Elizabeth Hart Jarvis was the eldest child of William Jarvis, an Episcopal minister, and Elizabeth Miller Hart, who was well-connected in Rhode Island’s social elite. In 1856 she married Samuel Colt, the world famous arms manufacturer and inventor of the Colt revolver. By this marriage, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt gained access to the restricted social circles of 19th-century Connecticut.
With Samuel Colt’s premature death in 1862 at the age of 47, Elizabeth Colt became one of the richest women in the United States, inheriting several million dollars and a controlling interest in Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company. Colt knew firsthand that wealth does not come with immunity to tragedy. She had already lost two children in infancy and, at the time of her husband’s death, had two young children and was pregnant with another. In the year following her husband’s death she would lose both her fourth and fifth children, leaving her with only one son, Caldwell Colt, who would survive into adulthood. In 1864, another tragedy struck: suspected Confederate sympathizers set fire to the Colt factory, burning it to the ground. Colt chose to rebuild, paying special attention to fire-proofing and adding a second story as well as recreating the iconic blue onion dome that had been destroyed.
Rather than withdraw from society or hide behind her wealth, Colt used both her position and wealth to play a leading role in countless Connecticut religious, social, art, and charitable organizations. Known affectionately as “The First Lady of Hartford,” she helped found and presided over the Union for Home Work, the Hartford Decorative Arts Society, the Connecticut Society of the Colonial Dames of America, the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Church, and the Hartford Soldiers’ Aid Society, for which she staged many fundraising theatrical performances. She is credited with raising over $1 million in a two-week period for the Hartford Soldiers’ Aid Society and with organizing Connecticut’s first Suffragette Convention in 1869. To honor her late husband, Elizabeth Colt built the Church of the Good Shepherd in 1869 intending it to be a place where owners, managers, and laborers could worship side-by-side. She continued to maintain tight control of the Colt factory for most of the forty-three years she outlived her husband.
In 1865 Colt began work on a formal gallery to be established on the second floor of Armswear, the elaborate Italinate villa she and her husband had built on Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford, south of the Wadsworth Atheneum. With the help of artist Frederic Church she began to collect paintings and sculpture and to commission landscape works by well-known New York artists like Thomas Cole, John Kensett, James Hamilton, William Beard, and William Bradford as well as Charles Loring Elliott, who painted monumental portraits of Samuel Colt and of Elizabeth Colt with her only surviving child.
By the end of her life, the Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt Collection had grown to over 600 individual American and European objets d’art. Colt bequeathed her collection to the Wadsworth Atheneum along with $50,000 to construct a wing in which to house the collection. It became the first wing in an American municipal museum to bear the name of a woman patron. But her generosity was not confined to her art collection. Elizabeth Colt bequeathed the grounds of the Colt estate to the city of Hartford for use as a park and designated that the house itself be used as a home for female dependents of Episcopal clergy and other “gentlewomen.”
Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt died in Hartford in 1905. She is buried along with her husband and children in Hartford’s historic Cedar Hill Cemetery.
During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform
When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.
Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”
The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.
In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.
Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.
An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.