South elevation of The Maples, home of Emily Edson Briggs. Historic American Buildings Survey drawing. Library of Congress

Emily Edson Briggs of The Maples

November 9, 2015

On November 9, 2015, U.S. Senate historian emeritus Donald Ritchie presented an Overbeck History Lecture on the life and times of Emily Edson Briggs.

A leading Washington hostess in the late nineteenth century, Briggs won renown by writing a colorful, irreverent newspaper column under the pen name "Olivia," in which she presented the capital's political scene as social entertainment. During the Lincoln administration, Briggs became the first woman to report directly from the White House, and later she was among the first to be admitted to the congressional press gallery. She was elected founding president of the Women's National Press Association in 1882, and in 1906 a collection of her columns was published as The Olivia Letters.

Ritchie noted that during the latter part of her life, Briggs lived at The Maples, the grand old home at 630 South Carolina Avenue S.E. that eventually became Friendship House and, in 2015, a multi-unit residential development. The house was built in 1796 for the wealthy landowner William Duncanson, and it was later owned briefly by Francis Scott Key.

In addition to his discussion of Briggs, Ritchie described the plight of other nineteenth century women reporters, who faced major obstacles in their efforts to break into the world of Washington journalism.

Ritchie is the author of several books, including Reporting from Washington: A History of the Washington Press Corps and Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents, which includes a chapter on Briggs. He joined the Senate Historical Office in 1976 and served as U.S.Senate historian until his retirement in the spring of 2015. He is a former president of the Oral History Association and also served on the councils of the American Historical Association and the Society for History in the Federal Government. His historical commentaries have been heard frequently on C-SPAN, NPR and other news outlets.

Past Lectures