Monday, April 14, 2014

So Who Really Made the First American Flag?

Every school student has been taught that George Washington and his committee tasked Mrs. Elizabeth Ross, a milliner whose business was located between 2nd and 3rd on Arch Street, with the creation of the first American flag. Supposedly, the agile seamstress dazzled this group of august gentlemen by quickly snipping out one of the now-famous five-pointed stars with only one clip of her scissors.

The first postcard portrays the home of Betsy Ross as it appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century. Strangely, the card’s caption reads “The First Flag of the U. S. was made in this House by Mrs. A. Mund,” and a small replica of the flag, suspended from the second story, bears the inscription “The first flag was made in this house. Mrs. A. Mund.” Who was this woman, and why was her name linked to the famous Flag House?

P.2013.77.1.14 Home of Betsy Ross postcard, ca. 1907. Gift of Philippa Campbell.

In 1876 or 1877 Philip Mund opened a beer saloon at 239 Arch Street. Forty-five years later, his widow, Mrs. Amelia Mund, now proprietress of the saloon, aware of the importance of this historic building thought to have been the Ross establishment, noted that there had never been a sign identifying it as the site where the first American flag had been produced.

So, mystery solved: This postcard’s creator mistakenly combined the statements on that advertising signage. It should have read, “The first flag was made in this house,” (period, end!), and should have been followed by the statement: “This building was later owned by Mrs. A. Mund.”

In 1937, a donation of $25,000 by Philadelphia radio magnate A. Atwater Kent paid for the necessary radical surgery that was performed on the dwelling’s interior and exterior. The second postcard view, circa 1950, shows the front doorway moved to the far right corner and the original plate glass window replaced by a shuttered pane. The building to its left, purchased by Kent, was later renovated into a courtyard.

P.2013.77.1.48 Betsy Ross Flag House postcard, ca. 1950. Gift of Philippa Campbell.

These two views are from a collection of more than 230 Philadelphia postcards generously donated to the Library Company in 2013 by Ms. Philippa Campbell. They are currently being processed into the LCP postcard database.

Gus Spector
LCP Volunteer

Friday, April 4, 2014

Except New Jersey

Francis Hopkinson trade card, ca. 1769.

In fall 2013 the Library Company seized upon the tremendous opportunity to acquire the Joe Freedman Collection of Philadelphia Ephemera. A boon to our visual culture holdings, I have recently had the privilege to begin to process this extraordinary collection of over 900 items that speak to the everyday lives of past Philadelphians.

Starting with the path of least resistance, that is, pockets of the collection already somewhat organized by genre, I have begun my archival journey with early trade cards. Unlike the trade cards that come to mind for the Victorian period, these advertising gems serve as specimens of early types and ornaments, verbose and telling promotional text, and the artistry of those who designed in extreme miniature. The materials offer a history of trade card design with cards more indicative of small prints like Francis Hopkinson’s circa 1769 advertisement for his cloth business to mid-19th century ticket-size missives more reminiscent of today’s business cards.

Davis & Birney trade card, ca. 1850.

A few favorites so far include this circa 1850 trade card for Philadelphia commercial agents Davis & Birney. They refer recipients to a long list of references as well as the notice that Birney is “Commissioner for all the States, (Except New Jersey).” Another is this circa 1848 card for the American Hotel. The modern design aesthetic reminds me of magazine advertisements from the1920s.
American Hotel, ca. 1848.

Although smitten with the collection since I was first fortunate to review it, my infatuation with it continues to grow with each piece. With treasures to be found on the front and back of each card from the graphics, text, and personal inscriptions so often left behind, my unending inquisitiveness about the history of Philadelphia’s visual culture thankfully continues on with new acquisition like the Freedman Collection.

Erika Piola
Associate Curator, Prints and Photographs
Co-Director, VCP at LCP