J. L. Bell, always ahead of the curve on matters relating to 18th century America, alerted readers at Boston 1775 - even before NPR covered the story - of a move in Philadelphia to test and license historic tour guides to reduce the chances of fables being spread as gospel truth. Apparently Betsy Ross really didn't have three cats named "Red", "White" and "Blue". I am shocked, shocked I tell you!
This story reminds me of two contradictory bits of history presented as fact that I heard last month while up at Fort's William Henry and Ticonderoga, taking in the 250th commemoration of the Battle of Carillon. While reading something about the American Revolution today that I thought was unrelated, I came upon additional information that seemingly reconciles the others.
The issue at hand was the cost of a British redcoat's coat, and in particular the dyes used to give it that distinctive color. An interpreter at Fort William Henry said that red was an inexpensive color in the 1700s, while blue, which was used by the French, was quite costly. A reenactor at Ticonderoga, on the other hand, said that red was expensive, and by fielding an army in this rare hue, the British monarchs were making a powerful statement about the resources at their command.
In colonial America, there were natural sources that made good quality dyes yielding black, gray, brown and yellow shades. Blue came from the indigo plant, which was grown and processed in the Carolinas, the West Indies, and France (hence its suitability for the French Army, which nonetheless was uniformed largely in white during this period). A good red, however, was harder for a home dyer to make, with poke-berries juice used for stains but unsuitable for lasting color.
In Britain, though, there was a vegetable dye called "Madder Red", which was both inexpensive and faded. It had been in use for British uniforms since Parliament passed the New Model Army ordinance in 1645. In this discussion thread at the British Army Rumour Service, I note that
"Madder (Rubia tinctoria, Rubiaceae) was the dye used and has been
used since ancient times. One form of this dye is sometimes called Turkey
red. The dye is found in the root of the plant. The compound in the plant is
ruberythric acid. Alizarin (a compound derived from madder) is usually
used with an aluminum mordant. This dye was introduced into Europe in
the late Middle Ages. The dye often ran in the rain, so the white pants of
the uniform were sometimes a pinkish flush."
So far, it looks like the fellow at Fort William Henry was correct. But wait, there's more...
A rich scarlet color was also possible in the 18th century, though a luxury, through the use of the dried bodies of the female cochineal insect. According to "Dye History from 2600 BC to the 20th Century" by Susan C. Druding, the Maya paid a yearly tribute to the Aztecs that included over 400 bags of cochineal insects for dye. In 1630, a Dutch chemist named Drebbel combined cochineal and tin to make a brilliant scarlet die, and the following century an English dye house received a contract to dye the Buckingham Palace Guards uniforms with cochineal.
The Guards were elite soldiers, but could Great Britain really afford to dye all its soldiers' coats with cochineal? While reading David Hackett Fischer's "Paul Revere's Ride", I came upon the following:
"Officer's uniforms displayed many differences of social rank. Their coats were not died red but scarlet, a distinction that continues today in the dress uniforms of some British regiments. The costly scarlet dye, prepared from the dried bodies of female cochineal insects, preserved its color long after the cheaper red coats of the rank and file had faded to a dusty rose." (pg.122)
There is a nice illustration in Don Troiani's Soldiers of the American Revolution of General Cornwallis and a sentry at Yorktown that shows the difference in hues quite well. The General is in Cochineal Scarlet, and the solider in Madder Red. As a nice bonus, Wikipedia confirms its madder for the men, and scarlet for their betters.
So both tales have an element of truth, but need to be combined to get the full story.