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The facts and fiction surrounding the Betsy Ross house, (a top Philadelphia tourist attraction), and the legend of the first American flag maker. Pictures and video
The Betsy Ross House
Home of an American Legend - Maybe
The story of Betsy Ross hand stitching the first American flag is a part of American folklore, and one most Americans know, but did she really sew the first colonial American flag? And did she really live in the house now designated as a historical monument in Philadelphia?
Controversy surrounds both questions.
It appears the only "historical" evidence that Mrs. Ross did sew the first flag is anecdotal, the primary pillar being a "talk" given by her grandson, William Canby before the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1870.
And it also appears that though there have been several efforts to confirm that the house at 239 Arch Street in Philadelphia was indeed the one Betsy Ross lived in, the closest definitive statement the Pennsylvania Historical Society can make is that it probably is the right house, but it could have been 241 Arch Street instead.
Overview of the Betsy Ross House
*Full article follows this overview, but "more details" links can be used to jump to specific sections
- The Betsy Ross House and Museum is open to public tours 10am to 5pm daily. Costs: $4 - $7 ... more details
- Commonly portrayed images of a small shop with waving flags and a large shop window, wedged between large commercial buildings, is not an accurate portrayal of the house as it was when Betsy Ross lived there. During her time it would have been one of at least four, (possibly more), similar houses ... more details
- Although there is some ambiguity, research has determined 239 Arch Street is the correct address of the real Betsy Ross house ... more details
- Original construction is dated to be circa 1740, and William Penn was not involved ... more details
- The original house had only full two rooms, one on each floor, a walkable attic room, and a cellar - not the six, seven, eight, or even nine rooms as described in various resource articles ... more details
- The house as it was when Betsy lived there had an addition that was constructed circa 1760. The rear addition included a 2-story section with one room on each floor, and an attic storage space, (not a walkable attic as in the original building). It was connected to the original building by a matching 2-story stair hall ... more details
- The house served as a variety of shops, before and after Betsy's time there. For a period in the late 1900s it was even a tavern - "Old Glory Lager, Wine and Liquors" ... more details
- The building was acquired by the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association in 1898* and a fund raising drive was initiated to fund the purchase, restoration, and maintenance ... more details
- This was followed by the first major renovation in 1936-37, funding donated by A. Atwater Kent, which included:restoring the front facade and interior layout to what it would have been in 1777. The renovation was done by architect Richardson Brognard Okie. Mr. Kent also purchased, (and donated to the Association), the adjacent lot for the purpose of creating a "Civic Garden" to compliment the Betsy Ross House property. The Association gave the property complex to the city of Philadelphia in 1941 ... more details
- A gift shop building was added in 1965, Betsy and John Claypoole's graves were moved to the courtyard in 1976, and the courtyard fountain was completed in 1977 ... more details
- The Historic Philadelphia Organization assumed operations and management responsibility for the house and museum in 1994
- Take the new 360` virtual tour ... more details
This Is Not The House of Betsy Ross' Time
Although the images fit the nostalgic desire, and the physical address is correct, popular portrayals like the 1909 "StereoVision" tintype print, (below, left), and the artist's rendering included in an 1895 magazine article, (below, right), are not the house as it would have been during Betsy Ross' time.
There was no large "shop" window, the door was on the east side of the building front facade, not the west, and of course there was no "Old Glory" displayed in the windows or majestically waving overhead
*The current renovated Betsy Ross house, (as pictured above), is more accurately representative of the buildings appearance in Betsy's time. Although more pristine than in 1773 - 1785.
Conflicting City Directory Numbers
Research using the various published city directories of Philadelphia, the first being the MacPherson directory of 1785, has shown that through the years the address has been known as; 335 Arch Street in the early years, and then as 83 or 89 Arch Street, and finally as 229 and 239 when later city directories began to emerge and a new uniform numbering system was adopted.
This confusion comes from different directories using different numbering methods. In the end, research has concluded that regardless of the number changes, 239 is the correct "final" number for this house.
The other bit of confusion about the actual house Betsy Ross lived in relates to whether it was 239, or whether it was an adjacent house, 241 Arch Street, that has been demolished and no longer exists. This discrepancy was sparked by anecdotal evidence that could not be verified, or confidently discounted.
Although this doubt is mentioned; considering other information sources concerning 19th century use of the building, historians are satisfied with settling on 239 Arch Street as the accurate address.
