Which of the following is true of Betsy Ross?
She sewed our country's first flag.
Her second husband died in jail.
She made munitions at home in her spare time.
She became the first woman to have a major U.S. bridge named after her when a Philadelphia span opened in 1976.
All the statements are true - except possibly the one about the flag.
There's no archival evidence that Ross sewed the very first flag, says Marla R. Miller, a University of Massachusetts history professor who wrote Betsy Ross and the Making of America, published this year and considered the first scholarly biography of her.
The story of Ross and the flag was first introduced to the public in 1870 - more than three decades after her death in 1836. Her grandson William Canby asked relatives who knew Ross to sign affidavits attesting to a family story that George Washington visited Ross' shop with a plan for a new flag to represent the colonies. According to the legend, Ross suggested that Washington consider five-pointed stars rather than six-pointed ones because they would be faster to cut.
Miller says that things could have happened that way because Ross knew many of the major players in the Revolution, and because it would have been natural for a flag maker to suggest a more efficient way to produce stars. Because Ross was an ordinary citizen, though, no records survived.
Ross was actually Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole. Thrice-married and thrice-widowed, she was tiny. She loved tomatoes and liked a little pinch of snuff.
She was independent enough to marry outside her Quaker faith and she remarried a tad more quickly than customary for colonial widows.
Her piercing blue eyes went completely blind three years before her death.
You can learn about Ross' life and see artifacts she touched daily at "Betsy Ross: The Life Behind the Legend," an exhibit based on Miller's book. It runs through Jan. 2 at Winterthur Museum and Country Estate near Wilmington. The display includes many items loaned by Philadelphia's own Betsy Ross House: Betsy's eyeglasses, her family Bible, her silk petticoat, her silver snuff box, and some furniture.
Visitors stop in their tracks when they spot the exhibit's three large family quilts, including a signature quilt made for Ross' granddaughter.
A wall of kitsch features a Betsy Ross bingo dauber, or marker, from Levittown, Betsy beer, Betsy shoe polish, a Betsy Barbie, sexy Betsy Halloween costumes, and Betsy Ross venetian blinds, fitting because Ross actually made window blinds.
A colonial upholstery exhibit includes bed hangings used by Washington.
The curators say men tend to gather in the extensive flag display area, which includes a silk flag believed to have been used to mark Washington's position on the battlefield and a Civil War-era flag made by Ross' daughter.
Cocurator Katie Knowles says her favorite item is centuries-old mattress ticking still dotted with feather residue - ticking similar to what Betsy would have used when she made mattresses. "This kind of thing doesn't very often survive because it's utilitarian," Knowles says. "I mean, who keeps their mattress?"
The exhibit presents Ross as a hardworking widow who used her late husbands' connections to at least three signers of the Declaration of Independence to garner sewing contracts to support her extended family.
"I'm often asked if Betsy Ross was unusual in that she had a craft or in that she operated a business. The answer is, not at all," Miller says. "Women in colonial Philadelphia were shopkeepers, craftswomen, teachers. They ran taverns, kept boardinghouses, and plied all sorts of trades."
Linda Eaton, a cocurator of the exhibit, says she's been struck by the number of women visitors who say they feel a personal connection to Ross because they've masqueraded as her at some time in their lives: "I can't tell you how many women will tell us they have dressed up as Betsy for a play or worn a Betsy costume for Halloween.
"I like all the history that they're telling you because I didn't really know," says Ginny Kurzinsky of West Chester. "You've grown up with her, but you don't really know about Betsy Ross."
"I thought, 'What more can they say about Betsy Ross?' " says Suzanne Nicole of Collingswood, "but there's so much here."
Winterthur Museum and Country Estate's "Betsy Ross: The Life Behind the Legend" through Jan. 2.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays; last tickets sold at 3:15 p.m. for 3:30 p.m tour. Closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Open Mondays during Winterthur's yuletide celebration from Nov. 20 through January.
Admission: $18; $16, students and seniors; $5, ages 2-11. Includes the exhibit, a tour of the mansion, access to its gardens, and a narrated tram tour of the property if weather permits.
Directions: The museum is in Winterthur, Del., on State Route 52, five miles south of U.S. Route 1.
More information: 800-448-3883 or winterthur.org.
The Betsy Ross House you visited in third grade is morphing into a hands-on museum in Old City.
In Betsy Ross House, Version 2010, you meet "Betsy," learn how she fed her family, and tour a working colonial upholstery shop. If you come at the correct time (11 a.m. Sundays), Ross will even read your child a story.
"It's not like when you walked up to that glass partition and stared at what was behind it and just oohed and aahed at the furniture," says Heather Kincade of Betsy Ross House. "We've brought Betsy into the 21st century."
There are still a few glass partitions in the classic Philadelphia bandbox house on Arch Street near Second, but they are systematically coming down. "It's hands-on now," Kincade says. "You'll learn about the real Betsy Ross, not just the legend."
The real Betsy endured the death of a daughter, three husbands, siblings, and her parents. "Death Parts United Hearts; Death in the Life of Betsy Ross," a new exhibit, explains death in colonial America.
It shines a spotlight on the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that paralyzed the city and sent George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others packing. Almost 10 percent of the population didn't live to see 1794.
The exhibits include rare jewelry that incorporates the hair of the deceased in the design. A variety of mourning samplers stitched to memorialize lost loved ones will be on display. The material is sensitively presented and appropriate for audiences from school-age children to adults, Kincade says.
There's no archival evidence that the house at 239 Arch St. now designated the Betsy Ross House is where she actually lived, but there is proof that she lived at three Arch Street addresses, including the house that once stood next door to 239 Arch. City numbering systems have changed since colonial days, and Betsy was a renter, so no ownership records are available.
"We feel fairly confident it would have been either this property or the one adjacent to it," Kincade says. "One of the reasons we believe this with some level of certainty is that it is the place that has been identified as Betsy Ross' house for a very long time, for more than 150 years." Even when the house was used as a tavern, locals referred to it as the birthplace of the American flag, she says.
Betsy Ross House is a classic example of a Philadelphia "bandbox" house - colonial structures that have one room on each floor and a winding staircase stretching from the basement kitchen to the upper floors.
The museum has lent Betsy's eyeglasses, petticoat, snuff box and family Bible to Winterthur for its current exhibit, but some of Betsy's furniture is on display along with other 18th-century antiques and reproductions.
- Kathryn Canavan
All Betsy Ross' husbands were American patriots.
Upholsterer John Ross, her first, was serving militia duty on the Philadelphia waterfront when a gunpowder explosion killed him in 1776.
She married Joseph Ashburn, a privateer, the next year. His ship was captured in 1781, and he died in a British prison in 1782.
John Claypoole paid a condolence call on the widow Ashburn because he had been imprisoned with her husband and admired him. Claypoole became husband number three in 1783.
After Claypoole died in 1817, Ross lived as a widow until her death 19 years later.