Four Doors of Pinckney Street: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's Kindergarten

In Boston, the past and the present carry on in parallel. The steps we take as we hurry for the T or head to a coffeeshop to meet friends trace those who came before us, maybe even in sync. One such literary place, where numerous authors have made their homes over the year, is Beacon Hill, and in this series we’ll take you on a tour of Four Doors of Pinckney Street.

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#15 Pinckney Street: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Kindergarten

Many years after the Thoreau family lived nearly across the street, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody opened the first English-speaking kindergarten in the U.S. at 15 Pinckney Street. The item of note, though, isn’t so much the kindergarten itself as the woman behind it, one of the most intellectually-affecting citizens of 19th century Boston. As one write-up termed it, “Miss Peabody was identified with all the great movements of her time; indeed, she was characterized by an enthusiasm for humanity.”

Born in Billerica in 1804, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody entered the world destined towards an educational career, as both her parents were teachers. While her father went on to become a dentist, Peabody was raised in her mother’s school, which she started after the family moved to Salem in 1808. The eldest of seven children, all three Peabody sisters were known for their intellectual curiosity, and Mary went on to marry educational reformer Horace Mann, while Sophia became the wife of novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.

When Elizabeth started her own school in 1821 in Lancaster, her sisters were her first pupils. In 1825, Elizabeth and Mary began an all-girls school in Brookline, yet moved it to Boston in 1826 after finding the parents of Brookline somewhat resistant to her radical style of teaching.  Peabody was influenced not only by William Ellery Channing, the Unitarian minister (she was a tutor to his children, copied his sermons, and wrote a kind of biography about him), but also by Bronson Alcott and the burgeoning Transcendentalist movement.

Peabody would assist Alcott (along with fellow Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller) in starting the Temple School in 1834, which sought to move away from the strict disciplines and memorization of traditional schooling, towards a more organic approach to intellectual development, encouraging curiosity, play, and engagement with nature. The School also encouraged philosophical inquiry and religious questioning. Peabody, though, came to question Alcott’s approach, and left the Temple School behind.

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Peabody is probably most well-known for her bookshop, located at 13 West St. (next to today’s Brattle Book Shop), in the first floor of her family’s three-story residence. The bookshop carried foreign literature, acted as a small publisher, and also as a lending library. But because of her connections in the local literary and intellectual scene, the bookshop became the meeting place and hub for the Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, and more gathered in the space to share ideas. Margaret Fuller conducted her “Conversations” here, the Transcendentalist literary magazine The Dial was published here, and the plans for the utopian society Brook Farm were discussed here. In a time when intellectual work was reserved for men only, Peabody carved out a presence in and was a contributor to the male-dominated intellectual community.

After the bookshop closed down in the mid-1850s, Peabody turned her attention to the writings of German educational reformer Friedrich Fröebel. His philosophies resonated with the Transcendentalist philosophy of experiencing the world through praxis and exposure. Fröebel founded the Play and Activity Institute, and coined the phrase “kindergarten” – literally “garden of children.” He also created a number of educational toys, and believed in the value of free play in childhood learning.

Peabody returned to what she knew – education – and opened the first English-speaking kindergarten in the U.S. at 15 Pinckney Street in 1860. Her school included areas for singing, playing, music, and movement; furniture was moveable and the space able to be manipulated; and ideally, Peabody wrote, the entire room should be built at a child’s scale. Though it only lasted a year in this location (and today’s building is not the original), moving in 1861 to a location on Winter St., the kindergarten itself continued, and Peabody devoted her later years to the cause of childhood education. In 1862, she published the Kindergarten Guide, and continued to write on educational practices, forming a kind of regulatory board in 1877. The popularity of kindergartens began to grow in the 1880s, with a convergence of kindergartens in Chicago in 1892 for an exhibition and conference.

Peabody continued to work on educational and social causes until her death in 1894. Her gravestone on Writer’s Ridge in Concord reads: “A Teacher of three generations of Children, and the founder of Kindergarten in America. Every humane cause had her sympathy, and many her active aid.”


Works Consulted

Argersinger, Jana L. and Phyllis Cole. Toward a Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism. University of Georgia Press, 2014.

Beatty, Barbara. Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Curtis, Stanley James. “Friedrich Froebel.” Encyclopædia Britannica. June 17, 2019.

 “Elizabeth P. Peabody.” The Kindergarten: For Teachers and Parents. Vol. II, No. 10, February, 1890.

Jipson, Janice A. “Wanderings: Doing Historical Research on Early Childhood Education.” Early Childhood Qualitative Research. NY: Routledge, 2007.

Marshall, Megan. “Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: The First Transcendentalist?” Massachusetts Historical Review. Vol. 8, 2006.

Marshall, Megan. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.

Morse-Harding, Chloe. “Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.” Boston Athenaeum website. July 2103.

Rowe, O. M. E. “Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.” Daughters of America. September 1891, Vol. 5, Issue 9.