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Riding SEPTA with Betsy Ross: How Philly’s most iconic woman gets to work

Carol Spacht has spent more than 25 years inhaling Betsy Ross' life story as if it were her own.

Betsy Ross, played by Carol Spacht, rides SEPTA to work and back from Ambler.  While fully dressed as Betsy she uses her reflection to adjust her bonnet on the Market-Frankford Line.
Betsy Ross, played by Carol Spacht, rides SEPTA to work and back from Ambler. While fully dressed as Betsy she uses her reflection to adjust her bonnet on the Market-Frankford Line.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Betsy Ross gets dressed in the dark.

Whatever natural light comes through the windows is what Betsy Ross uses to see, as she slips a handmade white linen shift over her head. Carol Spacht, 63, says Betsy Ross did not have electricity. So when Spacht prepares to be her, neither does she.

“My husband thinks it’s nuts,” she says.

Betsy Ross wears what a working tradeswoman would have worn — stepping into her stays, similar to a corset, and putting on her petticoat. She sews many of the clothes herself to help get into character. Alongside the Betsy Ross attire are fancier options for the days she is Martha Washington.

But today, like most days she’s in character, Spacht is Betsy Ross, and she needs to get to work.

Betsy Ross is a Philadelphian, so of course, she takes SEPTA.

Sometimes, Betsy Ross drives her red Dodge Caravan with the license plate “BTZROSS.” But mostly, that car is for her shows — full of props for Martha Washington, Mother Goose, and Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of Girl Scouts. The brakes needed to be fixed, anyway.

So Betsy Ross heads to the Ambler train station, where she uses her credit card to pay for tickets.

While on the train, Betsy Ross starts folding white pieces of paper to make those famous five-pointed stars. She sits in the aisle seat next to a man wearing Bose headphones and looking at his laptop. A woman in purple sweatpants checked her cell phone in the row ahead. Betsy Ross is careful not to check her own phone where others can see — it could ruin her brand.

Spacht has spent more than 25 years inhaling Betsy Ross’ life story. She is the one who teaches the younger women at the Betsy Ross House how to become this historic woman.

Spacht’s home, which has been in her husband’s family for more than 100 years, has shelves full of Betsy Ross figurines and books on the textile trade, historical figures, and of course, Betsy Ross’ story. She also has binders with laminated pages on “Being Betsy,” which all the interpreters must learn.

Inside her guest house, which she insisted on showing a reporter even though it would make Spacht late for work, is a George Washington painting, depicting the same portrait as the one in the National Portrait Gallery. Her husband made a re-creation of the scene shown in the painting — including the golden side table with a red cloth draped over it, the inkstand, and the red chair on Washington’s other side. They also operate a nearby sawmill.

“We have kitsch all over,” Spacht says.

When Spacht is dressed as Betsy Ross, she feels an obligation to stay in character, even while riding SEPTA. She does not wear makeup. She does not paint her nails.

But no one seems to notice they’re on the train with Betsy Ross.

The other commuters don’t say anything. She doesn’t wear a name tag or carry the flag on her shoulder. And it’s fairly common to see people dressed in period clothing in Philadelphia — a city where historical tourism draws visitors.

“Next stop, Glenside,” a voice says over the speakers.

She tries to avoid eye contact with people so she can focus on staying in character. She takes small scissors from her tote bag and makes a single snip on each folded paper. She does this 25 times to make her signature five-pointed stars and places them in her right pocket.

“Every now and then I’ll have someone who will ask me if I’m a Quaker, if I’m Amish,” Spacht says. “But I enjoy having that opportunity to be able to travel, in character, from one world to another world.”

Once off the train and walking from Jefferson Station to Old City, Spacht prepares to fully transition the character she’ll be playing: Betsy Claypoole, as she was known when using her third husband’s name.

She notices how many school buses she sees, preparing for a room full of children in her upholstery shop. While walking past the “Before I die” chalkboard in Old City, a woman backed up and accidentally bumped into Betsy Ross.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the woman said.

For the first time today, Spacht goes full Betsy: “My apologies!” she said. “ ’Tis not you! ’Tis me!”

And off she went, becoming more of Betsy Ross with every step.

She approaches the Betsy Ross House at 239 Arch St., where she spends hours in the re-created 18th-century upholstery shop and sews. More than 129,000 people have visited there so far this year.

The home is where it is believed that Betsy Ross lived from 1776 to 1779 while committing treason by making the first American flag, with alternating red and white stripes and 13 five-pointed stars in a circle. (Though this is not proven.)

“Good morning there, young fellows!” she said to a group of second graders gathered in the courtyard. “Has thou already come inside? I was a bit late today.” (After all, she does take SEPTA.)

“Our first group is already down there,” the tour guide said.

“I shall see where are the other children. Were they in only a moment ago?”

“Yes, about two minutes.”

As she went inside to greet the group of children in her shop, the ones outside stared, looking unsure about this small woman with the funny accent. Their tour guide let them know who had just greeted them.

“You just met Betsy Ross!”