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Six-sided stars

Lydia Olsen
Class of 2016

(6/2015) Her name was Elizabeth Griscom when I knew her. She was born multiple years after me into Philadelphia at the start of a new year. Philadelphia in 1752 was a city that seemed to be evolving in new ways nearly every day. New buildings such as Independence Hall and the Christ Church were created and gas lighting started to illuminate the city. Newspapers first began being produced, postage routes were established, and the first hospital in the city was developed. Elizabeth was the daughter of Rebecca James and Samuel Griscom. Samuel was a well-known carpenter in the area who had a reputation of doing decent housework, and Rebecca was always busy taking care of the family. Elizabeth was one of 16 children in the family and they were all raised with Quaker beliefs. I can only imagine how hard it would be to stand out or ever have your voice heard in such a large family, but somehow Elizabeth used it to her advantage, and in her case it seemed to only empower her.

I remember when her father approached me and asked if I would take his daughter in under my wing. Soon enough, Elizabeth started coming into my upholstery shop.

At the time, my operation was small but efficient. I always had a project to complete, one in the process and a new one waiting. I had a few other apprentices already when Elizabeth came in. For the most part, they were all good workers and quick learners. Of course, some always stood out as having natural ability, while others had to work endlessly to master the same tasks. Regardless, they each began by starting on window blinds. These were the easiest to construct since they consist of mainly straight, simple lines. From the beginning, Elizabeth was the slowest among the group. She spent her time making sure that her stitches were all perfect and in the designated position. Because of this, her quality was unmatched, even as a novice, and her work was at mastery level within only a few months. With time, her speed increased and her precision remained precise.

However, I quickly learned that there was more to her than just her keen ability for sewing. Elizabeth was not one for rules, as her parents had previously mentioned. She would much rather do as she pleased. When I would try to show her the best way to create a certain stitch or an easy solution for a needed fix, she would listen politely until I was finished and then she would promptly state the way she imagined it in her mind and what seemed best to her. This frequently occurred and, quite honestly, it frustrated me. There I was, supposed to be the teacher, and yet my student believed she knew what was best in all situations. It was as if she was always saying, "Thanks for the advice but I can figure it out myself and make it even better." But how could I stay mad at her? The majority of the time – as much as I hate to admit it – she was right.

Beyond her impeccable skills, Elizabeth had a joy that she always seemed to be carrying and sharing with others. Her bright blue eyes drew everyone in and it was not long before she drew the attention of another apprentice of mine, John. The two began sewing side by side on frequent occasion. Elizabeth would share with him helpful tips and as much of her knowledge that he was able to handle. The two began spending more and more time together. I watched their romance blossom throughout the duration of their apprenticeships and after I had taught them all that I could, the two ran off and eloped. This, of course, was dramatic at the time because John was the son of an Episcopal rector. Elizabeth, having been raised under the Quaker faith, was not allowed to marry outside of her religion. After their marriage, Elizabeth was banned from the Quaker church, but this didn’t seem to cause her much distress. Before long, John and Elizabeth opened their own upholstery shop on Arch Street. I was glad that they decided to continue on in their instructed occupation and I kept in touch with them on occasion.

It was only within a year or so that the American Revolution truly took off and shook the nation to its roots. It wasn’t long before word spread through the town of John Ross’ death due to some sort of explosion. This left Elizabeth, best known as Betsy at this time, a widow after only a few short years of marriage. I can only imagine how challenging this could have been for her. Yet, unfortunately, being a widow was a common fate shared by many women at this time.

Betsy did what I would have expected of her and continued on as best as she could. And her best was unparalleled by many. She continued to run the shop that her and John had opened and made her living as both a seamstress and an upholsterer. Rumor had it that all was well for her for a while.

Then, about half a year after her husband’s death, a group of men walked into Betsy’s shop. It is said that the men consisted of Betsy’s uncle-in-law George Ross, Robert Morris, and General George Washington. The group of men had come to the shop with an unusual request of something that Betsy had never done before.

It is believed that the Grand Union Flag was no longer the image that Washington wanted to present because it suggested that America was still under the rule of Great Britain. He wanted something that would rid these beliefs by creating a new flag as the nation declared its independence. The men asked Betsy to create such a flag, showing her a rough drawing of what they had envisioned. Betsy responded that she did not exactly know how to make a flag but that she would try. Upon hearing this, I laughed, thinking it could not be much harder than window blinds!

And so it is reported that Washington’s drawing had a flag consisting of 13 stripes and 13 six-pointed stars laid out in a circle. Betsy looked at the proposed idea and in typical Betsy fashion, politely observed it and then proposed what she believed would be a better design. According to the rumor of the town, Betsy suggested stars that had one less point than Washington originally wanted so that they could be cut from a single piece of cloth. She demonstrated how simply a five-pointed star could be created. It is believed that Washington was taken aback by this suggestion and quickly sat down to redraw the design to better imagine Betsy’s vision. The group of men then agreed to hire Betsy and she was instructed to create as many flags as she was capable of. She did her best and soon they were flying across the nation. Within a single year, Congress officially adopted the flag that Betsy had created.

As the years went on, she continued to make flags on top of her upholstery and seamstress work. She got remarried and had a couple of children who followed in her career footsteps. Together they all worked in the shop and helped to provide for the community and for the soldiers. Many uniforms would have been left unpatched if it weren’t for their hard work repairing them.

Even in this day and age there was speculation that a single woman could have done something so important singlehandedly. There are doubters who think that though Betsy may have existed, her claim to fame is completely made up. And though the stories I have heard were coming to me through the grapevine, I am here to tell you that for the woman that I knew, the young lady who worked tirelessly under my watchful eye, anything would have been possible. And for me personally, I couldn’t, even for a moment, doubt that anyone other than her could have created the first stars and stripes for our nation.

By the time I grew old, I doubt that I ever crossed Betsy’s mind. I was merely a stepping-stone on her path throughout life, old Mr. William Webster, her instructor. I am sure that she could have gone far without my guidance because that was just the type of lady that Betsy always was — a go-getter. Sure, I may have taught her a few useful tricks here and there and given her more definite direction in life, but everything after that she made for herself. I’ve had people tell me that I should be annoyed that it was she and not I who played this significant role in history. When they bring this up, I simply laugh and brush off their comments. Of course, some credit would be nice, but it is not needed. And even if I could find any anger, what good would it do me? There isn’t a chance that I would have been able to resent Betsy. You see, much like those times when I would give her instruction and she would do as she pleased, Betsy was someone it was difficult to stay mad at because she always completed her projects better than could have been imagined.

I’ve looked back at the events and thought about what I would have done if I were to be in the same situation that Betsy was and I cannot help but find it humorous. There is no way I could have pushed aside my nerves to forget the pressure of the task at hand. Betsy was always brave and made her opinions heard but I was always more soft-spoken. It seems that if it had been me who the three men approached, requested to make the flag, and asked for judgment on the layout, I would have just accepted whatever was suggested. It seems that if it were up to me, our nation would have had six-sided stars.

Read other articles by Lydia Olsen