Early Childhood Education

Wiggin, Kate Douglas (1855-1923)

 

Kate Douglas Wiggin was an educational reformer and novelist, an activist in the nineteenth-century Kindergarten Movement, and the author of the children’s classic Rebecca ofSunnybrookFarm. In 1878, she became the headteacher at the first free kindergarten in San Francisco and in 1879 founded the California Teacher Training School. During the 1880s, Wiggin wrote articles on early childhood curricula and pedagogy, lectured on children’s rights and welfare, and published collections of stories, songs, and games for children. In the 1890s she traveled the Chautauqua lecture circuit, participated in the kindergarten demonstrations at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and spoke before the National Education Association. By the turn of the century, she was part of intellectual and social circles that included most of the notable educators, authors, and artists of her day.

Kate Douglas Wiggin, the daughter of Helen Elizabeth Dyer Smith and Robert Noah Smith, was born Katharine D. Smith. She spent her early childhood in Philadelphia, where her father was attempting to establish a career in law. When his efforts proved unsuccessful, and the family returned to their native state of Maine in the late 1850s. Robert deserted the family in 1860. In 1862, Kate’s mother married Dr. Albion K.P. Bradbury. During the remainder of her childhood, the Bradburys lived a comfortable life in the village of Hollis, in southern Maine. In 1873 they moved to California. Two years later Albion Bradbury died, leaving the family in debt. Wiggin’s career in education began when she decided to enter teaching in order to help support her family.

Wiggin studied kindergarten methods in Los Angeles with Emma Marwedel, a leading disciple of Friedrich Froebel and a protege of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. When she completed her training in 1878 she became head teacher of the newly founded Silver Street Kindergarten in the impoverished Tar Flats district of San Francisco. To meet the needs of her students, Wiggin extended her activities within the community, offering classes, counseling, and social services to the families of Tar Flats. As a result, Silver Street became an early version of the neighborhood settlement house that was popularized by Jane Addams a decade later. Wiggin’s kindergarten training and work at Silver Street connected her to an educational reform network that extended from Elizabeth Peabody’s office of The Kindergarten Messenger in Boston to the flamboyant Sarah Cooper’s International Kindergarten Association in Los Angeles. She became committed to the cause, taught, lectured, and—unusual for a woman in the 1870s—took part in public debates advocating for child welfare. During the summer months she traveled across the country visiting schools, attending teachers’ institutes, and giving demonstration lessons. In 1881, she married Samuel Bradley Wiggin and gave up classroom teaching. However, she continued to give lectures and direct teacher training at Silver Street until 1893.

In the late1880s the Wiggins moved to New York City and Kate Douglas Wiggin began to write novels depicting the natural wisdom and social plight of children. Her first novel, The Birds Christmas Carol, came out in 1888 and was an instant success. Her success was tempered, however, by the sudden unexpected death of Samuel Wiggin in 1889. For the next six years, Wiggin supported herself through writing, lecturing on kindergarten, and giving public readings. During this time, she published a collection of her lectures, The Rights of Children: A Book of Nursery Logic (1892), with her sister Nora Archibald Smith as well as two novels that had a significant impact within the national kindergarten network: Timothy’s Quest (1890), which dealt with the hardships of homeless children, and The Story of Patsy (1891), about a child with special needs. By 1894, Wiggin had become a well-known author and was able to purchase a summerhouse in her hometown of Hollis, Maine.

Kate Douglas Wiggin married George Christopher Riggs in 1895 and retired from active involvement in the Kindergarten Movement. However, she retained Wiggin as her professional name and continued her writing career. In 1903, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm made her an international celebrity. In its first three months, Rebecca sold 125,000 copies. It became a national bestseller, was adapted for the theater in both New York and London, and was translated into fourteen languages. Until her death in England in 1923, Kate Douglas Wiggin continued to write collections for children, humorous travelogues, and novels and short stories based on her childhood in Maine.

Further Readings: Benner, Helen Frances (1956). Kate Douglas Wiggin’s country of childhood. Orono, ME: University of Maine Press; Wiggin, Kate Douglas (1888). The birds Christmas carol. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company; Wiggin, Kate Douglas (1892). Children’s rights: A book of nursery logic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company; Wiggin, Kate Douglas (1903). Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company; Wiggin, Kate Douglas (1924). My garden of memory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company.

Susan Douglas Franzosa