PHILADELPHIA BY RACHEL ALBRIGHT, GRANDDAUGHTER OF BETSY ROSS, SIGNED & DATED 1903
|Frame Size (H x L):
|15.25" x 19.5"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|7.75" x 12"
|13 star American national flag, made by Rachel Albright, granddaughter of Betsy Ross. The stripes are constructed of silk ribbon, with tiny, hand stitches. The five-pointed stars are executed spokes on a carriage wheel or the rowel of a spur. These are sewn with silk floss onto a canton made of blue silk taffeta. There is a wide cotton binding along the hoist, in the form of an open sleeve, the top and bottom of which were rolled over to create a wide hem and hand-stitched. This was applied to the body of the flag with treadle stitching, and signed with a dip pen in the following manner:
"First flag made 1777 by Betsy Ross. This copy of the original flag made 1903 by Rachel Albright age 90 y. 8 mo. Granddaughter of Betsy Ross."
Beginning around 1898, Rachel 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. Rachel was elderly and sometime around 1902 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 legibly, due to her age. Sarah had been inscribing the flags at Rachel’s direction, probably since day one. 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." The following appears at the end of the hand-made booklet: "Rachel Albright. Signed with permission." The text of the booklet is clearly signed 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 passed 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 some variation. The sleeves or hoist bindings vary in width. Some actually have tiny, hand-sewn grommets.
Sarah's flags typically either came with a separate note, or with a direct signature along the hoist binding. Her bindings were narrow enough that only one line of text could be written, thus requiring that her notations continued from the obverse of the hoist, to the reverse. She continued to work until around 1913. Occasionally Sarah appears to have been joined by her sister, Mary Catherine Robinson. A handful of Mary’s flags are known, the earliest dating to around 1905, and the latest to the closing year of WWI (U.S. involvement 1917-18).
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 with 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 gilded, American molding, with its convex center, dates to the period between 1830 and 1850. This is a pressure mount between 100% cotton twill, that has been washed and treated for colorfastness, and U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas). Feel free to contact us for more details.
Condition: The obverse side of the flag has experienced significant fading. We removed the treadle-sewn binding, flipped it over, and -re-stitched it so that the signature appears on the obverse (Rachel’s signatures were always on the reverse). There is an approximate 1” area of fabric loss in the first red stripe, and an approximately 4” long, irregular area of the same in the last red stripe, plus minor splitting, with associated loss, elsewhere throughout the red stripes. Fabric of similar coloration was placed behind the flag, during the mounting process, for masking purposes, and also behind the canton, where there are a few horizontal tears that are, for the most part, closed, with very minimal fabric loss. There is some soiling along the hoist binding, and moderate fading of the signature.
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