Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer (1804-1894)
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894)
Background. Looking back over the course of Elizabeth Palmer Pea-body’s life, every important development in her early years seems to have prepared her for a life in educational reform and a role as America’s foremost advocate of kindergarten education. Her mother, Elizabeth Palmer, was an “independent, well educated” woman who managed a boardinghouse for students in Atkinson, New Hampshire, and went by the name of the “Walking Dictionary” because her extensive reading enabled her to answer all questions put to her by the boarders. Palmer married Nathaniel Peabody, a teacher at the academy, in November 1802 and moved to Andover, Massachusetts, where they administered the North Andover Free School. In 1804 they moved again, to Billerica, Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was born on 16 May. There Elizabeth’s mother established a boarding school for girls but abandoned it after two years and moved again to Cambridge and finally to Salem, where Peabody spent the remainder of her childhood. In Salem, Elizabeth’s mother established a school for children and pioneered an innovative approach to early childhood education that would make a lasting impression on her daughter. “It seems to me,” she remarked some years later, “that the self-activity of the mind was cultivated by my mother’s method in her school. Not so much was poured in—more was brought out.” Peabody followed in her mother’s footsteps in one other important way: education was at the center of her life from an early age. Elizabeth’s father instructed her in Latin, and she eventually learned ten other languages; by 1820, at the age of sixteen, she had established her own school in Lancaster, Massachusetts.
The Unitarian Legacy. Peabody’s life as a reformer was shaped very profoundly by the reform impulse that animated Boston’s social and intellectual elite from the 1830s through the third quarter of the nineteenth century. She was raised, as Peabody herself put it, “in the bosom of Unitarianism,” at a time when deep philosophical and religious differences within the Unitarian Church itself were generating a lively intellectual ferment and spilling over into animated discussions about the need for reform in American society. (Unitarianism stressed individual freedom of belief, the free use of reason in religion, a united world community, and liberal social action.) Some Unitarians charged that their doctrine was becoming a “religion of the commercial classes,” and as a result the church’s tradition of tolerance increasingly gave way to attempts to stop reform, to “set limits on free thought and inquiry.”
Channing and Alcott. Peabody came of age just as this schism reached its peak, and as a young adult she straddled both sides of the debate, maintaining relationships with individuals who were at the center of the controversy. Probably the single individual who exerted the greatest influence upon Peabody was William Ellery Channing. Peabody first came into contact with the great Unitarian leader when she moved to Brookline in 1825 and opened a girls’ school there. A year later she convinced Channing to allow her to publish a collection of his sermons and eased into a role as his unpaid personal secretary. Interestingly, given her later devotion to children’s education, one of the many things that impressed Peabody about Channing was his manner with children. “He treats children with the greatest consideration,” she wrote in 1825, “and evidently enjoys their conversation, and studies it to see what it indicates of the yet Unfallen nature. He will never tire, I see, of the observation of children of which I am so fond….” A half-century later, when she introduced Friedrich Froebel’s kindergarten idea to New England mothers, she recalled that “this is nothing new; more than fifty years ago Dr. Channing taught us to live with our children and to look upon them as capable of the life of Christ.” In 1834 Peabody became an assistant to educator Amos Bronson Alcott at the private Temple School in Boston, an experience that left its mark on Peabody’s developing ideas about childhood education. Peabody quickly became disillusioned with Alcott’s introspective classroom methods, objecting to his insistence that young children keep detailed journals and bemoaning the lack of physical stimulation.
Importing the Kindergarten. Her lifelong association with schooling and close acquaintance with some of the foremost educational reformers (including Horace Mann, with whom she was romantically involved before he married her sister Mary) made Peabody receptive to the early childhood education concepts being imported by German immigrants after midcentury. In 1859 Peabody met Carl and Margarethe Schurz and was impressed with their young daughter Agathe, who had attended the kindergarten opened several years earlier by her mother in Watertown, Wisconsin. “That little girl of yours is a miracle, so childlike and unconscious, and yet so wise and able, attracting and ruling the children, who seem nothing short of entranced,” she reportedly told Margarethe Schurz. “No miracle, but only brought up in a kindergarten,” Schurz replied, “a garden whose plants are human.” After acquainting herself with the ideas of Froebel, founder of the kindergarten movement, Peabody opened her own kindergarten—the first English-speaking one in the country—in Boston in 1860. She directed the school until 1867, when she traveled to Germany in order to study Froebel’s work firsthand, and, after her return fifteen months later, devoted the next twenty-five years of her life to this revolutionary approach to childhood education. Between 1873 and 1875 she published the magazine Kindergarten Messenger.
Boston Reform. In addition to her tireless work on behalf of the kindergarten movement, Peabody was associated in the post-Civil War period with the causes of freedmen’s education and Indian rights, and she continued her involvement with Boston’s intellectual reform milieu. By the end of the 1870s she had earned a reputation as the “grandmother of Boston reform,” and in The Bostonians (1886), novelist Henry James reportedly based his character “Miss Birdseye” on a rather unflattering portrait of Peabody. She lived long enough not only to see the kindergarten grow from being a marginal experiment among immigrants and the well-to-do to a permanent feature in America’s urban public schools, but even to hear many of her ideas attacked by a new generation of educators as oldfashioned and outdated. Peabody died in 1894 in Jamaica Plains, Long Island, New York.
