Copyright by Brianne Sieberg. Powered by Blogger.

An Experience at The Betsy Ross House

Photos taken by Brianne Sieberg

We traveled to Philadelphia for a lacrosse tournament, but extended our stay to explore the historic district.

It was our first visit, and a quick survey of the map showed our hotel was within walking distance of plenty of sites to take in. We saw the Liberty Bell, and walked the old cobblestone streets. We visited the grave of Benjamin Franklin, who rests in the Christ Church Burial Ground. Then I booked a tour for us to explore the Betsy Ross House.

(The Liberty Bell)

(Benjamin Franklin's grave)

It was a beautiful November day with clear blue skies and bright sunlight. Chilly, but nothing a trio of Minnesotans weren't used to. The GPS on my cell phone directed our route to the Betsy Ross House from the burial ground, making it clear to those around us that we were from out of town if our accents left any doubt.

As we approached the house at 239 Arch Street, I was caught off guard by how small it seemed considering its significance. At first glance it was an unassuming two-story brick structure, a variation of the "bandbox" or "trinity" style of architecture. There is one room on each floor with a winding staircase that stretches from the cellar to the upper level. The brown brick emphasized the white trim and shutters, while the American flag flew overhead as if to suggest its contribution to our history.

The front portion of the house, including the stair hall or "piazza", was built around 1740, and the rear section was added a decade or two later. It is believed that Betsy Ross lived here from 1776 through 1779. She is buried beside the house in a courtyard that is now set up as a gathering spot with tables and chairs for conversation.

(Betsy Ross's grave)

We opted to go inside.

Upon entry, we noticed the customer service desk and a small gift shop that now inhabits the space used for various businesses over its 250-year history.

"Hi, welcome to the Betsy Ross House," a young woman greeted. Her smile was warm, her demeanor cheery. "How can I help you today?"

I smiled back. "Hi, we're here for the tour," I replied.

"Wonderful," she said, as she pushed her chair back and rose to her feet. She gathered a couple of pamphlets for us, then leaned forward over the counter to point to the floor layout on one of them.

"The tour is self-guided, but simple to follow," she continued. "Just follow the stairs."

"Which way do you recommend we start?" I asked.

"Definitely go up first," she replied.

We smiled and thanked her. "You have the house to yourself right now," she said. "Which is strange because usually, there are a lot more people here this time of day."

That was when we realized how quiet it was. Outside, between the crowds of people and cars navigating the narrow streets, Philadelphia felt alive. Like, there was a hum and a rhythm to keep pace with but within the walls of the Betsy Ross House, time seemed to stand still. It felt almost out of place, if that makes any sense - a place that exists out of time. It was odd to come to terms with.

We took our coats off and began our ascent up the winding, narrow staircase. We discovered quickly that we were too tall for it, and we had to be mindful of where we stepped or else we would have fallen.

The staircase was carpeted, probably to prevent falls; painted white, and the steps creaked as we made our way up to the next level. Aside from the brief conversation we had at the service desk, those creaks were the only noise to break the deafening silence. It felt intrusive, like we were invading someone's home.

... which to an extent, we were.

We kept climbing until we reached the landing, and we were separated from the room by a railing and plexiglass. I couldn't tell if this was a recreation or if actual period pieces were used, but the result was a realistic depiction of a colonial bedroom.

(Betsy Ross's bedroom)

The bed seemed small, and curtains hung from the tall posts to keep the warmth in. Central heating and air didn't exist in the 1700s. Instead, there was a brick fireplace with an antique chair in front of it, and a 13-star American flag was draped artistically over it. We assumed this was where Betsy Ross slept. Through the window, we could see the 50-star American flag waving in the breeze, informing us we were on the upper level.

Beautiful wide plank wood floors met the stone hearth of the fireplace, and we observed an old bed warmer and tools for stoking the fire resting alongside it. There was a small table with a pitcher on it for daily washing, and a wall of cabinetry beside the fireplace. Everything was still, except for the flag we could see through the window, dancing in the wind.

It felt as though someone had stepped out to run a quick errand and would soon return.

