Putnam, Alice Whiting (1841–1919)

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Putnam, Alice Whiting (1841–1919)

American educator who used the theories of Friedrich Froebel to help establish the kindergarten movement in Chicago. Born Alice Harvey Whiting on January 18, 1841, in Chicago, Illinois; died of nephritis on January 19, 1919, in Chicago; daughter of William Loring Whiting (a commission merchant and a founder of the Chicago Board of Trade) and Mary (Starr) Whiting; attended a private school run by her mother and sister and then schooled at Dearborn Seminary; married Joseph Robie Putnam (in real estate), on May 20, 1868; children: Charlotte Putnam; Alice Putnam; Helen Putnam; Henry Sibley Putnam.

Alice Putnam was born in Chicago in 1841, the youngest of three daughters of William Loring Whiting, a founder of the Chicago Board of Trade, and Mary Starr Whiting . Her family's wealth made it possible for her to attend private schools, including one run by her mother and sister, and the nearby Dearborn Seminary.

Putnam first became interested in the kindergarten movement early in her marriage while trying to find quality educational opportunities for the two eldest of her four children. She was attracted by Friedrich Froebel's educational theories relating to the importance of kindergartens and enrolled at a training school in Columbus, Ohio, to learn more about them. After she graduated, she opened a kindergarten in her Chicago home dedicated to promoting self-expression and social interaction in her young charges. This small beginning created enough interest and support to generate two related organizations in Chicago. Putnam took on the task of supervising the training of kindergarten teachers for the Chicago Froebel Association for 30 years, beginning in 1880. The 800-plus graduates of the school spread its philosophy throughout the United States and abroad.

Despite the greater recognition of the importance of kindergartens, the movement still had not received authorization by the Chicago Board of Education to become part of the public school system. However, Putnam's diplomacy resulted in the board permitting a test kindergarten class in a public school in 1886. Six years later, the number of kindergartens in public schools had grown to ten; they proved so successful that the Board of Education agreed to incorporate them into the city system. Soon enough, the establishment of public school kindergartens fell entirely under the jurisdiction of the board.

Putnam did not ease up on her kindergarten activities with this victory, but continued to contribute to the movement through her participation in the Chicago Kindergarten Club, which she and Elizabeth Harrison founded in 1883. In addition to acting as president of the club, Putnam assumed the same role in the International Kindergarten Union. In 1906, she became a reader in education at the University of Chicago, offering a course for mothers and a course on kindergarten theory.

In her later years, Putnam became nearsighted and overweight, and illness eventually forced her to give up the superintendency of the Froebel Association Training School in 1910 and her university courses during the 1916–17 school term. She spent her last years with her children and grandchildren in Pennsylvania and New York. She returned to Chicago some weeks before her death from nephritis on January 19, 1919. She was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

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

Jo Anne Anne , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont