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Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer (1804-1894)

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Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
Courtesy of Concord Magazine

Greatly esteemed in the 1800s as part of the intellectual elite in Boston—a member of the Transcendentalist inner circle, a prolific writer, and a leading educator—Elizabeth Palmer Peabody is best known today for promoting the kindergarten movement in the United States. Peabody’s bonds with Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing were strong. He guided her reading in the 1820s and 1830s, and she later recorded his sermons. In 1834, she met Bronson Alcott. His Pennsylvania school had closed, and Peabody offered to help him establish a new school based on Transcendentalist ideas then current in Boston. Out of this association came a journal, Record of a School, which publicized Alcott’s philosophy and projects.

Peabody was a serious scholar of religion and saw it as an essential part of education. She was drawn first to liberal Unitarianism and then to Transcendentalism, both of which stressed the goodness of humans, respect for nature, the responsibility to improve life on Earth, and the divine nature of each inner soul. For ten years, the foreign language bookstore she owned in Boston was a meeting place for such persons as Horace Mann (husband of her sister Mary), Nathaniel Hawthorne (husband of her sister Sophia), and Theodore Parker. The bookstore also became a gathering place for leading women of the time, serving as the site for an important series of meetings for women referred to as Conversations.

In her late fifties, Peabody was introduced to German educator Friedrich Froebel’s ideas on early childhood education. She found them compatible with her own beliefs and is credited with opening the first English-speaking kindergarten in the United States in Boston in 1860. She spent the next thirty years establishing many such schools, training teachers, giving talks, and writing numerous articles and books on kindergarten theory and practices.

— Abridged from a sketch by June Edwards in Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform 1776-1936, edited by Dorothy May Emerson (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2000.)