Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer (1804–1894)

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Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer (1804–1894)

American author, educator and social reformer who played a central role in the Transcendentalist movement and pioneered the idea of kindergarten education in the United States. Born Elizabeth Palmer Peabody in Billerica, Massachusetts, on May 16, 1804; died in Boston on January 3, 1894; daughter of Nathaniel Peabody (a doctor and dentist) and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1778–1853, an author and teacher); sister of Mary Peabody Mann (1806–1887) and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (1809–1871); aunt of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (1851–1926); never married.

Author of numerous books and articles on philosophy, theology and education; was the first female publisher in the U.S.; was active in abolitionist, Native American rights and women's suffrage movements; founded first kindergarten in America (1860).

Selected works:

First Steps to the Study of History (1832); A Record of a School (1835); Moral Culture of Infancy, and Kindergarten Guide (1863); Reminiscences of the Rev. William E. Channing (1880).

In the early 1840s, Boston was a city in intellectual turmoil. Inspired by democratic hopes, young people challenged inherited conventions and institutions. They were sure they could do better, and many drafted blueprints for a new society that would have no greed, no slavery, no inequality between the sexes, no injustice of any kind. Some proposed new religious faiths, others championed free love or vegetarianism, socialism or mesmerism. "What a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world!" marvelled Ralph Waldo Emerson, the man whose writings had inspired so many of these utopian dreams.

For those who wanted to join in on what Emerson called this "din of opinion and debate," there was one place to be, a bookshop on West Street run by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. The very fact that the store was owned and run by a woman was proof enough that here was a place devoted to radical new ideas. Inside the shop, walls were lined floor to ceiling with exciting books—the latest Romantic philosophy imported from Europe, the first, still obscure masterpieces of a new American literature, pamphlets promoting every radical cause. As exciting as the books were the patrons. William Ellery Channing, mentor to abolitionists and religious radicals, dropped by each day to read the papers. Emerson, Bronson Alcott and other Transcendentalists were regular customers. On Wednesday evening, Boston's best-educated women gathered to discuss feminism and philosophy with the great Margaret Fuller .

Elizabeth Peabody's West Street bookshop was a breeding ground for new ideas, an incubator for the literary movement we now honor with the name "the American Renaissance." To this movement, Peabody was not just a bookseller, but a guiding spirit. She had a keen eye for new talent, introduced people of like minds, and inspired the intellectual curiosity of all who crossed her path. As biographer Louise Hall Tharp put it, she always made it her business to know "what each customer had read and what each customer ought to read next." Long after closing time, Peabody stayed in the shop, discussing theology and literature with customers who were usually short on money, but long on enthusiasm. Though the bookshop on West Street lasted only a decade, it was just one example of Elizabeth Peabody's lifetime of devotion to learning. For over 70 years, she championed new, and sometimes controversial, reforms in the education of women and young children.

Though she cared little about such things, Elizabeth could trace her ancestry back to some of the earliest and most respectable families of colonial Boston. Her mother, also named Elizabeth, did care about her lineage. She was proud to be a Palmer, granddaughter of a wealthy man who had been a member of the Continental Congress and one of the city's greatest revolutionary patriots. At a time when higher education was denied to most girls, Elizabeth Palmer (Peabody) had educated herself, enjoying access to her grandfather's extensive library. She developed a passion for learning that she would one day pass on to her daughter, and was known by her friends as "the walking dictionary." But the Palmer family fortune had been unwisely invested, her parents died young, and she came of age with only memories of her family's past glories. To support herself, she became a teacher.

Elizabeth Palmer pinned her hopes of recovering her social status on her husband Nathaniel Peabody, a thoughtful and unassuming young man who aspired to become a doctor. While he attended classes at Harvard Medical School, she ran a girl's boarding school in their home in Billerica. There, in 1804, her daughter Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was born, the first of six children. Nathaniel proved a disappointment to his wife, however. He had little social ambition, and decided to pursue the less lucrative and less prestigious field of dentistry. At a time when most dentists simply pulled teeth, Nathaniel experimented with the novel idea of filling cavities. But customers were skeptical, and his practice in the family's new home in Salem always provided a rather marginal living for his growing family.

