Shaw, Pauline Agassiz (1841–1917)

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Shaw, Pauline Agassiz (1841–1917)

Swiss-American philanthropist and advocate of early childhood education. Born Pauline Agassiz on February 6, 1841, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland; died of bronchial pneumonia on February 10, 1917, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts; daughter of Louis Agassiz (the naturalist) and Cécile (Braun) Agassiz; stepdaughter of Elizabeth Cary Agassiz; educated at her stepmother's school for girls in Boston; married Quincy Adams Shaw (a businessman), on November 13, 1860 (died 1908); children: Louis Agassiz; Pauline; Marian; Quincy Adams; Robert Gould.

The daughter of renowned paleontologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, Pauline Agassiz was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1841. Her father traveled to America to lecture at Harvard University in 1846, and he was still there two years later when her German-born mother Cécile Braun Agassiz died of tuberculosis. Pauline, as well as her older brother Alexander and older sister Ida Agassiz , was looked after by relatives until 1850, when Louis Agassiz married Elizabeth Cary Agassiz and the children traveled to live with them in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The household in which Pauline grew up was frequented by members of Harvard's vibrant intellectual community, and she was educated at the school for girls that Elizabeth Cary Agassiz began running in their home in 1855. Louis Agassiz taught there, as did a number of his fellow professors at Harvard, and the school quickly gained an excellent reputation; among Pauline's classmates was Clover Adams .

At age 19, Pauline married Quincy Adams Shaw, a wealthy Harvard graduate who had traveled through the Rockies with Francis Parkman (her sister Ida married Parkman). Quincy's mining investments with Pauline's brother would soon begin earning him one of the largest fortunes in Boston. This wealth enabled them and their five children to live in great style on an estate in what is now the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, with a view of Jamaica Pond, and allowed Pauline Shaw, long enamored of children's education, to devote herself to philanthropy in that field. Early childhood schooling was then something of a novelty: although the first English-language kindergarten in America had been opened by Elizabeth Peabody in Boston in 1860 amid some excitement, the idea of such a school had not caught on widely with the general public. With the money to back up her strong belief in the importance of early education, in 1877 Shaw opened two kindergartens in Boston. Within six years she was supporting financially and overseeing the general activities of 31 kindergartens scattered throughout the Boston area, a number of them housed within the public schools. In 1888, 14 of her schools were accepted into Boston's public school system, beginning the city's commitment to public kindergarten.

Involvement with the children of working-class parents had led Shaw to concern for their parents as well. One year after she had begun supporting her first kindergartens, she began organizing day nurseries for working mothers, and by the 1890s these day nurseries were full-fledged community centers. Located in poor areas of the city usually underserved by local government (and in an era all but devoid of public welfare programs), these "neighborhood houses" provided libraries, vocational training, health information, citizenship classes, and recreational facilities. In 1881, she also founded an industrial training school in the North End of Boston where public school children were taught manual arts, which seven years later led to her founding a training school for teachers of manual arts. In all her projects Shaw sought to eliminate racial distinctions and open doors for the poor and for immigrants. In 1901, she founded the Civic Service House in the North End, intended to provide civic training for immigrants. Impressed with the project, Frank Parsons, a Boston University professor, set up a school within the house to teach local workers English, industrial economics, and history. With Shaw's assent and funding, Parsons later organized the Vocation Bureau at the Civic Service House to provide guidance for Boston students considering career options. The Vocational Bureau continued assisting students for years, and also sparked a major educational innovation when the idea was championed by Harvard University's education department and public schools began regularly employing guidance counselors for students.

Shaw became a proponent of women's suffrage around the end of the 19th century, quietly contributing substantial sums to the cause if not actually marching in parades. Believing that achieving the vote would be important not only in itself but as a way to get women involved in civic causes, in 1901 she founded the Boston Equal Suffrage Association for Good Government, serving as its president for the rest of her life. The association's executive secretary, whose tireless lobbying for suffrage she funded, was Maud Wood Park . She also gave generous amounts to suffrage campaigns both in her home state and in other states, and helped keep afloat the Woman's Journal, the weekly suffrage paper published by Alice Stone Blackwell (sister of Lucy Stone ).

The beginning of World War I in 1914 reinforced Shaw's commitment to the cause of world peace, and she remained a staunch supporter of peace and suffrage organizations until her death on February 10, 1917. She had encouraged her children to follow her example of philanthropy, once noting in a letter to them simply, "I had too much." She used much of her wealth to improve the world around her and ameliorate the sufferings of those less fortunate, quietly and without a desire for applause or for the projects she funded to be named after her. In fall 2000, Pauline Agassiz Shaw was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, as a day-care pioneer.


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

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City