The Peabody sisters were central figures in the structure of modern education, founders of the kindergarten movement, and critical members of the Transcendentalism movement. Though each woman’s individual accomplishments were impressive, they were even stronger as a team and strengthened each other all their lives. The sisters were also closely tied to important male figures, supporting and furthering the careers of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Mann, and Henry David Thoreau.
The Peabody sisters grew up alongside two brothers and were raised by their parents, Nathaniel and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody in Salem, Massachusetts. Their parents had strong educational backgrounds and tutored the girls themselves. The family was a part of the Second Church in Salem, soon to become the Unitarian Church.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
Elizabeth Peabody, the eldest Peabody daughter, was born in Billerica, Massachusetts on May 16, 1804. Due to the emphasis on education in her childhood home, Elizabeth became proficient in ten languages and increasingly interested in theology, philosophy, history and literature. She began teaching in her teens, originally at the school where her mother taught. She left Salem in 1822 in order to establish a private school for girls in Boston. Unfortunately, the school did not survive longer than a year, and Elizabeth became a governess in Maine for the Unitarian family of Benjamin Vaughan.
After working for several wealthy families in Maine, she secured another governess job for her sister, Mary. In 1825 the two sisters opened a second school, this time in Brookline, Massachusetts. The school was successful until 1832 following a scandal involving the finances. Elizabeth began private tutoring and started a school for women. This project included lectures, reading parties and dialogues on particular subjects. She hoped her interactive teaching techniques would empower women and loosen the constraints many women felt concerning their status and education.
During this time, Elizabeth became a writer and developed friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jones Very, Bronson Alcott and William Ellery Channing among many other New England intellectuals. These individuals were founders of the Transcendentalist Club, established in 1837. Transcendentalism was a literary, political and philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in New England. The Transcendentalists were critics of society and its conformity. Instead, they urged individuals to develop their own unique relationship with the world around them. Going against the Puritanical belief in human depravity, Transcendentalists believed in human striving, and each person’s inherent goodness. They also opposed organized religion and political parties, with the idea that, instead of these institutions, people should be independent and self-reliant.
In 1835, Elizabeth Peabody published Record of a School, a collection of notes on Bronson Alcott’s dialogues with his students at the Temple School of Boston. Elizabeth lauded Alcott’s methods, but would later disagree with some of the teachings in his book, Conversations with Children on the Gospels. Elizabeth left Alcott’s school and returned to her hometown of Salem in 1836 for four years.
In 1840, Elizabeth moved her family to 13 West St. in Boston, where she opened the West Street Bookstore in the front parlor.
This store became a meeting place for Transcendentalists and was the location for many of Margaret Fuller’s famous “Conversations.” Upwards of 25 women from all over New England would meet in Elizabeth’s book store and contemplate philosophical and academic questions. The meetings would become a strong foundation for the feminist movement in New England.
Elizabeth also began publishing books, believed by some to be the first female publisher in the United States. Some of the works she published included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s children’s stories, Henry David Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience,” and considerable abolitionist literature. She published her own periodical, Aesthetic Papers, albeit for its sole issue in 1849.
After a decade of running the West Street Book Store, Elizabeth closed her bookshop in 1850. She moved in with her parents, elderly at this time, in West Newton, Massachusetts, and cared for them until their deaths. In 1859, she moved in with her sister Mary, in Concord, Massachusetts. Within the next few decades, Elizabeth wrote 10 books and fifty articles on various subjects including education and social reform. It was during this time that she also became an advocate for the Kindergarten movement in the United States, following the path of Friedrich Froebel of Germany. In fact, she founded the first kindergarten school in Boston during the year 1860.
Elizabeth Palmer remained active in the kindergarten movement for decades, creating the Kindergarten Messenger in 1873 and organizing the American Froebel Union in 1877. Elizabeth was never married. After a long and illustrious career as a social and educational pioneer, Elizabeth died in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts on January 3rd, 1894. She is buried in the Sleeping Hollow Cemetery, Concord, MA.
