What the 13-Star Flag Meant to Betsy Ross, American Revolutionaries

‘The American flag wasn’t commercialized or had the same sort of symbolism that it has today…’

13 star flag photo

Colonial Flag at Betsy Ross House/Photo by Jim, the Photographer (CC)

(Abbey White, The Philadelphia Inquirer) Nike has canceled the release of a Fourth of July-inspired sneaker featuring the famous Betsy Ross-sewn, 13-star version of the American flag.

“Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured an old version of the American flag,” a Nike spokeswoman said in a statement.

The shoes were shipped to retailers with images of its design already posted online before the company gave notification that the merchandise should be returned. The Wall Street Journal reports that activist, Nike endorsee, and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick raised concerns with company officials over the flag’s imagery and its relationship to early American slavery before the decision came down to pull the shoe.

While historians have debated the designer of the 13-star flag, the flag itself is believed to have been sewn by Ross, who was part of the Philadelphia region’s Quaker community. Quakers played a significant role in the abolition movement against slavery both in America and in the United Kingdom. Ross was a life-long Quaker who did not own any slaves herself but did live in a city with slaveowners, including a number of the men who led the American Revolution. During her life, Ross also employed Phillis, an educated black washerwoman who was once owned by a Quaker shoemaker.


The flag was created during a time when American slavery existed, but as Lisa Moulder, director of Old City’s Betsy Ross House, said, it was in a city where black slaves and freedmen often co-existed. Like many of America’s defining artifacts — from the Constitution to the Statue of Liberty — it has become mired in complex debates and mixed-up histories over whom their messages speak to and represent.

“Even in Betsy’s prime, the 13-star flag with the stars in the circle, that wasn’t the only flag that you’d see during Betsy’s time,” says Moulder. “The early American flags had stars in all sorts of patterns. You had flags that had pine trees. There were many, many different types of flags in Betsy’s time. This one just became more synonymous with American freedom over the years.”

In 2016, questions around the “Betsy Ross flag” as a symbol of modern white supremacy and nationalism flared after students waved it alongside a Donald Trump/Make America Great Again campaign flag during a Michigan high school game, according to the Wall Street Journal and local outlet M Live.

In response to the incident, the president of the NAACP’s local chapter released a statement, declaring students had “unwittingly or intentionally” used a flag that has “been appropriated by the so-called ‘Patriot Movement’ and other militia groups who are responding to America’s increasing diversity with opposition and racial supremacy,” while chanting “go home” to their opponents.

The American flag has become a symbol of American identity and values, as well as the heated debates around both, but the purpose of the famous Betsy Ross flag wasn’t to be symbolic of either.

“In Betsy Ross’s time, flags were strictly utilitarian — they were military tools,” Moulder says. “They were used to help troops on land and at sea identify each other. The American flag wasn’t commercialized or had the same sort of symbolism that it has today until much later.”

The “Betsy Ross flag” started its path of heavy commercialization and distinct American identity symbolism after the Civil War, Moulder says. That’s when Ross’s name and likeness, along with the 13-star flag, began appearing on everything from the appropriate — like sewing machines — to the less appropriate bourbon decanter, cigar boxes, bobby pins, and nearly Nike shoes.

“I would think that anybody in the 18th century, late 18th century, would be stunned to hear that people are wearing flags on shirts and on hats and that sort of thing,” Moulder says. “That was a completely foreign concept to Betsy and her contemporaries — especially since the flag wasn’t even really symbolic of America at the time.”

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