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Mon, 06.13.1831

Elizabeth Bowser, Artisan born

Elizabeth Harriet Stevens craft

*Elizabeth Bowser was born on this date in 1831. She was a Black seamstress, artisan, businesswoman, and philanthropist.

Born Elizabeth (Lizzie) Harriet Stevens, she lived in Philadelphia's Twelfth Ward with her husband, David Bustill Bowser, who ran a successful business. The couple manufactured memorabilia, regalia, and decorative objects for the many voluntary associations in the area. Their clients included black fraternal organizations like the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, volunteer fire brigades, and American Civil War relief organizations.

Lizzie used her skills as a seamstress to craft elaborate ceremonial collars, and David created decorative paintings on hats, banners, and other objects bearing insignia. On one collar in the National Museum of American History collection, the maker's mark reads "Mrs. D.B. Bowser Odd Fellows and Masonic Depot. Bowser and her husband had three children: Mary, Raphael, and Ida. Raphael Bowser followed his father's path and became a painter; Ida Elizabeth Bowser Asbury became a violinist and music teacher and was the first African American woman to earn a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. 

The couple held a prominent position in Philadelphia's black society and were known for their philanthropic contributions to charitable organizations. Their giving served an activist purpose; many of the groups they supported were meant to advance the social position of African Americans and compensate for the systematic exclusion of Black communities from public disaster relief. She was a member of the Household of Ruth, the women's branch of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. She was also an active member of the Ladies' Union Association of Philadelphia, a charitable organization founded during the American Civil War by free Black women. The Ladies' Union Association raised money to provide relief for formerly enslaved people and support Black soldiers returning from war.

Through her work with these organizations, Bowser became friends with diarist Emilie Frances Davis, with whom she socialized and attended Bible study classes. Bowser would often arrange sales of her husband's artworks to benefit the fundraising efforts of relief organizations. In May 1865, she raised $1200 in sales to benefit the Ladies' Union Association. Elizabeth Harriet Stevens Gray Bowser, active in the mid-19th century flourishing of Voluntary associations in Philadelphia as a supplier of decorative goods for organization members and as a contributor to charitable organizations, died on November 29, 1908.

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