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Birth of the American Flag
By: Jim Woodard

(Editorís Note: We recognize that many of our guests and tellers come from countries outside of the United States and we welcome and delight in this diversity. Jimís story below was submitted to us immmediately following the events of September 11, 2001 and was posted in that light. Please enjoy this article while knowing how much we at encourage the "global village" that is storytelling.)

As an oral storyteller, I focus on a wide variety of story types in my presentations. And the response from audiences tells me a lot about their feelings and emotions at that point in time. It often reflects the current state of our community, country and world.

Recently, the story that has generated the strongest response is about the American flag. With flags waving from homes, buildings and cars like never before, itís not surprising that people have a new, rekindled interest in the creation of the first American flag. My story is about that first flag.

This is, of course, the story of Betsy Ross. But there are several aspects of that historic story that surprise and amaze most people. It touches directly on patriotism that has surfaced so dramatically since the terrorist attacks on September 11. I wonít try to relate the story here, but just touch on a few most interesting points.

Betsy Ross came from a really large Quaker family, living in Philadelphia in the 1700s. The family included 17 kids - Betsy being number eight in the line of offspring. She received her initial experience in needlework when a teenager.

Like most kids in very large families, she was expected to do a part in helping the family financially. Her role was to make and sell the little white caps worn by all Quaker girls at that time. Betsy always put a unique design on each cap. It was considered something of a status symbol for girls to wear a cap designed and made by Betsy.

While still a teenager, she went to work as an apprentice at an upholstery shop in Philadelphia. A few months later the shop owner hired another apprentice to work along with Betsy. This was a tall, good-looking fellow - the son of a local clergyman. His name was John Ross.

The two worked together well, and were soon dating during off-working hours. When they announced plans to be married, both their families objected vehemently. John was a very nice young fellow, everyone agreed, but he was not the son of a Quaker clergyman. Finally, Betsy and John got fed up with all the family bickering and ran off to a nearby town and were married in 1773.

A couple of years later, in 1775, they opened their own upholstery shop in Philadelphia. This was the year the Revolutionary War started, and John felt so strongly about the effort to create a new independent nation, free from English rule, he immediately joined the Continental Army. Shortly thereafter, he was killed in action.

Betsy, now a widow and sole owner-operator of the upholstery shop, worked harder than ever at her business. One day in June, 1776, she was working behind the counter. She looked up to see a man walking through the front door of her shop. He was tall, with broad shoulders and was wearing a uniform with many medals. And he was followed by several other men.

As he walked toward the counter, Betsy realized this was none other than General George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army. "Betsy, Iíve heard youíre the very best needlework artisan in all of Philadelphia," he said. "I have a really special job for you, if youíll agree to do it.

"We need a visual symbol for the new independent nation weíre forming," he said. "We need something our people can look at and feel good and proud that theyíre part of this new and free country."

He asked Betsy if she would be willing to sew a flag that would visually represent their new nation. Betsy agreed, but after carefully examining the rough sketch Washington showed her - a sketch he had drawn the previous evening -- she offered a few suggestions regarding the flag design.

"I notice you want 13 six-pointed stars on that blue field in the corner," she said. "They of course represent our 13 colonies. Thatís fine, but I think it would look better if they were five-pointed stars.

"Also, General, if you donít mind me saying so, I donít think it should be a square flag as youíve indicated on your sketch. A rectangular shaped flag would look better when the wind unfurls it at the top of flag poles."

Washington thought for a moment, then agreed with Betsy. "Follow my basic design as Iíve sketched out here, but incorporate your ideas. I think that will improve it."

Two days later, Washington returned to the shop to pick up the new flag. He was delighted with what he saw. And very soon that flag design was flying high and proud on flag poles throughout the colonies.

The following year, in 1777, Congress enacted a special resolution declaring this flag design - with its 13 five-pointed stars and rectangular shape - to be the official flag of the United States of America.

C. 2001 Jim Woodard, from Ventura, Calif., is the resident storyteller at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. He also presents programs at public libraries, museums, schools and other venues. He writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column and freelance features. His e-mail address: His Web site:

Author Information:
Name: Jim Woodard
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