Harrison, Elizabeth (1849–1927)

views updated

Harrison, Elizabeth (1849–1927)

American educational reformer, author, and lecturer. Born on September 1, 1849, in Athens, Kentucky; died on October 31, 1927, in San Antonio, Texas; daughter of Isaac Webb and Elizabeth Thompson (Bullock) Harrison; studied with Halsey Ives, director of the St. Louis Art Museum (1882); studied with Susan E. Blow; studied with Maria Eraus-Boelté; studied abroad with Henrietta Breyman Schrader in Berlin and Baroness von Marenholtz-Bülow in Dresden.

Elizabeth Harrison was born in 1849 in Athens, Kentucky, one of five children raised in an intellectually stimulating environment where reading was a cherished pastime. When she was seven, the family moved to Davenport, Iowa, where Elizabeth and her sisters enjoyed staging plays of Biblical stories and other classics for the neighborhood children. She excelled in Davenport's public schools—graduating first in her class—although science was the only subject of real interest to her.

On a visit to Chicago, Harrison's interests broadened to include the fledgling kindergarten movement. She soon enrolled in Alice Harvey Whiting Putnam 's training classes for kindergarten teachers and graduated in 1880. After further training in Davenport, in New York City, and with Susan E. Blow in St. Louis, she settled in Chicago and established her career there. Together with Putnam, she founded the Chicago Kindergarten Club to provide teachers with a means to improve their teaching skills and to advance the kindergarten cause. Mothers were invited to join in discussion groups about education, and soon Harrison was lecturing throughout the area. Many of the elite families of the time participated in her discussions and she was able to persuade a group of them to underwrite a course of literary lectures conducted by Denton J. Snider, a philosopher, educator and critic.

In 1887, Harrison's training program became institutionalized as the Chicago Kindergarten Training School. She then studied abroad with Henrietta Breyman Schrader in Berlin and Baroness von Marenholtz-Bülow in Dresden. Under their influence, she changed the name of her school to the Chicago Kindergarten College and changed the curriculum to a three-year course. The school underwent several more name changes, including the National Kindergarten College (1912) and the National Kindergarten and Elementary College (1917). In 1930, after Harrison's death, it would become the National College of Education. Harrison, encouraged by the favorable public response to her programs, held national conferences for mothers in 1894, 1895, and 1896. These conferences paved the way for Alice McLellan Birney 's National Congress of Mothers, which later became the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. The Chicago Kindergarten Club and the Chicago Kindergarten College sponsored a lecture series of eminent scholars and educators, conducted from 1887 to 1894, under the name Chicago Literary Schools.

Elizabeth Harrison set high standards for her students, requiring a high school education or its equivalent for entry. Her three-year course of study included the humanities, sciences, social sciences, the arts, and kindergarten subjects. Until this time, average training schools accepted women with an eighth-grade education and provided only six months of study. Harrison's high standards made it difficult for the college to compete with other schools for students, and she often supported her school with earnings from lectures and book royalties. Despite financial difficulties, the school became a model for the highest standards of kindergarten education.

Harrison suffered frequent bouts of ill health but maintained a busy calendar of lecture tours, traveling throughout the nation addressing groups such as the International Kindergarten Union and the National Education Association. Her lecture series, published in 1890 as A Study of Child Nature, enjoyed more than 50 reprints.

In 1913, Harrison visited with Dr. Maria Montessori , observing her Casa dei Bambini in Rome. After this visit she wrote a report for the U.S. Bureau of Education, Montessori and the Kindergarten. Her writings were influential in her area of expertise and included A Vision of Dante (1891), In Story land (1895), Two Children of the Foot Hills (1900), Some Silent Teachers (1903), Misunderstood Children (1908), Offero, the Giant (1912), When Children Err (1916) and The Unseen Side of Child Life (1922).

Between her lecture schedule, her responsibilities as president of the college, her committee work and the stress of keeping the school financially sound, Harrison's health worsened. She had a heart attack in 1920, resigned her presidency and retired from teaching. Elizabeth Harrison died in San Antonio, Texas on October 31, 1927 and was buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

About this article

Harrison, Elizabeth (1849–1927)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Harrison, Elizabeth (1849–1927)