Perhaps frustrated by her husband's financial failures, Mrs. Peabody channeled her ambitions into her children. She began Elizabeth's education at a very young age, and perhaps most important, she taught her daughter to ignore her society's conventional view that the male-dominated fields of theology, philosophy, and politics were too difficult for delicate female minds. Mrs. Peabody was "a rock of strength and stability," writes historian Bruce Ronda, "a model for her daughter of both strength of character and maternal, self-sacrificial spirit."

In her teenage years, Elizabeth taught in her mother's school. At 19, she left home, briefly establishing her own school in Boston, and then working as a governess for a wealthy family in Maine. While there, she was courted by a young man who, when she rejected him, apparently committed suicide. The incident seemed to haunt her in later years. Coupled with her mother's less than enthusiastic endorsement of a married woman's lot in life, this may explain why Elizabeth never married. In 1825, she returned to Boston, and recruited her younger sister Mary Peabody (Mann) to help start a new school. By economizing, Elizabeth was able to support herself on very little, and still sent money home to support her parents. She also took a maternal interest in her youngest sister, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne , paying for painting lessons which enabled her to become an accomplished artist.

While teaching in Boston, Elizabeth became an ardent admirer of the Rev. William Ellery Channing, the leader of Boston's "Liberal" Christians. His preaching confirmed her own conclusion that human nature was essentially good, and that God wanted people to use this divine spark within as a guide to improve themselves and to reform the world's evils. Like many other young and idealistic Bostonians at the time, Elizabeth decided to answer his call to live a life fully devoted to spreading "Christian benevolence."

Channing and Elizabeth became lifelong friends. He was her most important mentor, guiding her studies while treating her as an intellectual equal. Channing's friendship gave Elizabeth confidence, and provided her with an introduction to the highest circles of Boston's intellectual elite. In 1827, she gave a series of history lectures to women audiences, making her the nation's first female lecturer. Ignoring criticisms that she was being "unfeminine," she offered the joys of higher learning to women who had always been denied that opportunity. Her vast knowledge of literature and philosophy, her infectious enthusiasm and her gift for conversation soon made her a fixture in Boston's intellectual life.

Peabody gave back to Channing as much as he had given her. At the time, he had not published his sermons, delivered from cryptic, hastily written notes. Though he was reluctant, Peabody insisted that she should be allowed to transcribe and edit his sermons for publication. Thanks to her painstaking efforts, Channing's ideas soon reached a much wider audience, advancing his own prestige and accelerating the growth of religious liberalism in New England.

In 1834, Elizabeth began to gather students for a new school. Again ignoring gender taboos, she planned to teach boys as well as girls. Then she met Bronson Alcott, a mystical philosopher and schoolteacher who had just arrived in Boston, searching for a new position as a teacher. (His daughter Louisa May Alcott had been born two years earlier.) To Peabody, he seemed "like an embodiment of light and yet calm, solemn and simple." Alcott believed that, before children were born, their souls already existed. When they came into this world, he said, children brought with them the insights and intuitions which they had carried over from this spiritual realm. His mission as an educator, he told Peabody, was to help students recover this innate religious and moral knowledge. To do this, he guided them through Socratic "conversations," teaching them to probe the inner recesses of their souls for these divine intuitions.

Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer (1778–1853)

American author and teacher. Name variations: Elizabeth Palmer. Born Elizabeth Palmer in 1778; died in 1853; married Nathaniel Peabody; children: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894); Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (1809–1871);Mary Peabody Mann .