Mary Tyler Peabody Mann
Mary Tyler Peabody was born on November 16, 1806 in Cambridge, MA, the second child of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Peabody. Similar to Elizabeth before her, Mary received an extensive education at home, and was qualified to teach at eighteen. She accepted a position that once belonged to Elizabeth in Hallowell, Maine. After moving to Brookline, MA with her sister Elizabeth in 1825, Mary helped her older sister with the school she had founded there. The sisters rented rooms in a Beacon Hill boarding house, where they met Horace Mann in 1832.
For the next few years, until 1835, Mary lived with her younger sister Sophia in Cuba where she was working as a governess. Upon returning home to Salem, Massachusetts, Mary continued to teach until the family moved to Boston in 1840. Mary began working with Horace Mann, the widowed lawyer and politician she had met at the Beacon Hill boardinghouse. Mann began developing the educational theories that would eventually propel him to national renown.
Mann proposed to Mary and the two were married at the West Street Book Store in 1843, though many believe Elizabeth had always been in love with Mann. Mary and Horace had three children: Horace Jr., George and Benjamin. During their marriage, Mary stopped formally teaching in order to assist her husband and homeschool her children. Mary’s letters to Horace shed light on Mary’s opinions on child-rearing, childbirth, African-American students and her many passionate opinions on education and abolitionism. Before and during their marriage, Mary assisted Mann’s career as a contributor to his Common School Journal and an advocate of his education reform. In fact, Mary helped Mann develop Antioch College, the first college in America to educate female and male students identically, where Mann served as president and Mary acted as the unofficial dean of women. In 1858, Mary wrote Christianity in the Kitchen: A Physiological Cookbook, a book regarding the importance of good nutrition, presentation and French cooking.
Mary would outlive her husband by almost thirty years. After Mann’s death in 1859, Mary returned to team up with Elizabeth, purchasing a house for them both in Concord. Mary began writing a biography of her late husband and collecting his works, which would be published as Life and Works of Horace Mann in three volumes from 1865-1868. This was just one of many works Mary would publish throughout the remainder of her life, including articles and essays on the subjects of kindergarten, child care and suffrage. Also during this time, Mary and Elizabeth propelled the kindergarten movement in the United States and opened the country’s first kindergarten in 1860. Mary also advocated for free education for underprivileged children, including Native Americans, by editing an autobiography of Princess Winnemucca, Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, and donating all proceeds to be used on schools.
Mary died in 1887 in Jamaica Plain on February 11, 1887 and is buried in the North Burial Ground, Providence, RI.
Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne
Sophia Amelia Peabody was born September 21, 1809 on Summer Street in Salem, Massachusetts. The following year, the family moved to the house which sill stands today at the corner of Essex and Union Street. She was the youngest daughter of Elizabeth and Nathaniel Peabody. Sophia was educated at home with her sisters, but unlike Mary and Elizabeth, Sophia was drawn to art more than teaching. In 1824, she began to study drawing and eventually shared a painting studio with her friend Mary Newhall.
Despite her growing achievements in art, Sophia struggled with chronic ailments. Her sister Mary took Sophia to Cuba in order to regain her health. She resided in Cuba from 1833-1835, after which she returned to Salem. This return home proved very fruitful for Sophia when, in 1837, she was introduced to her neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne. At this time, Elizabeth was already well acquainted with Hawthorne and his work, identifying him as a talent and attracting the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The two fell deeply in love, exchanging love letters for years before their marriage on July 9, 1842. The letters were compiled into a book in 1907 entitled “The Love Letters of Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
After being married in the Peabody family home in Boston, Sophia and Nathaniel settled in Concord, MA and had three children: Una, Julian, and Rose. During their marriage, Sophia was dedicated to supporting her husband’s work — reading his manuscripts, offering advice and even illustrating some of his work. Despite their happiness together, the family had financial troubles until the publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850.
After Nathaniel’s death in 1864, Sophia organized and edited his notebooks for publication. Sophia and the children moved to Dresden, Germany in 1868 and then to London in 1869. In 1871, Sophia fell ill and died on March 3, 1871. She was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, where her daughter Una would be also be buried in 1877. On June 26, 2006, Sophia and Una were re-interred in Concord, MA, finally reunited with Nathaniel Hawthorne after 142 years.
Sophia Peabody’s artwork can be viewed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA in the Putnam Gallery.
Available @ the Library