Thursday, March 31, 2011

Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia in 1895

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Godey’s Lady’s Book of July, 1895, Reported on Philadelphia's Betsy Ross House

The Stars and Stripes -- Betsy Ross House

On Arch Street, below Third, in Philadelphia, there nestles between the towering walls of two big buildings a quaint two-and-a-half story brick house. Its steep, shingled roof and dormer windows, together with its diminutive size, mark it as belonging to a period long gone by; and a glance at its interior confirms the impression. This house is over two hundred years old. The bricks, of which it is largely built, came over in the ship Welcome; and tradition has it that William Penn himself laid part of the walls. This was the second house of its kind to be put up in Philadelphia, the first being Penn’s own cottage, not many years since removed from a nearby site to a more conspicuous one in Fairmount Park.

But besides its age the Arch Street house has claims to distinction which make it historic in the truest sense of the term. Few buildings are as deserving of the patriotic interest of every loyal American as this; for within its walls was made the first flag of the United States.

The passer-by would, in most cases, remain in ignorance of the history of the place were it not for a gayly-painted board beside the broad, low doorway, which informs all that this was the birthplace of the Stars and Stripes. More than half of the front of the building is occupied with a show-window in which are displayed smokers’ articles. In fact, the house is used as a tobacconist’s shop by its present occupant, yet it is to her credit that, for over half a century, she and her family have kept the building intact, and, with a patriotic instinct worthy of emulation, have scrupulously preserved every fixture and bit of interior furnishing.

When I went there recently and told Mrs. Mund that I wished to look over the house, she seemed to take the request as a personal compliment to herself and immediately led the way into the back room, in which the flag was cut and sewed together. The doorway through which we passed, in its construction gave the key-note to the whole interior. Dark with age, with worn panels of broad boards and with its iron latch still in place, it swung on its right-angled hinges as easily as though it had been put up a year ago instead of two centuries and more past. The sunken heads of the old-fashioned, hand-wrought nails by which the hinges were made fast to door and frame attested to the fact that no change had been made here since that time when the Continental generals passed in to see Betsy Ross , the owner of the house, probably stooping their heads to do so.

The reason for choosing stars and stripes as the distinctive marks of the American flag is somewhat doubtful. The weight of opinion seems in favor of the idea, however, that, in so far as the stars are concerned, they were suggested by the Washington coat of arms, which bore on the upper part of its shield three stars. But as the stars thus shown have but five points an acceptance of that theory would render it very improbable that Washington or anyone else should have made the mistake of drawing six-pointed stars in the pattern presented to Betsy Ross .

The Rev. A.N. Whitmarsh, writing of the origin of the flag, says: “The idea was taken from the constellation Lyra, a northern group of stars, harp-like in shape, suggesting harmony. This group contains the colony number thirteen, and on the flag represents as a constellation unity and similarity. Animals were not considered appropriate, crosses suggestive of popish idolatry, white suns and moons were indicative of Mohammedanism. These were ruled out by the committee [of Congress], and the stars unanimously adopted.” The explanation is, at least, entirely reasonable.

In regard to the stripes, it is not improbable that they were suggested by the banner of the Dutch Republic, which in part was the flag under which the Continental soldiers of New York were marching. Washington’s coat of arms, with its bars, also may have given the idea to the designer. The colors were happily selected for their sharp contrast with each other. Their meaning has been variously explained, but upon this point I cannot see that there is any certainty.

The admission into the Union of Vermont in 1791 and of Kentucky in 1792 led to the passage of an act in 1794 providing for an increase of two stars and two stripes in the original flag; and on May 1, 1795, this act took effect. Under this flag were won the glorious naval victories of the war of 1812.

April 4, 1818, another act relating to the flag was passed, and the admission of Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana was indicated by the addition of a star for each of the new States, the stripes reverting to the first number, thirteen. This act included the further provision “that on the admission of every new State into the Union one star be added to the union of the flag, and that such addition shall take, effect on the fourth of July next succeeding such admission.” The act was approved April 4, 1818.

Since that time the changes in the pattern of the flag have been only minor ones, such as the modification of the shape of the union, it now being rectangular instead of, as formerly, square. Stars have dotted the field more thickly as new States have been created, but Betsy Ross’ s flag remains to all intents and purposes. Whether waving aloft in the sea breezes over one of our speedy cruisers or floating from the flag-staff of a frontier post, it is yet the banner of a nation whose heart throbs at the sight of it and whose life-blood would run in its defence. For one hundred and eighteen years it has been the banner of liberty and of the most enlightened nation of the world.
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