The Original Brick House
The history of the Betsy Ross house is more clouded by myths and misinformation, than it is supported by facts.
The story of the house starts with an almost certain myth of William Penn's involvement in its construction; contained in an article published in a July 1895 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book. The article, "The Stars and Stripes," relates that;
"... it was the second house of its type built in Philadelphia, with bricks brought in on a ship named "Welcome." The first was the cottage of William Penn, and it is even said that he laid at least one of the walls of the house on Arch Street."
The problem with this story is that the date of the house/shop's construction has been determined to be circa 1740. William Penn died in England in 1718. Yet this fact was obviously overlooked by that article's author - and many later authors that cite the article as validation of their facts.
Note: Betsy Ross did not own this house, and she did not commission its construction. Historical records indicate the house was built in 1740, and she and her first husband , John Ross first rented it in 1773, for their upholstery shop. She continued to live there with her 2nd and 3rd husbands, John Ashburn and John Claypoole, through 1785-86.
As can be seen from the photos, it was a small 2½-story house with an attic and a steep shingled roof, (which accommodated the walkable attic). Its style has been noted as both Georgian-Colonial for the construction of its front facade, and "Bandbox" for its small size and interior room design. "Bandbox-type" houses were typically designed with only one room per floor.
*Note: all known photographic images of 239 Arch Street - "The Betsy Ross House" are not what the house would have looked like when Ms. Ross resided there!
19th Century Images
These commonly accepted images are mid to late 19th century images of the building after it was altered by subsequent owners.
The image on the left is hand dated as 1859, and shows that the encroachment of the larger commercial buildings illustrated in many of the popular "Betsy Ross house" portrayals, (as shown by the image on right, circa 1903-09), had yet to reach their threatening dominance.
Although hard to accept when side by side comparison is made; excepting the use of some modern materials, and near immaculate maintenance, the current configuration is closer to the actual appearance of the house in Betsy's time.
The Original Architect And Floor Plan
No historical documentation, (to date), names the original architect of the Betsy Ross house, but anecdotal evidence describes the front exterior as a variation of the "Lelita/Letita" design used for William Penn's cottage, the first brick house of its type in Philadelphia. But this has not been substantiated beyond this mention.
Beyond this attribution, there is nothing architecturally significant about the rest of the house. Its construction was a strictly utilitarian.
Side view illustration*
The Original 1740 "Bandbox" Pre-Betsy Ross House
Tracing the origins of the Betsy Ross house should start with it as constructed in 1740. It was located in a commercial district, and was intended to be used as a commercial business or shop. It was never intended to be a "house," but there were accommodations for a combined shop/residence use, (cellar kitchen hearth, attic bedroom).
Though the front facade does display the Georgian-Colonial, (sometimes also called Pennsylvania-colonial), influence, the interior of the building was built using the then common "band box" layout of one room per floor. Although the cellar, was one large room, it served as two areas; kitchen/hearth in the rear, and storage to the front.
The building exterior dimensions were approximately 16 feet wide by 25 feet deep. Accounting for wall thicknesses, this gave the first and second floor rooms approximately 390 - 400 sq.feet of floor space. The attic would have the same square footage, but allowing for diminished use created by the roof angle, it would perhaps have had approximately 250 - 300 sq. feet of livable space.
*Building dimensions provided from 1937 renovation study as provided by Betsyrosshouse.org Director of Collections and Exhibits (July, 2013), who also noted that another possible explanation for the narrow design was the city taxing structure of the time - taxes were assessed by building frontage, not total size.
Although it also included a small kitchen hearth that allowed cooking, the cellar was primarily a storage area, with front access via a steep ladder stairs from street level.
. A larger hearth and kitchen area was added later with the rear addition.
A spiraling staircase provided access from the cellar level to the floor above it.
The 1760 Rear Addition
Although many sources quote the addition as being added a vague "10 to 20 years later," the research done by the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association, the organization which sponsored the house, and its renovations since it first opened as a national monument and museum in 1898, settled on 1760 as the date of the addition.
The rear addition was not quite a doubling of the 1st and 2nd floor square footage. The dimensions of the rear rooms added an extra 351 sq. feet per floor, but the addition did not include a walkable attic like the original building.* This type of an addition was common on narrow plots in Philadelphia in this time period.
Along with the above ground addition, the cellar was also expanded. It was divided into two rooms, which allowed for a new, larger cooking hearth and a general kitchen area. A new rear entrance was also added, with exterior stairs leading from ground level to the cellar kitchen.
