Betsy Ross painting finds a new home


HARRISBURG, Pa.- Philadelphia may have been home to America's most famous flagmaker, but the massive painting that made Betsy Ross a household name will be permanently ensconced at a museum here 80 miles away.

As legend has it, the 24-year-old Ross stitched together the first flag of the fledgling nation. She might have remained just another hardworking seamstress lost to history had Philadelphia artist Charles H. Weisgerber not discovered her more than a century later.

Finding inspiration

In 1892 Weisgerber was walking the streets trying to come up with a subject for a painting contest when he noticed a small plaque on the side of a cigar store at 239 Arch St. identifying the building as the place site of the flag's creation.

Weisgerber decided to re-create the historic scene in Ross's upholstery shop circa 1776, based on the recollections of her daughters.

On the 9-foot-by-12-foot canvas that emerged, Ross is showing the new flag with its 13 stars to three heroes of the American Revolution: George Washington, Robert Morris and her uncle, George Ross.

Completed in 1893, a time when American patriotism and interest in all things Colonial was running high, Birth of Our Nation's Flag was an immediate hit and the Betsy Ross legend was born.

But as Ross' fame grew, the painting faded from public view, spending most of the next century in storage; first in a Delaware County, Pa., barn and most recently in the back of a South Jersey dye-making workshop.

After a recent $40,000 restoration, it was donated to the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Weisgerber was 32 when he conceived of the idea for the painting memorializing a celebrated moment in American history.

Over the next 40 years the painting criss-crossed the country, traveling to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the Jamestown Exposition in 1907 and the Chicago's World's Fair in 1934.

Weisgerber went on to dedicate his life to cementing Ross' place in American history. He helped found the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association to preserve Ross' memory and her home.

In 1895 he printed 2 million chromolithographs of the painting and sold them for 10 cents a piece. Proceeds from the sale of the prints were used pay off the mortgage on the Ross house.

Fact or fiction?

So is the flag story fact or fiction?

Supporters say no one has ever proved Betsy Ross sewed that first flag, but no one ever proved she didn't.

"We do know Betsy Ross sewed flags," said Winchell Carroll, a former president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, who helped arrange the deal with the State Museum. "We have the bills."

Regardless, Ross was the most important female figure of the American Revolution and the flag was "the starting point for the nation," he said.

"Until then there were 13 sovereign states," said Carroll. "It was the beginning of the thought of the nation united."

Son named 'flag house'

Weisgerber was so enamored of Ross and the flag story he wove it into his own family tapestry, naming his son Vexil Domus - Latin for "flag house." After the artist died in 1932, his son carried on the artist's mission.

During World War II the painting was displayed alongside the Liberty Bell to help sell war bonds and hung for a time in the window of the John Wanamaker department store.

In 1952 the painting was reproduced on a 3-cent stamp commemorating the 200th anniversary of Betsy Ross' birth.

Sometime in the 1950s, while on exhibit at the old State Museum in Harrisburg, the painting was vandalized.

Weisberger said the attack, once attributed to a Vietnam War protester, happened before the United States entered the war. But the war and declining patriotic sentiment had a great deal to do with the family's decision to keep the painting out of public view.

"Because of the backlash from Vietnam, the kind of downplaying of Americanism and the displaying of flags had a bearing on our position about bringing it out," said Weisgerber.

On several occasions in the 1980s and 1890s the family offered the painting to the city of Philadelphia, but no one could find the right home for it.

Museums had no space. There was room in the mayor's chambers in City Hall and in the convention center, but there was limited public access at those sites.

The family wanted the painting in a place where it could be appreciated by the greatest number of people.

They considered the Betsy Ross House, but it was too small.

"We would have had to take down the front of the building to get the painting in," said Carroll.

With so many competing attractions and limited space in Philadelphia, the family finally landed on the State Museum, which draws 300,000 visitors a year.

"We wanted it to be in a place that would guarantee accessibility to the public and give it the protection it needs for the long term," said Weisgerber.

Appraised at $50,000

Birth of Our Nation's Flag, appraised several years ago at $50,000, may not rank among the great works of American art, but experts say they can't put a price on its historical value.

"It's important not necessarily from an aesthetic point but from an historic point," said Lee Stevens, the State Museum's senior curator for art collections. "No other paintings quite inspired the rise of American patriotism at the time."

The painting was unveiled at its new location amid a fresh wave of patriotism sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks-a coincidence not lost on the artist's family.

"We were overwhelmed to be involved with a major reintroduction of the painting after the terrible Sept. 11 tragedy," Weisgerber said.

The bright side to the timing, he said, is that the painting may inspire a new generation of Americans.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad