Dressing the Bed: A Living Demonstration of 18th Century Needlework

Betsy Ross House
Philadelphia, PA

The Betsy Ross House is unique among peer museums nationally in its interpretation of the life of a working-class, eighteenth-century tradeswoman. The c. 1740 row house tells the story of Betsy Ross, her work in the upholstery trade, and her legacy as a flag-maker.

Dressing the Bed: A Living Demonstration of 18th Century Needlework had two goals. First, it planned to make new bed hangings for the room interpreted as Ross’s bedchamber, which was outdated as an exhibit space and needed a makeover. Secondly, this project sought to bring a historically accurate Betsy Ross to life, incorporating the scholarship of Dr. Marla Miller’s Betsy Ross and the Making of America and countering misconceptions about the historic site and the woman herself.

As an interpretive tool, Dressing the Bed expanded visitors’ understanding of Betsy Ross and her life. Through first-person interpretation, quality reproduction fabrics, and eighteenth-century needlework techniques, visitors experienced a more authentic representation of the type of work performed by women engaged in the colonial upholstery trade. The Betsy Ross first-person interpreters transformed fifty yards of fabric into a complete set of bed hangings, and also stitched new mattresses, pillows, sheets, and a sacking bottom. All the pieces were hand-sewn by the interpreters in the Upholstery Shop while the House was open to the public so visitors could see the process and engage with interpreters. Visitors enjoyed seeing the “behind the scenes” work as the Betsy Ross interpreters and the Collections Manager were in the bedroom fitting pieces and measuring cloth while interacting with visitors. They installed sections of the bed hangings as they were finished, and, over the course of the year, visitors viewed a continually changing, partially finished exhibit, something rarely seen in museums. The BRH staff felt strongly that this “bed in progress” led to more questions and a higher level of public engagement.

In addition, the House hosted two public sewing programs that allowed visitors to step into the interpretive space of the Upholstery Shop and engage on a closer level with the project. Stitch in Time events were held in March and October, with forty total participants. In each case, visitors were brought into Ross’s bedchamber to learn more about eighteenth-century beds and the pieces that make up the bed. Participants then moved into the Upholstery Shop for a brief lesson on colonial hand-sewing from our Betsy Ross interpreter, and finished by contributing their own stitches to the final project.