*Building dimensions provided from 1937 renovation study as provided by Betsyrosshouse.org Director of Collections and Exhibits (July, 2013)
The Rooms of The Betsy Ross House
Commonly speaking, the 1760 Betsy Ross house can be said to have five rooms; two on each floor. and one in the attic. The attic room should be counted as it was originally intended to serve as an office or proprietor's bedroom, but typically a cellar is not viewed as a room, but as an area.
Depending on what should be called a room, it is possible to define the two areas in the cellar as rooms, which could bring the number of rooms to seven, but it is too much to call the stair halls rooms, so the sources quoting the house as having eight or nine rooms in Betsy's time would need further study.
The floor plan illustrations below show the rooms layout as they were in 1773 - 1786.
Betsy Ross House 1760 Floor Plan
Artist's Sketch of The 1760 Betsy Ross House
The artist sketch below is a realistic representation of how the house would have looked, during the late 1700s after the addition was added. The inclusion of 2nd floor porches was a common practice.
The House After Betsy Ross
The oft repeated litany that the house at 239 Arch Street served as a variety of shops, both before and after Betsy is a familiar one. Shoemaker, shopkeeper, apothecary,and more are listed, but only as a description. Dates and documentation are scarce. One of the the affidavits taken from her descendants in support of her claim as the first flag maker does mention a Mr. David Niles, shoemaker, as the tenant previous to John and Betsy's upholstery shop.
Otherwise, the house's tenants, although mentioned by profession, remain an obscurity.
There is no reliable record of when the front was altered to accommodate a large shop window and the movement of the entrance door to the west side, but it appears certain that it occurred after Betsy moved out, because there are reliable accounts of her time there with each of her three husbands - but none relate any details of significant building alterations.
Until The Phillip Mund Family
The next documented tenant of note would be the Mund family which used the house first as a tailor shop, then as a tavern, and finally as a cigar shop. It was Amelia Mund, (wife and widow of Phillip Mund), who claimed credit for trying ti save the historical house from demolition for commercial improvements, by holding out for a patriotic buyer that would preserve it*
*this is only supported by oral recollections, and as will be seen, many of the published Mund family "facts" are supported only by their retelling.
The common date associated with the Mund family moving into the house is 1859, and there is at least one old photo, hand dated 1859, that clearly shows the P.H. Mund Tailor Shop. However further research to affirm this date is necessary in that at least one other photo purported to have been taken in 1871 distinctly shows the house as being the tailor shop of Gustav Franke.
Other than that image discrepancy, the building's linage from 1859 to 1898 is relatively clear. There are multiple old photos and stereograph images that clearly show the house as the Mund's "Old Glory Lager, Wine and Liquors," with signage proclaiming Amelia Mund as Proprietor, in the 1876 - 1889 time frame.
In 1889 Amelia Mund converted the tavern to a cigar shop, which operated until approximately 1892, at which time the shop ceased to operate as a full-time until son Charles Mund reopened it as a souvenir shop/museum until 1896.
Foundation Purchase In 1898, Or Not
Published materials concerning the founding of the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Foundation and the purchase the house proved a bit of an adventure.
Since state records don't seem to exist, perhaps the most reliable source should be the Foundation itself; their famous public membership certificates list the founding date as June 14, 1898. And a May 1900 magazine article by the Hon. John Quincy Adams stated the official state incorporation date as December 19, 1898.
Regarding the purchase of the house, from Charles Mund, (son of Phillip and Amelia Mund), in 1898, published articles of the time, (1899 - Self Culture Magazine, and 1900 - Frank Leslie Monthly MAY - AUGUST 1900), confirm that the house was leased to the Association, with a 5-year option to purchase*, in 1898 - it was not purchased in 1898! Records indicate the actual property purchase and ownership transfer occurred in 1903.
*The 1898 lease - purchase agreement set the purchase price at $25,000, for a property that was valued at approximately $4,000 in 1898.
Charles Weisgerber, one of the association's founding members moved into the house in 1898, (sometime between September 15, and October 22), and opened two rooms to the public. He remained there until his death in 1932.
Although another man, Mr. Robert Smith, also an Association founding member, claimed credit for the 10 cent certificate drive, most Association historical documents, and most historians, credit Weisgerber as the creator of the program.
Between 1903 and 1905, the Association, through Mr. Weisgerber, offered to give the property to the Federal government as a designated National Historic Monument, and to the city of Philadelphia as a state designated historical site - both declined.
