Ellet, E. F. (Elizabeth Fries), 1818-1877

Titles by this author
The practical housekeeper : a cyclopædia of domestic enconomy ... comprising five thousand practical receipts and maxims. Illustrated with five hun...

Elizabeth Ellet was a writer and historian best known today for her innovative historical accounts which focused on ordinary lives, especially those of women, rather than larger political and socio-economic events. She was born at Sodus Point, New York, the daughter of William Nixon Lummis and his second wife, Sarah Maxwell. Her mother was the daughter of Captain John Maxwell, who fought in the Revolutionary War. Her father was a successful Philadelphia doctor who had purchased his estate on the shores of Lake Ontario from Sir Pulteney, to whom it had been granted by the British crown. Showing intellectual promise at an early age, Ellet was educated at Aurora Female Seminary, where she excelled in French, German Italian and history. She published her first work, a literary translation, in 1834, began contributing poems to literary magazines, and published a volume of Poems, Translated and Original in 1835. Around this time, she married William Henry Ellet (1806 - 1859), a graduate of Columbia College in New York. The couple moved to Columbia, South Carolina in 1836, where William became a chemistry professor at South Carolina College, and won honors for inventing a cheap method for preparing guncotton, an explosive. Elizabeth published several books - The Characters of Schiller (1839), Scenes in the Life of Joanna of Sicily (1840), and Rambles about the Country (1840) - and continued contributing poems, translations, and essays on European literature to the American Monthly, the Southern Literary Messenger, and other periodicals.

Ellet was by this time a member of the New York City literati, and while on an extended visit there in 1845-46, she played a part in a notorious scandal. Accounts differ on all points, but in one version, Ellet had made the acquaintance of Edgar Allan Poe who was at the height of his fame with the publication of "The Raven." Ellet and Poe had spent time together discussing poetry and she and other literary women, chiefly Frances S. Osgood, sent him letters - possibly amorous ones. On a visit to Poe, Ellet claimed to have seen one of Osgood's billets-doux. She then advised Osgood that she should ask Poe to return Osgood's letters, implying that she had written with amorous indiscretion for a married woman. As a gesture of insult, Poe instead returned to Ellet her own letters. Ellet responded by sending her brother to collect the very same letters Poe had already given her. When Poe could not comply with the brother's request, the brother threatened him, and Poe went off to borrow a pistol to defend himself. While Poe never obtained a weapon, tongues wagged and most of literary New York sided with Ellet, and Poe, prone to nervous instability, claimed to have been suffering from temporary insanity. Ostracized from the salons at which Ellet was prominent, Poe soon moved out of Manhattan to the suburb of Fordham. Osgood's husband threatened Ellet with a libel suit, and Ellet made apologies to Osgood and quieted her remarks.

Around this time, Ellet began her grand project in historical writing that remains a milestone: the recording of women's contributions during the Revolutionary War. To have as complete an account as possible, Ellet searched out private, unpublished letters, and interviewed descendents of Revolutionary women, the first historian of the Revolution to do so. The result was a three-volume work entitled The Women of the American Revolution (Vol. I & II, 1848; Vol. III, 1850) and a summary work, Domestic History of the American Revolution (1850). A string of articles and books continued during and after this project; she contributed to Graham's, the Democratic Review, and the Saturday Evening Post, and she published Evenings at Woodlawn (1849), Family Pictures from the Bible (1849), Summer Rambles in the West (1853), and Pioneer Women of the West (1852).

She was an established, mature author when she turned her attention to domestic management, and wrote The Practical Housekeeper (1857). She announced in the Preface, "No complete system of Domestic Economy, within the limits of a convenient manual, has been published in this country." "Convenient manual" was possibly a criticism aimed at Catherine Beecher (also represented in this collection), whose weighty domestic manuals - which were nothing if not "complete" -- were appearing throughout the 1840's and 50's. Try as she may have to make her manual more convenient, The Practical Housekeeper still totaled 600 pages, and is filled not only with domestic advice, but also with references to philosophers, modern scientists, and ancient civilizations. True to its title, however, the encyclopedic guide is extremely well-organized, breaking down Domestic Economy into three parts: housekeeping, cooking, and drugstore-type concerns (soaps, perfumes, medical guide).

In 1849 or 1850, the Ellets had left South Carolina and moved permanently to New York, where William Ellet spent his final years as a chemical consultant for the Manhattan Gas Company. After his death in 1859, Ellet continued to write, publishing Women Artists in All Ages and Countries (1859), The Queens of American Society (1867), and The Court Circles of the Republic (1869), a look at the courtly life of eighteen presidents from Washington to Grant.

Unlike her contemporary, Lydia Maria Child (also represented in this collection), whose strong abolitionist stand created controversy, the politically moderate Ellet chose not to take sides on slavery, going so far as to underplay its role in her histories. She accepted women's traditional roles as mother and housekeeper, even as she recognized the need to record women's deeds and words as part of American history. She had no children of her own, but promoted charities for impoverished women and children, speaking in public to raise funds. An Episcopalian most of her life, she converted to Catholicism in her later years. She died in New York City on June 3, 1877.


  • Casper, Scott E., "An Uneasy Marriage of Sentiment and Scholarship: Elizabeth F. Ellet and the Domestic Origins of American Women's History," Journal of Women's History Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 1992).
  • Ellet, Elizabeth Fries Lummis, The Practical Housekeeper; A Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy. New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1857.
  • Gray, Janet, American National Biography. Vol.7. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.
  • "Obituary. Elizabeth Fries Ellet," New York Times, June 4, 1877.
  • Thomas, Dwight and David Jackson, The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849 (New York: G.K. Hall, 1995).
  • Wilson, Mary Tolford, Notable American Women 1607 - 1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 1. Ed. Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Written by Anne-Marie Rachman