Bruce A. Ronda, ed., Letters of Elizabeth Peabody, American Renaissance Woman (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984);
Louis H. Tharp, The Peabody Sisters of Salem (Boston: Little, Brown, 1950).
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Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894), an American educator, author, and prominent member of the New England intellectual community, promoted the new kindergarten movement in the United States.
Elizabeth Peabody was born in Billerica, Mass., on May 16, 1804. Her sister Mary married educator Horace Mann, and her sister Sophia married author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Elizabeth's early education was at her mother's schools in Salem and Lancaster, Mass., where, although still a child, she did much of the instruction. This experience nourished her sense of mission and reform.
Beginning in 1820, Peabody made a number of unsuccessful attempts to establish her own schools, meanwhile serving as unpaid secretary to William Ellery Channing, the Unitarian leader. Her Reminiscences of William Ellery Channing, D.D. (1880) discloses the extensive influence of Channing on her career and educational thought. In 1834 she became Bronson Alcott's assistant in the famous Temple School in Boston, described in her Record of a School (1835). When it closed, she opened a bookstore and publishing business which provided an outlet for the early efforts of Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. The store endured for 10 years, becoming a transcendentalist salon. In addition, in 1842-1843 she published the Dial, a journal of transcendentalist opinion.
Peabody returned to her first interest, education, in 1845. Although teaching, she found time to write grammar and history texts and, in 1849, to establish a short-lived literary journal, Aesthetic Papers. She also toured to promote the study of history and wrote the Chronological History of the United States (1865).
Increasingly Peabody's attention turned to the education of the very young, and from 1860 to 1880 she devoted herself to organizing kindergartens along lines established by the German educator Friedrich Froebel. Her purpose was to develop children "morally and spiritually as well as intellectually" and "to awaken the feelings of harmony, beauty, and conscience" in the pupils. Her efforts resulted in a publicly supported kindergarten in Boston in 1860, the first in the country. But uncertainty about the institutions's effectiveness led her to make a pilgrimage to Germany in 1867 to observe Froebel's disciples. After returning she furthered the cause through public lectures and, from 1873 to 1875, as publisher of the Kindergarten Messenger.
Peabody's remaining years were absorbed in championing Native American education, lecturing in Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy, and writing. Despite failing vision she finished Last Evening with Allston (1886), a tribute to the Boston painter and poet Washington Allston, and a collection of her earlier essays. She died on Jan. 3, 1894.
Ruth M. Baylor, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: Kindergarten Pioneer (1965), is a thoroughly documented study with an excellent bibliography. Louise H. Tharp, The Peabody Sisters of Salem (1950), is a more popular treatment and, although sometimes impressionistic, is well written. See also the essay on Miss Peabody in Gladys Brooks, Three Wise Virgins (1957).
Tharp, Louise Hall, The Peabody sisters of Salem, Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. □
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Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (pē´bädē, –bədē), 1804–94, American educator, lecturer, and reformer, b. Billerica, Mass. The Peabody family moved (c.1809) to Salem, where the father began practicing dentistry. Of the three Peabody sisters, the second, Mary, married Horace Mann, and the youngest, Sophia, married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Elizabeth, after a period as governess in Hallowell, Maine, with her sister Mary, established a school for girls in what is now Brookline, Mass. Although she was an inspired teacher, she was a poor businesswoman, and her ventures were short-lived. After giving up this school she wrote a series of history textbooks and became a successful lecturer on history. She assisted Bronson Alcott in his Temple School and created an annotated transcript of conversations regarding his educational theories in Record of a School (1835). Her path crossed those of most of the great New Englanders of her day—Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Henry David Thoreau, and many others.
The bookshop Peabody opened in Boston in 1840 was a literary center. Margaret Fuller held her conversation classes there, and Elizabeth soon found herself a publisher as well as a bookseller; the transcendental magazine, the Dial, pamphlets of the Anti-Slavery Society, and several of Hawthorne's early works were published by her. Of a projected periodical, Aesthetic Papers, only one number appeared, in 1849. After closing her bookshop she traveled about, lecturing and selling historical charts. An ardent abolitionist, Elizabeth went to Richmond in 1859 to plead unsuccessfully with the governor of Virginia for the life of one of John Brown's aides at Harpers Ferry. In Boston she opened (1861) one of the first kindergartens in the country. With her sister Mary she wrote Moral Culture of Infancy and Kindergarten Guide (1866). In 1867–68 she studied Froebel's methods in Germany and on her return she established a Froebel Union and opened the first kindergarten training school in the country. From then on kindergarten training was the cause that took her traveling about the country. Two years after her death a Boston settlement, Elizabeth Peabody House, was established as a memorial; it moved to Somerville, Mass., in the 1950s and is still in operation.
See L. H. Tharp, The Peabody Sisters of Salem (1950); study by R. M. Baylor (1965); M. Marshall, The Peabody Sisters (2005).
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