The educator, publisher, and reformer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894) was inseparable from the circle of writers and reformers known as Transcendentalists in mid-nineteenth century Boston. Her lasting achievement, however, wasn’t her advocacy of Transcendental philosophy or even her strong support for a broad range of social reforms. It was her introduction of kindergarten to the United States.
Born 200 years ago in Billerica, Massachusetts, Peabody grew up in the heyday of Unitarianism’s influence in Massachusetts. She remembered hearing William Ellery Channing, the minister of Boston’s Federal Street Church and the leading advocate of Unitarianism, preach for the first time when she was a girl. When she moved to Boston in her early twenties, she became his disciple and scribe, preparing many of Channing’s sermons for publication. In a Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography essay on Peabody and her sisters, Susan Ritchie writes that “Channing walked with her every Saturday in order to test out his sermon topics with her.”
Peabody was a lifelong student. She learned ten languages. She cultivated friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Theodore Parker, and many others who advocated new ideas and human perfectibility. She opened her first school when she was a teenager and tried a variety of experimental educational models. She worked with Alcott (Louisa May Alcott’s father) in his Boston school for children from 1834 to 1836; almost fifty years later, she was teaching in his Concord School of Philosophy for adults.
Throughout the 1840s, Peabody ran a bookstore in Boston that served as a salon for Transcendentalists and reformers. Her store supplied many of the foreign-language books that fed the Transcendentalist movement. Brook Farm, the utopian community later satirized in The Blithedale Romance by Hawthorne (one of its erstwhile participants), was planned there. Margaret Fuller hosted her conversations for women in the store. Peabody also published books, making her one of the first woman publishers in America. She published Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” two volumes of the famous Transcendentalist periodical The Dial, and books by Channing, Hawthorne, and many others. Her sister Sophia was married to Hawthorne by the Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke in the back room of Elizabeth’s bookstore in July 1842 . A year later in the same space, educational reformer Horace Mann married her other sister, Mary. Elizabeth never married.
Her life’s work came into sharp focus after 1859 when she encountered the educational theories of the German reformer Friedrich Froebel. He encouraged the spiritual and moral education of young children using organized play, physical exercise, and activities in nature. Peabody opened the first American kindergarten in Boston in 1860 and spent much of the next twenty years training kindergarten teachers and promoting Froebel’s principles. Leslie Perrin Wilson, curator of special collections at the Concord Library, writes that “the kindergarten became a part of American life due largely to her exertions.”
Peabody saw her educational work as part of a larger effort to reform human society; it grew directly out of her Unitarian optimism about human goodness and Channing’s advocacy of “self-culture.” Her optimism, like Transcendentalism’s strong tendency toward perfectionism, struck some observers as naive. In the 1880s, Henry James satirized Peabody in his novel The Bostonians. “She was heroic,” James writes about Miss Birdseye, “she was sublime, the whole moral history of Boston was reflected in her displaced spectacles.” But many of Peabody’s contemporaries found her inspiring.
Public elementary schools bear her name today in Colorado and Illinois.