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Schurz, Margarethe Meyer (1833–1876)

Schurz, Margarethe Meyer (1833–1876)

German-born American who inspired the kindergarten movement in the U.S. Born Margarethe Meyer on August 27, 1833, in Hamburg, Germany; died in New York City on March 15, 1876, of complications after the birth of her fifth child; daughter of Heinrich Meyer (a merchant-manufacturer); married Carl Schurz (1829–1906, an army officer and politician), on July 6, 1852; children: Agathe Schurz (b. 1853); Marianne Schurz ; Carl Lincoln Schurz; Herbert Schurz; and a daughter who died in infancy.

Born on August 27, 1833, Margarethe Meyer grew up in Hamburg, Germany, with her older sister and two older brothers. Her parents passed on their interest in education, music and liberal political thought to their daughter. At age 16, Margarethe attended lectures by the founder of kindergarten philosophy, Friedrich Froebel, and became a disciple of this educational approach. Other adherents to the kindergarten movement (the German kindergarten translates to "children's garden") were her sister Bertha Ronge and brother-in-law Johann Ronge, whom she joined in England during 1852. There, she assisted in the administration of their kindergarten school—the first in England.

Soon after her arrival, she met Carl Schurz, a German expatriate expelled for taking part in the 1848–49 German revolution. They were married in July 1852 and left England for America that fall, eventually settling in Watertown, Wisconsin. In a back room of their home, Margarethe Schurz opened what is often regarded as the first kindergarten in the United States. Following the theories of Froebel, she provided creative play opportunities for her first daughter Agathe Schurz and several other children in a structured German-language environment designed to allow them to teach themselves.

This kindergarten was short-lived, however, as the family moved again in the spring of 1857, and from that time forward Schurz had few opportunities to continue her own educational work. Her contribution to the movement came largely through her association with Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894) whom she met in Boston, Massachusetts, during 1859. Peabody shared Schurz's interest in education for young children, but had not yet heard of Froebel's philosophy. Drawing on Schurz's knowledge and support, as well as on a trip to Europe for additional training, Peabody founded her own kindergarten school in Boston in 1860, thereby giving rise to the kindergarten movement in the United States.

Although Schurz remained committed to the concept of and need for educational opportunities for small children, her husband's career as a Civil War general (1862–65), U.S. senator from Missouri (1869–75), and editor of the New York Evening Post (1881–83) would lead to several relocations. During the war, she supported his efforts by providing him with secretarial assistance, caring for their children, and even reading to President Abraham Lincoln a letter of her husband's which she carried from Union lines. Though her husband thrived in his adopted country, Schurz missed Germany and crossed the Atlantic four times to assuage her homesickness, the last trip being in the winter of 1875. A year later, she died at the family's home in New York City, age 42, as a result of complications from the birth of their fifth child.

sources:

Griffin, Lynne, and Kelly McCann. The Book of Women. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1992.

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

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Sally Cole-Misch , freelance writer, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

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