Early Childhood Education

Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer (1804-1894)

 

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was an American Transcendentalist, member of the Common School Movement, lecturer in the Concord School of Philosophy, and the leader of the campaign to establish kindergartens during the nineteenth century. Peabody opened the first English-speaking kindergarten in the United States in Boston in 1860. Her 1863 Guide to the Kindergarten and Moral Culture of Infancy, coauthored with her sister, Mary Tyler Peabody Mann, was widely considered the most authoritative work on the theory and practice of the kindergarten during the 1860s and 1870s.

The eldest of six children, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was born in Billerica, Massachusetts, in 1804 and grew up in Salem, Massachusetts. Her father, Dr. Nathaniel Peabody, was a teacher at Philips Andover Academy, who later studied medicine and dentistry at Harvard. Her mother, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, was the headmistress of a girl’s boarding school. Elizabeth received her education at her mother’s school and proved to be an exceptionally gifted student. At the age of sixteen, she became her mother’s assistant, went on to teach in Maine and Massachusetts, and later studied Greek with Ralph Waldo Emerson and history and philosophy with William Ellery Channing.

In 1825, Peabody and her sister Mary founded the Beacon Hill School in Boston, where they developed a curriculum designed to capture the child’s imagination through the study of literature, the arts, dramatic play, and creative writing. Based on her work at the school, Peabody authored a series of textbooks and guides for teachers in which she advocated an education of loving nurturance, example, and exploration. Bronson Alcott admired the series and asked her to join him at his experimental Temple School in Concord in 1834. Peabody published a favorable description of Alcott’s innovations in Record of a School in 1835. The following year, a public controversy erupted over Alcott’s classroom discussions of sex and the gospels. Although Peabody defended him, their collaboration ended in 1837.

Peabody returned to Boston and turned her attention to social and educational reform. She opened a bookstore to promote transcendentalist literature and make foreign-language texts (many of which she translated herself) more widely available, hosted literary discussions with radical Margaret Fuller, lent support to abolitionist and suffragist causes, and became editor of the Dial. She and Mary Peabody, later the wife of Horace Mann, became active in the Common School Movement. In 1859, Peabody read an article on the educational theory of Friedrich Froebel and the German Kindergarten and recognized a striking resemblance to her own philosophy of early childhood education. She immediately began to urge common schoolers to add kindergarten to their reform agenda. In I860, she and Mary Mann opened a kindergarten in Boston. The publication of their Guide to the Kindergarten in 1863 initiated the national Kindergarten Movement. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody became its acknowledged leader.

During the late 1860s, Peabody toured German schools and recruited Froebel’s students to work in model kindergartens in Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. She formed a national network of kindergarten teachers, lectured throughout the country, founded and edited the Kindergarten Messenger, and served as president of the American Froebel Union. She was appointed to the National Education Association’s Kindergarten Committee and in 1876 organized a kindergarten demonstration class for the American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Although her health began to fail in her later years, Peabody continued to work for the cause of kindergarten well into her eighties. She died in 1894.

Further Readings: Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer, and Mary Tyler Mann (1863). Guide to the kindergarten and moral culture of infancy. Boston: T. O. H. P. Burnham. Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer (1886). Lectures in the training schools for kindergartners. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company. Ronda, Bruce A. (1999). Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A reformer on her own terms. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Susan Douglas Franzosa