Betsy Ross and the American Flag
Was This Her House?
Page 1 of 2
There is almost no doubt that as of 1785, Betsy Ross and her third husband, John Claypoole, lived on the north side of Arch Street, between Second and Third Streets, which is the present location of the Betsy Ross House. Although it cannot be definitively established, the evidence points strongly to the conclusion that Betsy Ross lived either in the house which is now 239 Arch Street or at 241 Arch Street, now the garden of the Betsy Ross House.
In attempting to establish whether Betsy Ross lived at the site which is now the Betsy Ross House, (presently numbered 239-245 Arch Street), one may begin with the earliest Philadelphia city directories, published in 1785. Prior to that date, the only record of Philadelphia residents were the militia and tax rolls. Unfortunately, these records listed only property owners and neither Betsy Ross nor any of her three husbands owned property.
The earliest city directories were published in 1785 by Frances White and John MacPherson. These directories were used from 1785 until 1791 when they were replaced by a new directory, using a different numbering system. Under the crude system utilized by White, the entry for John Claypoole in 1785 was:
"Claypoole, John, upholsterer, Arch b. Second and Third Streets."
Unlike White, MacPherson assigned numbers to the location in his directory. He assigned numbers to locations on east-west streets such as Arch Street, by beginning at southeast corner of Front Street and numbering consecutively westward to the last location; he continued numbering eastward along the north side of the street to the northwest corner of Front. Thus, between the years 1785 and 1791, the locations between Second and Third Streets on the north side of Arch were numbered from 329 to 353. John Claypoole is listed in the MacPherson directory as:
"Claypoole, John, Upholsterer, 335 Arch Street"
As the 1785 directories placed the location of Betsy Ross and John Claypoole on the north side of Arch Street between Second and Third Streets, they support the fact that Betsy Ross once occupied the present Betsy Ross House which is also on the north side of Arch between Second and Third. More precisely, one might question whether the house numbered "335 Arch" (the Ross-Claypoole residence in 1785) under the MacPherson numbering system corresponds with the locations numbered "239-245 Arch Street" which comprise the Betsy Ross House today.
The answer is somewhat complicated because the numbering system used today, which assigns the numbers "239-245 Arch Street" to the Betsy Ross House, was not instituted until 1857. Prior to that time two different systems were used. From 1785 to 1791 the above-described MacPherson system was in effect and, as above noted, Betsy Ross occupied "335 Arch." From 1791 to 1857 a second system was used. In 1791 Col. Clement Biddle published a directory that replaced the MacPherson directory. Biddle used the system of numbering houses alternatively from one side of the street to the other, increasing from east to west, as is done today. However, whereas today the numbers between Second and Third Streets on the north side of Arch range from 205 to 249, under Biddle's 1791 system which was in effect until 1857, the numbers ranged from 57 to 99.
To determine whether the Claypoole residence in 1785, then numbered "335 Arch Street," corresponds with the present site of the Betsy Ross House, one must determine first, the numbers assigned to the Betsy Ross House under the Biddle system from 1791-1857, and second, whether that number or numbers correspond with the location numbered "335 Arch Street" in the MacPherson directory. One might focus on determining the corresponding numbers of the house at the Betsy Ross House, presently numbered 239 Arch Street.
The location now numbered "239 Arch Street" was numbered "89 Arch Street" under Col. Biddle's 1791 system. No historian disputes this. The fact is confirmed by a photograph of the tailor shop of "P.H. Mund" with a shop numbered "87" to the right and a shop numbered "93" two doors to the left. A chain of title report prepared by the Philadelphia Historical Commission shows Philip Mund as owner of the shop located at what is presently numbered 239 Arch Street as early as 1866.
The question, therefore, becomes whether the "335 Arch Street" of 1785 corresponds with the "89 Arch Street" of 1791. It is not helpful to look for the Claypooles at 89 Arch Street in the 1791 directory as the Claypooles had moved from Arch Street to a home on Second Street near Dock Street by that date. Therefore, John Claypoole is listed in the 1791 directory as 80 So. Second Street and the individual listed at 89 Arch Streeet is "Thomas Carmalt."
There is evidence, however, that Betsy Ross did occupy the location numbered 89 Arch Street. In a sworn statement dated July 31, 1891, Betsy Ross' daughter, Rachael Claypoole Fletcher, stated:
"[The house in which my mother made the flag] was on the north side of Arch Street, a few doors below Third Street, above Bread Street, a two story house, with attic and a dormer window, now standing, the only one of the row left, the old number being 89; it was formerly occupied by Daniel Niles, shoemaker. Mother at first lived at the house next east, and when the war came, she moved into the house of Daniel Niles."
Despite the seriousness with which a Quaker, such as Rachael Fletcher, might have taken an oath, the reliability of this affidavit has been challenged on the ground of faulty recollection and self-interest. Not content to rest on the Fletcher affidavit, others have suggested that the house occupied by Betsy Ross was in fact 233 Arch Street (old number 83) [Joseph Jackson, "Arch Street's Place in the Annals of Old Philadelphia," Public Ledger, Nov. 30, 1913] or 221 Arch Street (old number 71). ["Flag House or Not, Who Knows?", North American, December 29, 1899]
One might independently determine whether number "335 Arch" of 1785 corresponds with number "89 Arch" of 1791 by examining the individuals listed between Second and Third Streets on the north side of Arch during this six year period. One can arrive at a rough correspondence of numbers by finding an individual who remained stationary from 1785 through 1791, thus appearing in both directories. One then counts the number of houses between the Claypoole location (335 Arch) and the stationary individual in 1785 and then counts this number in the same direction from the stationary individual's residence in 1791.