Tuesday, June 15, 2010

14 June (1777): Flag Day--and a salute to both Betsy Ross and Marla Miller

Today is Flag Day, which, as the Christian Science Monitor explains, is not an official federal holiday, but marks the date in 1777 on which the Continental Congress adopted the national flag.

I cannot fail to note that, as the article goes on to explain, the holiday originated in my native midwest:
The idea of celebrating the adoption of the American flag came around in the late 1800s, when Wisconsin school teacher B.J. Cigrand organized a “Flag Birthday” or “Flag Day” for his students.

The celebration became more widespread with each year, leading to the first national observance of Flag Day on June 14, 1877, the centennial of the original flag resolution.

But it was not until Aug. 3, 1949, that President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating June 14 of each year as National Flag Day.
The article also discusses some of the history and etiquette surrounding the flag. It was all familiar to me because, when I was a child, I had one of the famous "Little Golden Books" (recently celebrated at our local Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art), on Our Flag (# 388 in the series), which explained everything from its evolution to the rules for proper handling and display. It's probably not the sort of thing kids would read nowadays. Still, it is interesting to think about how we sometimes obtain lasting memories and information from strange sources.

Of course the article also notes the debate over the creation of the first flag: "The designer of the first American flag is still unknown, although historians believe it was either New Jersey Congressman Francis Hopkinson or Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress." Interestingly, I think, we all grew up learning both that Betsy Ross was said to have designed the American flag and that this legend was perhaps just that. We never got much further in the schools. Strangely enough, neither did the scholars—until now.

This provides me with an opportunity to congratulate my University of Massachusetts colleague, Director of Public History Marla Miller, who recently brought out a very well-received new book on Besty Ross and the Making of America (Macmillan, 2010). As scholars have noted, the legend arose only a century after the fact in remarks of Ross's grandson. Interviewed last year, Marla speculated that his mother created the story when interest in Colonial and Revolutionary women was on the rise. The truth turns out to be complex. As reporter Diane Lederman explains:
When she first took on the project of writing about the life of Betsy Ross, historian Marla R. Miller said “I thought I would be dismantling the legend altogether.”

But the author of “Betsy Ross And the Making of America” said while there is no proof that Ross stitched the first American flag of 13 stars and stripes, “somebody had to do it first.” And as she said, “the truth is somewhere in between (those who claim she did and those who deny it.)”
As Lederman explains,
Miller was surprised no one else had written a scholarly biography when she decided to write one. She thinks nothing was written in part because there was little to document her life. “No papers had been saved; that’s a deterrent to biography. People in the past failed to anticipate my needs,’ she joked.

And during the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s when her life might have been examined, Ross had been “a subject of derision. “No scholar would have taken it on as a project; it would have been too risky.”
While Miller didn’t have Ross’ documents she did have much other material about Ross’ family - material about her siblings, three husbands and children. There were seven born but five lived into adulthood. She was able to construct Ross’ life through those windows.

“The big challenge is (that Ross) is not a strong presence all the way through.” But what she did was put “her in context of what women like her must have been doing.”
Marla has always been intensely interested in both material culture and the lives of people who made things. The story of Betsy Ross thus provides a window into the lives of women and working people. The fact that is not always explicitly and extensively documented is a challenge, but also an advantage to the extent that if offers an opportunity to teach the public how historians really work. Even when the documentation is rich, the "facts" do not speak for themselves; they always need to be interpreted. Historians have to work inferentially, read between the lines, and make the most of circumstantial evidence, especially in the case of the lower classes and marginalized groups who did not leave their own documentary record.

As Marla puts it, “I feel so privileged to be the person to have written this. I was the right person in the right place to appreciate her real story.” Thanks to her, she's not the only one to appreciate it: the book has been a huge success with critics— the Wall Street Journal praised it, the New York Times listed it as an Editor's Choice, and Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review. (listen to an interview with the author)

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