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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 1910; THE LARGEST KNOWN EXAMPLE OF THIS VARIETY, MADE AND SOLD TO TOURISTS AT INDEPENDENCE HALL

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 1910; THE LARGEST KNOWN EXAMPLE OF THIS VARIETY, MADE AND SOLD TO TOURISTS AT INDEPENDENCE HALL

Web ID: 13j-1530
Available: In Stock
Frame Size (H x L): 19.5" x 24.5"
Flag Size (H x L): 11" x 15.75"
 
Description:
13 star American national flag, entirely hand-sewn by Sarah Markley Wilson (Feb. 13, 1840 – Nov. 15, 1921), great-granddaughter of Betsy Ross. The stripes are constructed of lengths of silk ribbon that have been carefully pieced with tiny stitches and a degree of precision seldom seen on American textiles. The stars are embroidered with silk floss on a blue silk canton made of plain weave silk fabric, and there is a hand-sewn cotton binding along the hoist.

Beginning around 1898, Rachel Albright (Jun. 16, 1812 – Apr. 18, 1905), Betsy's granddaughter, began producing flags like this one in the East Wing of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, selling them to tourists and perhaps occasionally gifting them to individuals who made sizable donations to the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association. Rachel was elderly and sometime around 1902, as her health began to fail, she was joined by her niece, Sarah, the daughter of her brother, Aquilla Bolton Wilson (1808-1856). The two women operated their tiny cottage industry until 1905, when Rachel relocated to Fort Madison, Iowa, and passed in that same year.

Sarah was probably assisting her aunt for some time before she completely filled her shoes. Though Rachel could certainly sew with expert skill and is reported to have been “a woman of large intelligence, wide information, knowledge and true culture,” 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 is a signature that reads: "Rachel Albright. Signed with permission." The text of the booklet and signature are very obviously done by the same hand that inscribed both Rachel's and Sarah’s flags.

In her account, Rachel 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 husband, Jacob Wilson, died in 1812. Rachel was born just 3 months after her father’s passing. Pregnant with Rachel at the time of the move, she gave birth in Betsy's house. This is how Rachel came to be raised by both her mother and grandmother, and "learned her first letters, at [Betsy's] knee.”

Because Betsy’s then-husband, John Claypoole, was paralytic in 1812 and took a good deal of her attention, Clarissa assisted with the business of flag-making and upholstery, eventually inheriting it. With the War of 1812 (1812-1815) under way, flag demand was on the upswing. The booklet explains that when Rachel first "saw the light [she] was cradled among the Flags made for the United States shipping at the Navy Yard." She went on to learn the trade of flag-making from her mother.

The Albright and Wilson flags are extraordinary because of their tiny size and silk, hand-sewn construction. Sarah’s were smaller than her aunt’s, as a rule, usually measuring around 5.5” x 9” or 6” x 10”, with a bit of variation. The smallest that I ever encountered was a signed, 1909 example that was 4.25” x 8.5”. Rachel’s hovered around 7.5” x 12.25”. Because their characteristics are so distinctive, both are extremely easy to identify. There is nothing else like them among 13 star flags made during this period. That having been said, each was individually made, so they do exhibit some variation. Some actually have tiny, hand-sewn grommets. Rachel’s tend to have treadle-sewn bindings.

Sarah's flags were typically signed along the hoist, or else accompanied by a small note. While Rachel’s had wide bindings and were signed on just one side, Sarah’s were narrow enough so that only one line of text would fit, thus requiring that her notations continue from the obverse (front) to the reverse. The signature on the flag that is the subject of this narrative, applied with a dip pen in her usual fashion, reads: “Made by Sarah M. Wilson, Great grand daughter of Betsy Ross.” on one side, and “East Wing of Independence Hall. Philadelphia April 14th 1910” on the other.

At 11” x 15.75”, this flag is about three times in total surface area, that of Sarah’s typical examples, and is the largest of all I have ever encountered. The stars, too, are noticeably different. Normally these are simply comprised of five lineal stitches that emanate out from a center point, presenting like the rowel of a spur. While the stars of this much large flag do maintain something of the rowel-like appearance, here they are fully embroidered. To someone familiar with these flags, this example is enormous by contrast and a trophy among those that they made.

Another of Sarah’s flags, that accompanied Rachel’s above-referenced, hand-written story, was also a larger one, measuring 9.5” x 15.5”. Nearly as long, though not as tall, it was not directly signed. Instead this was accompanied by a small note, signed by Sarah, though undated. All of the remaining Wilson flags that I am aware to exist in either museums or private hands are of the typical, tiny size. As for Rachel’s, the largest I have encountered was 8.25” x 14.5”. Just one is recorded as having been far larger. An obituary in the Fort Madison [Iowa] Weekly Democrat, reports the words of St. Luke’s Rector Dr. Edward H. Rudd, who presided over Rachel’s memorial service: “One of the last [flags] she made was one of about four feet in length, which she made for St. Luke's church; she inscribed it on April 7, her last writing.” Rachel passed just 11 days later, on April 18th.

Sarah continued to work until around 1913. Occasionally she appears to have been joined by her cousin, Rachel's daughter, Mary Catherine Albright Robinson (1841-1932). Closer in appearance to those of her mother, than to Sarah’s, just a tiny handful of Mary’s flags are known—fewer than five presently. I had never seen one until 2019, and at that time could find no evidence of others. The earliest of these dates to around 1905, the year Mary Catherine’s mother passed. Just one post-dates those of Sarah, signed in 1918, the closing year of U.S. involvement in WWI.

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 gilded American molding dates to the mid-19th century. 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. This is a pressure mount between 100% cotton twill, black in color, and U.V. protective Plexiglas. The black fabric was washed and treated for colorfastness.

Condition: There is some splitting in the silk fabric, both vertically and horizontally, in the canton. These are closed tears, almost entirely without fabric loss, but a length of blue fabric, of similar coloration, was nonetheless placed behind the canton during the mounting process. The splitting is typical of the weighted silk employed in the cantons of the Ross granddaughter flags There is a tiny bit of soiling along the hoist, but the overall condition otherwise is excellent.
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Collector Level: Flags for the truest Patriots. My best offerings
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count: 13
Earliest Date of Origin: 1910
Latest Date of Origin: 1910
State/Affiliation: 13 Original Colonies
War Association:
Price: Please call (717) 676-0545 or (717) 502-1281
E-mail: info@jeffbridgman.com


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