Elizabeth Peabody

From New World Encyclopedia

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, (May 16, 1804-January 3, 1894) was a teacher and educational reformer, founder of the Kindergarten system in the United States, and an advocate of Native American rights to education. She was a prominent figure within the Transcendentalism Movement publishing their literary journal, The Dial, in 1842 and 1843. In 1849, in the periodical Aesthetic Papers, she was first to publish Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. She supported important writers of that era such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller with her bookstore and publishing house in Boston, where the seat of cultural and intellectual thought resided in America in the mid 1800s. She was also instrumental in bringing to publication Paiute Indian activist, Sarah Winnemucca's autobiography, Life Among the Paiutes. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody has been called "an American Renaissance Woman" for the scope and breadth of her work which included not only writing, lecturing, and publishing, but untiring activism for minorities. Her experimental work with kindergartens ignited an educational revolution in the public school systems throughout America that has resulted in a lasting legacy for today's children.

Early Life and Influences

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was born in Billerica, Massachusetts on May 16, 1804. Her childhood was spent in Salem and as an adult she moved often, although she primarily lived in Massachusetts. Peabody's father was the dentist Dr. Nathaniel Peabody and her mother was Elizabeth Palmer. She had two brothers, Nathaniel and George; her sisters were Sophia Amelia Peabody (who married novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne) and Mary Tyler Peabody Mann, (who married educator Horace Mann.) In childhood she was influenced by her mother's educational and moral philosophy that was strongly rooted in Unitarianism. The elder Mrs. Peabody home-schooled her children and started her own small school, which her daughter began teaching in at the age of 16. Education was the center of her life from an early age. Her father taught her Latin and she became a gifted linguist, ultimately becoming familiar with more than ten languages.

One of her early mentors was Dr. William Ellery Channing who is usually called the "father of Unitarianism," as well as being the uncle of his namesake, the transcendentalist poet William Ellery Channing. Peabody worked as his unpaid secretary and, in 1880, she would write a book about her experiences, called Reminiscences of William Ellery Channing, D.D. which reveals his influence on her reformist thinking. Philosophical differences within the church during the last quarter of the nineteenth century generated intellectual debate about the need for reform in American society. Peabody herself said that she was raised in the "bosom of Unitarianism."

Educational Philosophy and early experiments

From 1834-1835, she worked as assistant teacher to Bronson Alcott at his famous experimental Temple School in Boston. The school was forced to close when parents withdrew their students because Alcott came "dangerously" close to teaching students sex education or what was euphemistically referred to as "the facts of life." Other progressive and democratic ideals of the school were strongly criticized, as well, but the basic pedagogy proposed by Transcendentalist thinkers continues to impact educational thought today.

After the school closed, Peabody published Record of a School, outlining Alcott's philosophy of early childhood education, which held that teaching should elicit truth and morality from children rather than merely instill factual information. Alcott and Peabody both adhered to the Socratic method which advocates using questioning to lead students to deeper thought in relation to their learning.[1]

It was in her bookstore, called simply, "13 West Street" in Boston, that the transcendentalists "conversations" were held, organized by Margaret Fuller, and attended by Lydia Emerson, abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, and Sophia Dana Ripley, a founder of the experimental utopian community Brook Farm. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Jr. gave lectures there. At a time when few women were involved in publishing, Peabody started her own publishing venture, producing not only Channing's Emancipation in 1840 but several of Nathaniel Hawthorne's books as well. Peabody was the first woman publisher in Boston and is often considered to be the first in the United States. [2]

Peabody spent several years promoting a system of teaching history invented by Polish general Joseph Bem, who taught his methods in Poland, France, and England. Peabody traveled the United States demonstrating the color-coded charts that she had drawn and colored herself. Their use never became a part of established curriculum, however and Peabody soon returned to the cause of early childhood education.

Advocate for Kindergartens

In 1860, the first publicly supported kindergarten in the country was opened by Peabody in Boston. Her vision of this school was "to awaken the feelings of harmony, beauty, and conscience" in the pupils it served. However, uncertainty about the kindergarten's effectiveness led Peabody to travel to Germany to observe the German model that was being practiced by disciples of Friedrich Froebel, the German educator. When she returned, she traveled across the country giving lectures and holding training classes. From 1873 to 1875 she published the Kindergarten Messenger.

Her efforts are directly responsible for the kindergarten system being an accepted part of the educational institution in America today. The extent of her influence is apparent in a statement submitted to Congress by William Harris, U. S. Commissioner of Education, on February 12, 1897, in support of free kindergartens:

The advantage to the community in utilizing the age from 4 to 6 in training the hand and eye; in developing the habits of cleanliness, politeness, self-control, urbanity, industry; in training the mind to understand numbers and geometric forms, to invent combinations of figures and shapes, and to represent them with the pencil—these and other valuable lessons… will, I think, ultimately prevail in securing to us the establishment of this beneficent institution in all the city school systems of our country. (Source: Library of Congress Today in History: May 16)

Later Years

In addition to her teaching, Peabody wrote grammar and history texts and toured America in order to promote the study of history. In 1865, she wrote the Chronological History of the United States.

She continued to champion the rights of Native Americans, editing Sarah Winnemucca's autobiography, Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, and supporting this effort both with encouragement and financial assistance. Peabody was also an advocate of antislavery and of women's suffrage. She spent her remaining years lecturing in Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy, an experimental school for adults, and writing. In 1886, despite failing vision, she wrote a tribute to the Boston painter and poet Washington Allston titled, Last Evening with Allston.

She died on January 3, 1894, in Jamaica Plain and was buried at Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Abolitionist minister Theodore Parker praised her as "a woman of most astonishing powers … many-sidedness and largeness of soul … rare qualities of head and heart … A good analyst of character, a free spirit, kind, generous, noble."[3]


Peabody's outspokenness and progressive ideas drew her share of detractors. The author Henry James ridiculed her by creating a caricature, "Miss Birdseye" in his book, The Bostonians (1886) that purportedly was based on Peabody. Some of her views on education were later criticized as being outdated; however, they still act as a guidepost for present day religious-minded reformers and advocates for educational change.

Transcendentalists believed in the oneness of God, man, and nature, a philosophy which was behind Peabody's strong belief that spiritual and moral development were critical aspects in educating the whole child. Perceiving God as benevolent and humanity as morally and intellectually perfectible, Peabody believed that her efforts could help to transform individuals and society.

Unitarianism, which advocated a united world community and liberal social action, provided the drive for Peabody's constant efforts to improve society. At the end of her life she had rightfully earned the sobriquet, "the grandmother of Boston reform."

In Peabody's time kindergartens were the private domain of the well-to-do and were considered only a marginal experiment at best. Today, they have become a fundamental part of the public school system, availing their unique environment geared towards the development of motor and social skills and sensory learning to all children.


  1. Leslie Perrin Wilson (1999), "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Transcendental Activist," Concord magazine.
  2. age-of-the-sage.org, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: an outline biography. Retrieved March 21, 2007.
  3. the Amos Bronson Alcott Network, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Elbert, Monika M., Julie E. Hall, and Katharine Rodier. Reinventing the Peabody Sisters. University of Iowa Press, 2006. ISBN 1587295040
  • Marshall, Megan. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. Houghton Mifflin, 2005. ISBN 0395389925
  • Peabody, Elizabeth P., and Bruce A. Ronda. Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, American Renaissance Woman. Wesleyan University Press, 1984. ISBN 0819550930
  • "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2007.
  • "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody." American Eras, Volume 7: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877. Gale Research, 1997. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2007.

External Links

All links retrieved September 13, 2017.


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