History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 February 2008

Heavens to Betsy! [Ross]

Although I write Georgian-era novels, I’ve also always been a fan of our own 18th century history, even though I have been reliably informed (by my agent) that American colonial era stories don’t sell, except perhaps in YA fiction.

The Betsy Ross House

I’ve had the opportunity lately to revisit Philadelphia, where (particularly in the Society Hill neighborhood) on a cobbled street like Delancey—or on S. American, a barely carriage-wide lane—each with Federal era homes whose exteriors are lovingly preserved by law and landowners, you are instantly transported to the world of panniers and periwigs, of knee breeches and buckled shoes.

What better time than Presidents’ Weekend to pay a call on Betsy Ross, the seamstress (and munitions manufacturer in her lean days!) at her 1740 Philadelphia Rowhouse on Arch Street. The building has been restored to ca. 1777, when it is said that George Washington paid a call on Mrs. Ross and asked her to stitch up a flag.

Exterior photo from Wikipedia, obviously taken many decades ago, and before the house on the left was demolished. That area is now the courtyard.

The low-ceilinged rooms are small, the better to heat, I suppose. The sitting room, barely large enough to comfortably accommodate four people, boasts a fireplace lined with blue Delftware tile. Below the street level are examples of the musket balls Betsy made to supply the American militias.

Betsy Ross (b. January 1, 1752) was a Quaker, the eighth of seventeen children, and an entrepreneur when necessity was the mother of invention, to paraphrase her fellow Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin. In 1773 she married John Ross, who was killed in a gunpowder explosion three years later. In 1777, the year of George Washington’s fateful visit, she married Joseph Ashburn and gave him two daughters before he died in a British prison in 1782. A year later, she took a third husband, John Claypoole, and bore him five daughters. Two of her girls, Zilla Asburn and Harriet Claypoole, died as children. John Claypoole passed away in 1817. Betsy ran her business well into her seventies, despite having gone blind in her later years. She died on January 30, 1836 at the age of 84.

I had one of those visceral moments as I watched a talented re-enactor talk to a little knot of visitors clustered in one of the home's modest downstairs rooms about General Washington’s visit and his request for a flag. “Mr. Washington had wanted a six-pointed star,” she said. But she had a technique for folding fabric three times and cutting a perfect five-pointed star with ease and simplicity, so she managed to talk George Washington out of his initial concept in order to fashion something that was not only simpler to effect, but more economical!

Here’s Betsy’s trick, as she demonstrated with a piece of 8 ½ x 11” copy paper:

Step 1: Fold the paper in half so it resembles a book, with the folded side on the left.

Step 1

Step 2: Take the lower left corner and fold it up so that the corner touches the exact center of the top of the sheet of paper. (the angle of this photo is off; the point needs to come exactly to the top edge of the sheet of paper, not end up above it. )

Step 2

Step 3: Take the bottom right point and fold it up toward the upper left, so it lays right on top of the first fold you made (it will look sort of like a paper airplane, but with an extra bit coming out of the top left).

Step 3 (2 views)

Step 4: Take that top left bit that’s sticking up and fold it toward the back side of the paper, away from the first two folds you made. You’ll now have a pointy end.

Step 4

Step 5: Snip off the point at an angle. The closer to the tip you snip, the smaller the star, the farther from the tip, the larger the star.

Step 5

Step 6: unfold what you have just snipped off and—voila—a perfect five-pointed star.

Step 6

'Betsy' was adamant about snipping off the point at an angle, cautioning her rapt audience (okay, I was teary; Lord knows why, maybe an eerie past-life thing. Or maybe it was my head cold acting up) not to make the error of snipping off the tip of the folded paper in a straight line across the paper or—“What shape will thee get when thee unfold it?” she asked?

“A pentagon,” replied a clever woman with obvious visual-spatial acumen.

“Exactly!” 'Betsy' exclaimed. “And Mr. Washington never ordered a pentagon!”

Happy Belated Presidents’ Day!

And now for the spoiler ... the visit to the Besty Ross house was followed by an excursion to Valley Forge, where I got into a conversation with one of the NPS Rangers, an enthusiastic 18th c. history aficionado named Quinn Kess. Quinn and I began to discuss some of Philadelphia's more famous colonial dames, beginning with Benedict Arnold's wife Peggy Shippen. We segued to the topic of Besty Ross and her stellar idea about starmaking, and Quinn lowered her eyes and said “We think now that that may be a myth.”

So, another too-good-to-be-true slice of history may be fiction after all--and yet "Betsy" is still sharing it with ususpecting and emotionally susceptible tourists. Good enough for a historical fiction writer to ever use?

What do you think? Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever learned about a marvelous bit of historical arcana and were tempted to incorporate it into one of your novels, only to find it exploded? What did you do?


Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fun post, Amanda.

I learned that star story when I was a kid -- oh well, another myth dashed.

And I love the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, where I researched the end of The Bookseller's Daughter (and learned lord knows how many explodable historical myths).