Always excited by new ideas and happiest, as Tharp put it, "when giving more than she could afford," Peabody turned over her new school to Alcott. Since he was more interested in soul-searching than "book learning," she agreed to help him at his "Temple School" for a few hours a day, teaching the conventional academic subjects for a modest salary. On the first day of class, Alcott searched 20 eager young faces, and solemnly asked, "Which of you have gone inward and viewed yourselves?" None had, and so he began to lead them through daily sessions of journal writing and self-analysis. Peabody was so impressed by Alcott's method that she soon began to stay all day, in order to make a written record of the daily "conversations." The following year, she published the results as A Record of a School (1835). To the Transcendentalists who shared Alcott's decidedly unorthodox views about human nature, the book established him as an important figure. To others, it proved him a dangerous crackpot.

Peabody was beginning to have her own doubts about Alcott's method. She decided that he worked too hard on his students' spiritual development, while ignoring their physical and mental training. And she felt that his constant demand that children search their souls was making them too self-centered. "I think you are liable to injure the modesty and unconsciousness of good children," she told him, "by making them reflect too much upon their actual superiority." Making matters worse, Alcott never paid her a cent of her salary. She left the school in 1836, just as Alcott was preparing to publish a new collection of the transcripts which she had recorded.

While most mortals instinctively take care of number one, she alone totally neglected that important numeral, and spent all her life, all her strength … in the cause of others.

—Sarah Clarke

Peabody warned Alcott not to publish the book, or at least to edit out the "questionable parts." She was particularly worried about a conversation about Christ's miraculous birth which strayed into talk about biological birth. She advised Alcott that, to many readers, this would sound like sex education for young children, scandalous in Victorian Boston. He ignored her appeal and published Conversations With Children on the Gospels in 1836. Just as Peabody had predicted, the book provoked a storm of controversy. Parents withdrew their children, and Alcott was forced to close the Temple School. At her request, Peabody's name appeared nowhere in the book, but everyone knew that she was the anonymous "recorder." As a result, she was condemned as well, and found that she could no longer find a teaching position in Boston. Though badly used by Alcott, and full of her own doubts about his ideas, Elizabeth was one of the few who defended him against the public's vicious attack.

Driven from her profession, Peabody was characteristically undaunted. "I am … exceedingly trustful of the future," she wrote, and sought new avenues for her intellectual energies. She wrote articles for religious journals, calling for a radical Christian reform of society. "Why not begin to move the mountain of custom and convention?" she asked her readers. She continued to preside over "reading parties" for women, wrote books about history, and stayed abreast of the revolutionary ideas being developed by Europe's romantic philosophers. Because of her remarkable depth of learning, she was one of two women, along with Margaret Fuller, who were invited to join the Transcendentalists in their philosophical gatherings. In 1840, she opened her famous bookstore on West Street, making that spot the movement's Boston headquarters until the shop closed in 1850.

For a female to sell books was unprecedented. But Peabody decided to go further, publishing them as well. Her first venture was one of her friend Channing's abolitionist pamphlets. Though the book sold well, Peabody once again put her ideals ahead of her profits, and gave away most of the proceeds to the anti-slavery cause. A judicious critic, always anxious to encourage new talent, she also discovered the mystical poet Jones Very and published some of Nathaniel Hawthorne's earliest works. She became not only his publisher but also his sister-in-law when he married her youngest sister, Sophia. In 1841, Peabody became publisher of the Dial, the Transcendentalists' journal. Though carefully managing the magazine's small assets, she could not make it pay, and had to sell out to another publisher, who soon abandoned the project entirely. Thought short-lived, the Dial is now considered a major landmark in American literary history.

Like many New England intellectuals, Elizabeth became increasingly absorbed in the antislavery cause in the decade before the Civil War. Risking mob violence, she attended abolitionist meetings and wrote articles denouncing slavery. In 1859, after John Brown's failed attempt to start a slave revolt at Harper's Ferry, she traveled to Virginia to plead with the governor, in a vain attempt to save one of Brown's accomplices from the gallows.

