Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

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Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894)


Kindergarten pioneer

Background. Looking back over the course of Elizabeth Palmer Pea-bodys life, every important development in her early years seems to have prepared her for a life in educational reform and a role as Americas 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 Elizabeths 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, Elizabeths 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 mothers method in her school. Not so much was poured inmore was brought out. Peabody followed in her mothers footsteps in one other important way: education was at the center of her life from an early age. Elizabeths 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. Peabodys life as a reformer was shaped very profoundly by the reform impulse that animated Bostons 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 churchs 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 childrens 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 Froebels 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 Peabodys developing ideas about childhood education. Peabody quickly became disillusioned with Alcotts 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 kindergartenthe first English-speaking one in the countryin Boston in 1860. She directed the school until 1867, when she traveled to Germany in order to study Froebels 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 freedmens education and Indian rights, and she continued her involvement with Bostons 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 Americas 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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PEABODY, Elizabeth Palmer

Born 16 May 1804, Billerica, Massachusetts; died 3 January 1894, Boston, Massachusetts

Daughter of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

The oldest of seven children, Elizabeth Peabody was educated by her mother, whose school for local children in Salem, Massachusetts, was dedicated to the principle that every child should be treated as a genius. In 1822 Peabody opened her own school in Boston and established her friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who tutored her in Greek. The school failed, and after two years as a private governess Peabody opened a school in Brookline, a Boston suburb.

Always responsive to "genius," Peabody soon established two more significant friendships. The first, with William Ellery Channing, whose daughter was enrolled in Peabody's school, shaped Peabody's views on education, philosophy, and religion. Peabody eventually became Channing's editor and prepared many of his sermons for the press. Friendship with Bronson Alcott, a leading transcendental philosopher, led Peabody to give up her own school and become his assistant in an experimental school in Boston.

Record of a School (1835) suggests the idealistic philosophy she and Alcott shared. The second edition (1836) attempts to answer the popular outcry against Alcott's discussion of childbirth in a conversation with the school children. Although his concern was to account for the creation of the individual soul, Victorian Boston was outraged he discussed childbirth at all. Peabody defended Alcott, but withdrew from his school and in July 1840 opened a bookshop in Boston, which soon became a center for the transcendental movement. Here Margaret Fuller held her conversations with women, the so-called Transcendental Club met, and its journal—The Dial—was published. When the Dial failed, it was succeeded by Peabody's short-lived journal, Aesthetic Papers. Though influential, the bookshop did not prosper, and closed in 1850.

Peabody taught for a time and through the 1850s campaigned for the adoption of Jozef Bem's chronological history charts in elementary and secondary schools. She also traveled widely to speak in favor of the abolition of slavery. In 1859 Peabody became acquainted with the system of kindergarten education developed by Friedrich Froebel in Germany. From then to the end of her life, often assisted by her sister Mary Tyler Peabody Mann, Peabody devoted herself to establishing kindergartens and recruiting kindergarten teachers throughout the U.S. In her eighties, still vigorous, Peabody lectured successfully at Bronson Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy.

Although she was learned and widely read, Peabody was not an effective writer. Pieces like her "Plan of the West Roxbury Community" (The Dial, March 1844) and "Language" (Aesthetic Papers, 1849) suffer from the vague, inflated diction often characteristic of transcendental essays. Record of a School has historical significance as a journal of Alcott's attempt to elicit evidence of an awareness of the Soul from very young children. Peabody's writings on kindergartens, especially The Moral Culture of Infancy (with her sister, 1863) indicate the connection between transcendentalism and this significant movement in modern education. Peabody's warm personal enthusiasms are reflected in her memoirs of Channing (Reminiscences of William Ellery Channing, D.D., 1877) and the painter Washington Allston (Last Evening with Allston, 1886).

Peabody was "an intellectual spinster who lived to become a Boston institution," according to Perry Miller (The Transcendentalists, 1950). Stout and plain, Peabody was eccentric and careless of her appearance. In old age, she is said to have traveled with no luggage but a toothbrush in her pocket and a nightgown under her dress. She is assumed to be the model for Miss Birdseye in Henry James' The Bostonians (1886).

Peabody was a central figure in the transcendental movement, the only woman other than Margaret Fuller to make a considerable intellectual contribution in this religious and philosophic forum. She was fortunate in her friendships with Jones Very, Horace Mann, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (who married her sister Sophia). Peabody's lifelong interest in the development and education of young children stimulated others to contribute to this field.

Other Works:

First Steps to the Study of History by J. M. Gerando (edited by Peabody, 1832). Self-Education (1832). Key to History (1833). The Water-Spirit (1833). Method of Spiritual Culture (1836). Aesthetic Papers (edited by Peabody, 1849). First Nursery Reading Book (1849). Blank Centuries Accompanying the Manual of the Polish-American System of Chronology (1850). Crimes of the House of Austria Against Mankind (1852). Chronological History of the United States (1856). A Sunday School Hymn Book (1857). Memorial of…Wesselhöft (1859). Universal History (1859). American Kindergarten (with M. T. P. Mann,1863). A Plea for Froebel's Kindergartens (1869). Blank Centuries for Monographs of History (1870). The Kindergarten Messenger (edited by Peabody, 1873-1877). Lectures on the Nursery School and Kindergarten (1874). Record of Mr. Alcott's School (1874). Manual of Universal History (1875). Kindergartens (1876). After Kindergarten—What? (1878). Female Education in Massachusetts (1884). Lectures in the Training Schools for Kindergarten (1886). Education in the Home, Kindergarten, and Primary School (1887). The Piutes (1887). Mother-Play and Nursery Songs by F. W. Froebel (edited by Peabody, 1906).


Baylor, R., "The Contribution of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody to Kindergarten Education in the United States," (dissertation, 1960). Bilbo, Q. N., "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Transcendentalist," (dissertation, 1932). Coultrap-McQuin, S., Doing Literary Business (1990). Gohdes, L. F., The Periodicals of American Transcendentalism (1931). Miller, P., The Transcendentalists (1950). Tharp, L. H., The Peabody Sisters of Salem (1950).

Reference works:

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

Other references:

New England Quarterly (Sept. 1942).


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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.

Further Reading

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).

Additional Sources

Tharp, Louise Hall, The Peabody sisters of Salem, Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. □


Elizabeth Palmer Peabody