Early Childhood Education

Blow, Susan Elizabeth (1843-1916)

 

Susan Elizabeth Blow was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1843 and is credited with establishing the first public, continuous kindergarten in the United States. Known as the “Mother of the Kindergarten,” Blow was recognized by her father for her intelligence and was supported by him throughout her life. She served as his secretary when he was Ambassador to Brazil and accompanied him on a tour of Europe in 1871. During that tour she was impressed by her observations of German kindergartens established by Friedrich Froebel. Trained in New York as a teacher at Miss Henrietta Haines’s private school, Blow was eager to return to St. Louis and establish a similar program for young children in the United States.

Blow used her family’s influence to convince the Superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools to open a kindergarten, based on the theory and practice of Frederick Froebel, in the new Des Peres Elementary School. That first kindergarten class in St. Louis met in the mornings during the 1873-1874 school year, with sixty-eight children, one paid teacher, and three volunteers. Blow made sure the tables and benches from the Froebel kindergartens that she had seen in Europe were duplicated for the classrooms in St. Louis. The reports of the first kindergarten classrooms indicated that children were better prepared to enter regular elementary school if they participated in the program run by Susan Blow. More kindergarten classrooms were added and a teacher training program was implemented to help prepare kindergarten teachers for St. Louis Public Schools and for schools across the United States.

Susan Blow soon returned to Miss Haines’s school in New York to study with Maria Boelte, a teacher who had studied under Froebel, and brought his philosophy and ideas to her work at Haines’s school. In 1985, Blow began taking her kindergarten method to other parts of the United States and into other countries. A special teaching certification was developed and issued by the St. Louis Public Schools for teachers completing the kindergarten training program. Teachers came from all over the United States to train with Blow and returned to their towns to establish kindergarten programs.

By 1884, in poor health with Graves Disease, Susan Blow left St. Louis to recuperate in Cazenovia, New York. In her later life, she wrote five books to discuss Froebel’s work and its application to the kindergartens she established in the United States. She continued her work as a member of the Advisory Board of the International Kindergarten Union and a lecturer on contemporary Kindergarten thought. She began lecturing at Columbia Teacher’s College in 1898, continuing until within three weeks of her death in 1916.

The Carondelt Historical Center in St. Louis, Missouri, maintains the Des Peres Elementary School as a museum featuring a kindergarten classroom with replicas of the benches, tables, and materials used to teach children enrolled in the kindergarten classes of 1873. Families donated samples of materials that their relatives created as students in the kindergartens directed by Susan Blow, including needle work, folded paper, and notebooks of children’s work. All twenty of the “gifts” in Froebel’s theory for the education of young children are represented in the display cases at the museum. In addition, diaries of Susan Blow and workbooks from apprentice teachers are displayed. There are also two stained glass windows, one of Froebel and one of Blow, originally made for display in the nearby Shepard Elementary School. Several of the schools used today still have evidence of the large rooms intended for use as kindergartens, proportioned to accommodate the large wooden tables that Blow had built for the classrooms. Wilkinson Elementary, built in 1922, has the original stained glass created to identify the kindergarten classrooms.

Further Readings: Harris, Nini (1983). The Carondelet Historic Center and Susan E. Blow: Preserving kindergarten history childhood education 59(5), 336-338; Menius, Joseph M. (1993). Susan Blow “mother of the kindergarten" Gateway to education: A pioneer in early childhood education. St. Clair, MO: Page One.

Susan Catapano