Briggs, Emily (Pomona) Edson

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BRIGGS, Emily (Pomona) Edson

Born 14 September 1830, Burton, Ohio; died 3 July 1910, Washington, D.C.

Wrote under: Olivia

Daughter of Robert and Mary Polly Umberfield Edson; married John R. Briggs, Jr., circa 1854

During the Civil War, Emily Edson Briggs's husband was a clerk in the U.S. Congress under John W. Forney, owner of theWashington Chronicle and Philadelphia Press. Forney asked her to write for the Philadelphia paper after he discovered she had written an anonymous letter on behalf of women government clerks.

Under the pseudonym Olivia, Briggs wrote social news columns for the Philadelphia Press from 1866 to 1882. In 1882 she became the first president of the short-lived Woman's National Press Association. By the 1880s, however, Briggs had given up journalism to become a well-known Washington hostess. In her old age she collected her favorite columns into a book, The Olivia Letters (1906).

Briggs's column established her as a leading "literary lady" of post-Civil War Washington, along with Mary Clemmer Ames, Sara Clarke Lippincott, and Mary Abigail Dodge. Unlike some of her contemporaries, however, Briggs restricted herself primarily to society news and issues affecting women. As a woman she felt she should not—or could not—compete with men. In a column on Charles Sumner, she explained: "This article is not written with the attempt to portray that which makes Charles Sumner the central figure of the American Senate. No woman possesses the gift to explore his mind…."

Given her pseudonym, "Olivia," by a Philadelphia editor, Briggs always wrote under it, although she made no attempt to hide her true identity. Leaving the narration of actual events to male correspondents, Briggs explained that her aim was to "depict the delicate life currents and details." To this end she composed "pen pictures" of leading political figures, made up lists of "matrimonial eligibles" among Capital bachelors, and covered the White House festivities.

Equivocal on woman suffrage, Briggs nevertheless covered suffrage conventions in minute—if not always flattering—detail. Although she was one of the first women offered admittance to the congressional press gallery, she did not make use of the privilege. She felt that, as a woman, she was not really welcome there, and she gained news from her social contacts with political figures. Conscious of the changes wrought by the war on the Capital's political atmosphere, Briggs expressed sympathy for freed blacks. Even in these more serious moments, however, she would ask wittily, "What business have they to be born? Isn't it a crime of the darkest dye?" Briggs claimed to look askance on society, warning readers, "All is glare, glitter and pomp." In view of her own career as a hostess, however, her comments may have been intended to assure readers who lacked access to society that they would not care to participate even if they could.

Valuable as a source of social history, The Olivia Letters contain reprints of columns on personalities involved in the Johnson impeachment trial and gossipy portrayals of other notables. Her writing suffers from typical Victorian failings—gushy sentiment and flowery metaphors. But Briggs merits attention because she was the first, and one of the best known, of a long line of Washington society reporters.


Beasley, M. H., The First Women Washington Correspondents (George Washington University Studies No. 4, 1976). Ingersoll, L. D., The Life of Horace Greeley (1873). Marzolf, M. T., Up From the Footnote (1977).

Reference Works:

NAW, 1607-1950 (1971).

Other reference:

Washington Evening Star (4 July 1910). WP (10 July 1994, 5 July 1910). Washington Times (1 Nov. 1903).