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Independence Day: Francis Hopkinson's 'Old Glory' or 'Betty Ross' flag, who made America's Star-Spangled Banner?

Legend has it that first US President Geroge Washington commissioned Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia-based seamstress and his friend, to sew the first American flag after she had sewn clothes for him
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The American flag boasts a history of over 240 years and has stood in all its power and glory as the symbol of historical pride and unity among the citizens of the country. It soars in the skies as the national emblem and has done so without any impediment since 1777. Sporting the famous 'Stars and Stripes', the bunting is allegorical to liberty, freedom, patriotism, justice and the sense of national purpose. Through the times of both peril and peace, the 'Old Glory' waving proudly in the sky has made a recognizable mark among foes, while also asserting the existence of a robust democracy.

The flag decorates every nook and corner of the country on American holidays such as Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, yet the origins of the 'Star-Spangled Banner' still remain shrouded in mystery. While the popular belief is that the flag was sewn by Besty Ross, a Philadelphia-based seamstress, this particular piece of information has no evidence to support it as a fact (Pictured above: American seamstress Betsy Ross showing the first design of the American flag to George Washington in Philadelphia). Essentially, no one really knows who made the flag.

The American Flag  (Getty Images)

The origin of the flag may as well be considered a myth or legend, as it goes that in May 1776, three members of a secret committee from the Continental Congress, including Geroge Washington, commissioned Ross to sew the first American flag. Ross was familiar with Washington since she attended the same church as him and had previously sewn clothes for him. Many people figure that it was their friendship that prompted the first US President to approach her for her needlework expertise in sewing the national emblem. Ross is supposed to have sewn the flag based on a blueprint provided by Washington, but there is no historical evidence exists to support that she was the maker of the first American flag. It is also crucial to note that Ross's name was only associated with this story, some 100 years after she reportedly made the flag.

American soldier and first President of the United States General George Washington (1732 -1799) and members of congress consulting with Betsy Ross at 239 Arch St. in Philadelphia where the first American flag is reputed to have been made in 1776. June 14 is Flag Day in the United States (Getty Images)

In terms of the flag's design, several others have reasons to believe that it was the New Jersey Congressman, Francis Hopkinson, who drafted the banner's framework. Hopkinson was also one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence and later went on to serve as the chairman of the Continental Navy Board's Middle Department. Hopkinson reportedly claimed to be the architect of the first flag, being the only person to do so and even submitted a bill to Congress for his work. No one ever took issue with his claim, however, he wasn't paid for his work either, since he had already received his salary as a member of Congress. In 2016, a biography published by Marquis Who's Who deemed that paleovexillologist (flag historian) Earl P Williams Jr had discovered that Hopkinson had designed two Stars and Stripes flags back in the day - one for the United States and the other for the US Navy. In 1996 Williams published a 52-page paperback, 'What You Should Know About the American Flag', intended for middle schoolers and elementary students, where he concluded, “Hopkinson’s Navy flag was the prototype for the official US flag.”

Francis Hopkinson (Wikimedia Commons)

Besides Ross, at least one other woman has also been credited for making the first flag. Rebecca Young was also a seamstress, much like Ross, and her children once claimed that she created the flag. In fact, it was Young's daughter, Mary Pickersgill's 'Star-Spangled Banner Flag' that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1812. This inspired Francis Scott Key to pen a poem that would become the US national anthem. But if one were to do a Wikipedia search for 'Betsy Ross', 'Betsy Ross flag', and 'Francis Hopkinson', it does not accredit Ross for her imminent contribution. The online encyclopedia says that whilst the original 13 stripes on the manner represents the old colonies, the circular arrangement of the stars in the first flag was Hopkinson's doing. Ross is said to have made tents, uniforms, and flags for the continental forces, but she apparently did not make the first American Flag. In the 1770s, there were 15 other upholsters and flagmakers in Philadelphia besides Ross and Young, including Anne King, Margaret Manny, and Cornelia Bridges, as well as William Barrett, a flag painter.

The 1779 portrait of Washington at Princeton shows a blue battle flag with a circle of thirteen six-point white stars (Getty Images)

The rumor about Ross being the maker of the first flag was seemed out of her grandson, William Canby's claims that his “grandmother made the first flags of the United States in June 1776.” In a historical paper that he presented in 1870, he wrote that his grandmother was asked by George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross to sew the flag. However, Wikipedia clearly states that there is a “lack of historical evidence and documentation to support the story” and lists six arguments in its stead. In addition to this, the US flag design hasn't remained constant and went through at least 17 evolutions between 1779 and 1796. The shape and arrangement of the flag would change and additional stars and stripes were added on to represent a newly admitted state, essentially making it the bunting a “work of many hands.”

The "Betsy Ross" design is traditionally displayed at US presidential inaugurations. Here, at the first inauguration of Barack Obama, it is flown next to a 21-star flag representing the American flag at the time that Illinois joined the Union (Wikimedia Commons)

Although the origin of the flag is still ambiguous, it is certain that the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777, stating: "Resolved, that the flag of the United States be 13 stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation." On August 3, 1949, President Harry S. Truman declared June 14, as Flag Day, which we continue to observe. Since the first flag came into being, the Star-Spangled Banner's design has been changed a total of 26 times. The present flag consists of 13 horizontal lines - seven red alternating with six white - representing the original three colonies. The stars represented the 50 states of the Union. The colors of the flag also hold symbolic meaning - red is hardiness and valor, white stands for is purity and innocence, and blue represents vigilance, perseverance, and justice.