Wiggin, Kate Douglass

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WIGGIN, Kate Douglass

Born 28 September 1856, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died 24 August 1923, Harrow-on-Hill, England

Also wrote under: Mrs. Riggs

Daughter of Robert and Helen Dyer Smith; married Samuel Wiggin, 1881 (died 1889); George Riggs, 1895

Kate Douglass Wiggin was born to a prosperous Philadelphia lawyer and his wife, a native of Maine. Her childhood was spent in the village of Hollis, Maine, after the death of her father and her mother's remarriage. She was educated at home and then at various schools in New England. In the mid-1870s, she moved with her family to California, where they came on hard times.

Wiggin became interested in the new kindergarten movement and took a course under Emma Marwedel in Los Angeles, and then opened the Silver Street Kindergarten in a slum in San Francisco, the first free kindergarten in California. For a number of years, she was a national leader in the Kindergarten movement, and she began her own training school in San Francisco in 1880. To raise money for the free-kindergarten movement, Wiggin published privately two short sentimental novels, The Story of Patsy (1883) and The Birds' Christmas Carol (1887).

Her first husband, a lawyer, died in 1889. Wiggin had given up kindergarten work in 1884, and she began writing full time after the successful commercial publication of The Birds' Christmas Carol in 1889. She returned to the East Coast and lived in New York City and Hollis, giving readings from her works and traveling to Europe. Her second husband was a businessman. Among her New York circle were William Dean Howells, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Carolyn Wells. Wiggin suffered periodically from nervous exhaustion; the opening chapters of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) were written in a sanatorium.

The Birds' Christmas Carol became a seasonal classic, published in multiple editions in various languages. In this edifying tale, Carol Bird, a wealthy but sick ten-year-old, gives a Christmas dinner for the children of a poor family in the neighborhood, the Ruggles. Although the heroine dies after the children leave on Christmas night, the book's popularity did not rest on sentiment alone; the portrayal of the Ruggles family is realistic and humorous.

Two children's novels set in California, A Summer in a Canon (1889) and Polly Oliver's Problem (1893), are not very good, and the same may be said of a series of travel novels, most of which have Penelope Hamilton as the heroine. Wiggin is best known for stories set in Maine, and these are undoubtedly her best work.

Timothy's Quest (1890) and some early short stories have Maine backgrounds, but Wiggin only began to concentrate on regional material after the success of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Today this is considered a children's book, but it was first a bestselling adult novel. Set in a village similar to Hollis, in the Saco River valley, the story is a classic orphan story without the orphan: Rebecca, the daughter of a poor widow, is sent to live with two maiden aunts in order to be "made." In traditional fashion, she wins their hearts, even that of the stern Aunt Miranda. A spirited child, Rebecca accomplishes many things in the course of the story, including the saving of her family fortunes. She graduates from boarding school in a cheesecloth dress, but her time at school has been a success—she is class president. Rebecca's character and the local color of her background are both appealing. This story did not end with a marriage, but with only the hint of an attachment. There was no sequel, only a volume of "missing chapters," or stories about Rebecca set in the time of the first novel, The New Chronicles of Rebecca (1907).

Mother Carey's Chickens (1911) is another of Wiggin's popular New England novels. A more saccharine story than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, it tells how the Carey family, under the leadership of young Nancy, manages to survive economically after the death of their father. Other Maine stories with good regional description are another Christmas story, The Old Peabody Pew (1907), and Susanna and Sue (1909), which features a Shaker colony. The Story of Waitstill Baxter (1913) shows more mature character development than the average Wiggin novel. Set in the early-19th century, this novel of Saco valley life features a historical figure, the traveling evangelist Jacob Cochrane, and describes the disruption he brings to a family.

Wiggin's autobiography, My Garden of Memory (1923), is a charming and valuable document, revealing its author as a woman of spirit and sense. Several of her novels were filmed more than once. These movies mirror the popular modern conception of Wiggin as a silly sentimentalist, but her novels, slight as they are, belie that reputation. She was a chronicler of the romance of real life, not a romanticist. And while there is sentimentality in her earlier works, her major novels are free of it. Most of her heroines—Rebecca, Nancy Carey, Polly Oliver, Waitstill Baxter—are active, intelligent young women, unlike the Little Eva stereotype, Carol Bird. Wiggin argued for wholesomeness, not hypocrisy, in fiction, and her point of view was that of a sophisticated professional writer, not that of a sheltered matron. She was a popular writer who expressed what her contemporaries themselves thought of as "real life."

Other Works:

A Cathedral Courtship and Penelope's English Experiences (1893). The Village Watch-tower (1895). Marm Lisa (1896). Penelope's Progress (1898). Penelope's Irish Experiences (1901). Diary of a Goose Girl (1902). Rose o' the River (1905). Penelope's Postscripts (1915). The Romance of a Christmas Card (1916). Ladies in Waiting (1919). Creeping Jenny, and Other New England Stories (1924).

Fifteen books, some collection of stories and some about kindergartens, written with her sister, Nora Archibald Smith.


Benner, H., Kate Douglass Wiggin's Country of Childhood (1956). Smith, N., Kate Douglass Wiggin as Her Sister Knew Her (1925).

Reference works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Bookman (1910, 1924). Lamp (1905). London Bookman (1910). NEQ (June 1968).