When war broke out in 1861, and the Union army faltered, Peabody made another journey South, this time to report to Abraham Lincoln the dissatisfaction that many of his New England supporters were feeling about his execution of the war. Both parties left that meeting impressed by the other. While in Washington, Peabody became concerned about the plight of the many slave children who had been orphaned by the war, after she saw hundreds of them wandering, hungry and

scared, on the city's streets. She organized an orphanage and school for these children, found volunteer teachers, and raised over $1,000 for construction.

After the war, Peabody found new causes to champion. Working with Julia Ward Howe , she organized women's suffrage meetings. And, moved by tales of injustice against the Piute Indians, she raised money to help the tribe build schools. But her real passion in the postwar years was kindergartening, a new approach to early childhood education developed in the 1850s by a German named Friedrich Froebel. Froebel criticized schools for placing too much emphasis on discipline and academic achievement, especially with young children. Play, Froebel wrote, was a more natural and enjoyable way for children to learn, and he developed ways to teach young ones by using games, physical activities such as gardening, and songs and stories.

In 40 years of teaching and writing about education, Peabody had arrived at many of Froebel's conclusions on her own. Her own mother had been a firm believer in the importance of early childhood education. And, as a Transcendentalist educator, Peabody shared Froebel's view that the natural instincts of children are healthy and sound, that they respond better to love and nurture than to stern discipline, and that true education should develop not only the mind and body but, most important, the spirit. Excited by the way Froebel had put these ideas into practice, she started the first kindergarten class in America in 1860, in partnership with her sister Mary Peabody Mann, the widow of another famous New England educator, Horace Mann.

For the next three decades, Elizabeth devoted much of her time to spreading the kindergarten gospel. She published a journal called the Kindergarten Messenger, toured the country recruiting talented young women for teachers, traveled to Germany to learn more about Froebel's schools, gave countless lectures and wrote many articles and books about the value of kindergartens. Through her efforts, kindergarten schools and teacher-training programs were established all around the country. Though a new generation of kindergarten leaders had less interest in the spiritual idealism of the movement's 19th-century founders, Froebel's method was eventually adopted by most public schools in the nation.

All through her 80s, Elizabeth remained active, still writing, promoting kindergartens and, now reconciled with Alcott, lecturing about literature and education at his Concord School of Philosophy. In the eyes of some Gilded Age Bostonians, including the young novelist Henry James, Peabody was a comical and eccentric figure, a caricature of the city's faded golden age of starry-eyed do-gooders. She was oblivious to matters of fashion and propriety, her large frame usually draped in a simple and rumpled old black dress, long out of style. She charged around Boston, raising funds and recruiting her friends for new causes, always overflowing with ideas and ready to talk about Chinese grammar or Milton's poetry or Froebel's philosophy.

Though some laughed, many more honored her as the "grandmother of Boston." To them, she was a symbol of all that was noble and courageous about the New England conscience. For 70 years, she had remained true to her convictions, even when society had criticized her as "unfeminine" or denounced her as a dangerous radical. Still more, she had never been embittered by her setbacks, never stopped serving others and believing that, through education, society itself could be transformed. In 1894, at the age of 90, she went to her grave still sure that people were essentially good, still hoping for the day when men and women would work together to fulfill what she called "Christ's Idea of Society."


Roberts, Josephine E. "Elizabeth Peabody and the Temple School," in New England Quarterly. September 1942.

Ronda, Bruce A., ed. Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: American Renaissance Woman. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

Snyder, Agnes. Dauntless Women in Childhood Education, 1856–1931. Washington, DC: Association for Childhood Education International, 1972.

Tharp, Louise Hall. The Peabody Sisters of Salem. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1950.

suggested reading:

Rose, Anne C. Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830–1850. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

Ernest Freeberg , Ph.D. in American History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer (1804–1894)

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