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

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