On the opposite side was another bedroom display with a similar layout - bed with drapery that could be closed to trap the warmth, a table with a pitcher and a fireplace. This felt more cramped than the one we believed was Betsy's, but our pamphlets didn't do much to explain.

(Additional sleeping quarters)

We gathered that this building was used as both a business and a residence, with the shop managed on the ground floor and the sleeping quarters on the upper level.

Betsy Ross was an upholsterer.

(The upholstery shop)

When we descended the narrow, dizzying staircase to the level below, we viewed what we believed to be where Betsy worked. There was a table and chair beside the shelves of threads and supplies needed for her tasks, with what appeared to be a job-in-process on the table. On the other side of the room was a pile of wrapped parcels that seemed to be awaiting pick up by her customers.

This is where the flag was sewn, I thought to myself. I was fully aware of the story of how our first flag came to be when our country was born.

I was still struck by how quiet and still everything was. I realized I couldn't hear the customer service counter where we entered, and I thought for sure I ought to hear something

Maybe the employee had paperwork to fill out, I reasoned.

Over the entire duration of our tour, I had been snapping photos on my iPhone. I focused on how out of place this piece of technology felt within these walls, and I wondered for the first time if the reason for the silence was because we were being studied. Surveilled.

Two very different eras in time were clashing as they coexisted. Despite how warm it was in there, I could feel goosebumps prickling my skin.

It was time to go down to the cellar.

(Narrow, carpeted staircase)

First we noticed a large, deep brick fireplace. Inside and surrounding it was cookware. Stews and water was heated over the open flame, while breads were prepared on the nearby table. There was a wood hutch that held a display of old irons and tools often used in the 1700s. We followed a short hallway to the right.

(Cellar kitchen and work space)

"Oh, how do ye?" A young, black woman in period dress turned away from stoking kindling in a fireplace to quickly face us.

We jumped. From the moment we left the service desk we didn't encounter a soul, nor a sound, until we reached the cellar underground. My son and I exchanged a look of confusion. It took a minute for us to catch our breath.

"What's wrong with your clothes?" she asked.

Again we looked at each other, then down at our clothing. We were wearing jeans and sweatshirts, carrying our winter coats. The woman had on a floor length cotton dress, a white apron and a bonnet. She wore boots, and looked disapprovingly at my daughter and I in pants.

I was caught off guard. "We need to do laundry," I said quickly.



She seemed to accept this answer, and I reasoned again, she must be a re-enactor of some sort. "Where are you traveling from? We don't get many who come to call," she said.

Oh, she's good, I thought. "Minnesota."

Again, she appeared puzzled. She tried to repeat what I said, but struggled to pronounce it. I realized Minnesota didn't exist at the time Betsy Ross lived here, so I just said, "out west."

She nodded. "For what are you here?"

"Lacrosse tournament," I replied.

Another silence. I don't do well with awkward silences, so I tried to think of something to say to fill it. Finally I just said, business. It was met with another nod.

We looked around the room and noticed a set of very steep, very narrow stairs that lead up to the street. At the time, when flour or supplies were to be dropped off, the cellar doors would be opened and goods would be brought down. Since the cellar was underground, it was where a lot of these necessities were stored.

(Cellar stairs)

And since we were underground, there wasn't any natural light. It was a very different feeling than the rest of the house - odd. It was made even more surreal by the talents of this re-enactor. Still, I could feel every hair on my body begin to stand on end as the goosebumps spread.

"Well we must be going now," I said.

"Safe journey back west," she replied.

We turned on our heels and went back up the stairs. At the same time, the atmosphere seemed to return to that inexplicable stillness. Silence. I felt as though we had overstayed our welcome, and I was ready to honor that by getting the hell out.

The customer service desk and gift shop were to our right, so I ventured over to thank the employee.

"Did you enjoy the tour?" She smiled.

"Very much so, thank you," I replied. "The re-enactor in the cellar really made it special."

Now it was the employee who appeared puzzled, and I was again met with an awkward silence.

Confused, the employee looked me in the eye and said, "ma'am, we don't have re-enactors here."

Cross posted to Medium.

No comments