Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Elizabeth Boardman Otis 1796 ~ 1873

 

Among the women conspicuous by their leadership during the '40's and '50's none are more entitled to mention than Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis, of Boston, who after several years' residence abroad, undertook the task of lifting the social life of Boston from its old ruts of pretentious formality and exclusiveness, breaking up its stiffness and bringing the social life to a more enjoyable and democratic status. Only such an independent and courageous spirit as Mrs. Otis possessed would have dared such an undertaking. Mrs. Otis was the daughter of one of Boston's richest merchants.

Her name before her marriage was Elizabeth Boardman, and her husband, Harrison Gray Otis, was a nephew of James Otis and of Mercy Otis Warren. Several years after her marriage she was left a widow with three sons. At this time she became a social leader and it is said among her many admirers were Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.

In 1835 she went to Europe to educate her sons, and while there studied and became a ready conversationalist in several languages. The experience of these years in the flexible, lively, stimulating; intellectual circles of Europe had given Mrs. Otis convincing proof of what a woman might accomplish for a community if she handled the social circle with brains and independence. So, on her return to Boston, she set out at once to build up in her home a social circle where naturalness and simplicity should rule. At that time, elaborate heavy dinners were considered the proper social entertainment for elders and balls for the younger set.

There was very little informal visiting. Mrs. Otis swept all of this out of the way and ignored functions, banquets and balls, but instead opened her house every Saturday morning and every Thursday afternoon to her own set and many more invited guests. No aspiring worthy young writer, singer or artist of talent who fell in Mrs. Otis's way but was welcome in her circle. A big, wide-awake informal circle was soon about her, and instead of the previous form of entertainment, she substituted simply tea and cakes. No matter what the occasion, "tea and cakes" were all her guests received, and when entertaining even President Fillmore, Lord Elgin and many other dignitaries, tea and cakes were the only refreshment at the affairs given in their honor. But her innovations were founded on good sense and genuine love for people, and therefore they were a success from the beginning. Her book "The Barclays of Boston" embodies her ideas, and is a valuable document on the manners and customs of Boston in her time. The results of Mrs. Otis's stand were altogether beneficent and stimulating. Mrs. Otis's great passion was the life and character of George Washington.

On February 22nd her house was always thrown open and she entertained elaborately. It was her work that made that date a legal holiday in Massachusetts and gave the strongest impulse toward making it a national day. It was natural that she should take a leading part in the enterprise of buying Mr. Vernon for a national monument, and the money which completed the purchase of Mt Vernon was raised by a ball engineered by Mrs. Otis and given in the Boston

Theatre on March 4, 1859. She was also one of the leading spirits in the ball to raise the money for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument. The success of this affair was due largely to a woman, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, the best-known editor at that time among American women.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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