12:16 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I ADORE the Society Hill neighborhood, Pam. Scott (my husband) and I walked it for hours a few weekends ago. We even went to some of the open houses hosted by homeowners and realtors looking to sell, to get an idea of what the interiors looked like. I absolutely fell in love with a place on Delancey Street. A VERY different neighborhood from the Delancey Street in NYC. Maybe it's time to see who that Delancey guy was! :)

I'm bummed about the validity of the star story, but it does make a fun parlor trick.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Amanda! I remember hearing the star story in grammar school. One of the few details I know about Besty Ross and it turns out to be a myth. It's such a challenge for the historical novelist to sort out myth from fact. I'm dealing with some members of the Bonaparte family in my current book. There are so many stories about them--such as Josephine meeting Napoleon when her son Eugène went to get his father's sword back--that one suspects may be myth or at least partly myth. Or there'll be different versions of a story--such as the comment about the execution of the Duc d'Enghien being "worse than a crime--it was a blunder," which is variously ascribed to Talleyrand and Fouché. A nonfiction historian can explain the different version and the case for each. A novelist has to pick one and go with it.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Now that I've dipped my toes into nonfiction, I'm not sure which is harder -- not getting to make stuff up and having to stick to the facts when you're writing historical NONfiction, OR figuring out just what the facts are and separating them from the myths, because in nonfiction, you don't get to speculate and fantasize. As novelists, we do get to take one version of a story and run with it, which I've done in THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY and TOO GREAT A LADY. There are many versions of the Greek myths, but some of the lesser known ones better fit the version of Helen's story that I wanted to focus on. You'd be surprised how many readers get all the way to the end of the novel and then somehow overlook the Author's Note that explains what I did in terms of the comparative mythology. A couple of readers hammered me for not knowing my mythology (or insisted that "it didn't happen that way!!"), when in fact I demonstrate that not only was I familiar with the version they know, but with other versions as well.

I'm always amused by the readers that insist at the top of their voices that something didn't happen in the way the author described (particularly when the subject is mythological to begin with). Were they there??

1:39 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's a good point, Amanda. Authors notes are such a wonderful thing for the historical novelist! You can explain why the version you've used may not be accurate or even why you've changed an historical detail. I still find it nerve-wracking deciding which version to go with. But then research is both the joy and the constant challenge of writing historical fiction.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Another challenge I find, Tracy, is when to STOP researching a given topic and just start writing, whether it's a work on spec or on deadline. I keep hearing the Fiction Cop on a bullhorn intoning "Step AWAY from the research." I do think it's possible to bog oneself down on minutiae in preference to getting the words on the page, on the assumption that "if I just knew, e.g. what the fashionable color was in 17XX, then I could write my opening chapter."

Bernard Cornwell admonished authors for this sentiment at the Historical Novel Society Convention last June. He advised writers who have too much of a tendency to psych themselves out of the actual book-writing to just get the words on the page, pour them out and get a running start and then go back and fix the details later. Otherwise they'll never write, let alone complete, their opus.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Good point. I've had to do that with my historical YA. I was freaked out by how much I didn't know yet, but I had a deadline of when I had to get the proposal in so I just closed my eyes and took the plunge. And I continued to research whenever I got stuck on a point. Doing it that way meant that I had to make some changes when I was doing revisions but otherwise I would never have started writing.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So true about knowing when to stop researching. I can loose a whole day or more tracking down a detail about carriage lamps or where a character might buy snuff. I've learned to put ***** in the my manuscript, get through a draft, and then track those things down later. It makes me so much more efficient!

11:43 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I tend to put a phrase, like [need (or insert) info on X] in brackets and then highlight it in yellow in the ms. so I can't miss the gap when it comes time to revise.

Have any of you heard about, or have experience with, a new computer program that organizes and files research tidbits and sites with photos and your notes along with your manuscript, so it's like going to a huge file of all pertinent stuff on your wip? My husband mentioned it, but I sort of do that already in Word, and besides, I'm very tactile, in addition to which, the more I flip through my handwritten notes on a subject, the more I've memorized the information. I also need to take my eyes away from the screen as much as I can, so reading a research book and taking notes on it preserves my eyesight a bit more!

11:56 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Fascinating, Amanda. Ahhh, I so wanted to tell the star story to my son...that's how we keep the myth going, and it infuses such a real-life element into the character of Betsy Ross...

Kinda like "let them eat cake"...Marie Antoinette nevers said that did she?

8:19 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

No she didn't. It was actually someone else, but of course because of the hatred of her at the time, it was attributed to her as evidence of her insensitivity to the poor. But it still clings to her like leeches despite all the biographies that have dispeled the myth.

5:07 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kathrynn, I'd still tell the Betsy Ross story to your son, and demonstrate with paper and scissors how she made the star. It brings history alive. Then you can add that it's possible that the story about the star isn't true ... but then again, it still might be ... and you could start a whole discussion about what we call "history."

I say go for it!

7:57 AM  

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