The house remained in Association hands, and continued as a two-room exhibit until a complete renovation in 1937.
In 1936, Philadelphia businessman, A. Atwater Kent offered up to $25,000 for the restoration of the house and commissioned historical architect Richardson Brognard Okie to do the work. The restoration was completed in 1937.
Okie strove to retain and use the original elements wherever possible, but when necessary, he used materials from demolished period homes to maintain authenticity.
A new structure, using period bricks and 1777 carriage house styling was added in the rear for a hot-water heating system boiler, and storage space. The front stairway and three hidden fireplaces were restored, and the front dormer was entirely replaced. The front shop doorway was moved to its original right-front, (east), position, and a traditional 1777-era 8-over-12 window replaced the large 19th century "shop" window that is shown in historical photos.
Kent then purchased the two adjacent properties to be used to develop a "civic garden" to further enhance the property for public use.
It was the 1937 renovation that created the "walking tour" layout with viewing areas and exhibit displays that allowed the public to see and experience 18th century life of Betsy Ross, without the danger of unrestricted access to the exhibits and property. With the exception of the attic, which served as an onsite office for house staff, all four rooms, the stairhalls, and the cellar areas were now open to the public.
The renovated complex was donated to the city of Philadelphia in 1941.
Later Year Upgrades
The 10 cent membership drive continued at least through 1935 for property upgrade, maintenance, and staffing costs, and in 1964 an annex building used as a gift shop and admissions office was added to the rear of the courtyard.
The graves of Betsy and John Claypoole were relocated to the western side of the courtyard in 1976, and the center fountain was added in 1977.
Responsibility for the property, and its management were transferred to a new organization, Historic Philadelphia Inc. in 1994.
Betsy Ross House Virtual Tour
This virtual tour is an excellent resource provided by Historic Philadelphia.org, but, is best suited for broadband or WiFi internet connections.
Slower connections can view the virtual tour video below.
Betsy Ross House Public Tour Details
The Betsy Ross House is located at 239 Arch Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
- January and February
- 10am-5pm, Tuesday through Sunday
- March through November
- 10am-5pm, everyday
- 10am-5pm, Tuesday through Sunday
- All hours are subject to change without notice
- Adults: 5.00
- Children/Students/Seniors/Military: 4.00
- Adults: 7.00
- Children/Students/Seniors/Military: 6.00
Audio tours include admission to the house.
Hot dogs, drinks and snacks are offered in the courtyard from Thursday through Sunday in March and April and daily beginning May 1 through Labor Day.
After you tour the house, make sure to meet Betsy Ross and plan to spend some time relaxing in the shady courtyard where you'll enjoy free family friendly programming, hear storytelling and meet History Makers.
Visitor's tour and location information courtesy of Historic Philadelphia.org
Citations and sources
 "The Stars and Stripes" - Godey’s Lady’s Book, July 1895, Philadelphia, Pa.
 "History of Betsy Ross" - HistoricPhiladelphia.org
 "Was this her house?" - UShistory.org
 "Historic Philadelphia, Inc. Backgrounder" - HistoricPhiladelphia.org
 "Betsy Ross and the United States Flag", Read Before Bucks County Historical Society
 Old Arch Street Houses, photograph by F. DeB. Richards - Library Company of Philadelphia* - *note; search term "Betsy Ross House Arch Street" must be entered to locate photo
 Stereograph card by MP Simmons - Library Company of Philadelphia* - *note; search term "Betsy Ross House Arch Street" must be entered to locate photo
 "The True Story of Betsy Ross" - Self Culture March 1899
 "The Birthplace of the American Flag" - FRANK LESLIE MONTHLY MAY - AUGUST 1900
Photo Image Sources:
(1) Artist's sketch - Phil. Airport Blog , Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
(1a) Composite images 1) Wolle8ball Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported 2) Library of Congress Local Gov.
(2a) Composite images 1) Wolle8ball Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported 2) Library of Congress Local Gov.
(4a) Written Permission acquired - American Centuries Archives
© 2013 ga anderson
The Betsy Ross House Facts, Myths, and Pictures Comments
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on September 09, 2017:
Thanks, GA. I enjoyed your article. We recently stayed at a bed and breakfast with houses dating back before the American Revolution. The one thing I remember is that the stairs and rooms were tiny compared to today. This article made me remember how that adventure was for us. Thank you for being a thoughtful person.