Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin (1856-1923): Pioneer in Kindergarten Education

and Author of Children’s Stories


Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID ggbain 05033

Introduction: Kate Douglas Wiggin (September 28, 1856 – August 24, 1923) was born in Philadelphia, PA, the daughter of Robert N. Smith, a lawyer, and Helen Elizabeth Smith. She had a younger sister named Nora. Her father died when she was very young; and her mother moved the small family from Philadelphia to Portland, Maine. Three years later, Kate’s mother remarried and the family moved to the village of Hollis with a new baby brother named Phillip. Her education was spotty, consisting of a short stint at a “dame school,” some home schooling under the “capable, slightly impatient, somewhat sporadic” instruction of Albion Bradbury (her stepfather), a brief spell at the district school, a year as a boarder at the Gorham Female Seminary, a winter term at Morison Academy in Baltimore, Maryland and a few months’ stay at Abbot Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where she graduated with the class of 1873. Although rather casual, this was more education than most women received at the time.

Early Career: In 1873, hoping to ease Albion Bradbury’s lung disease, Kate’s family moved to Santa Barbara, California, where Kate’s stepfather died three years later. A kindergarten training class was opening in Los Angeles under Emma Marwedel (1818–1893),‪ and Kate enrolled. After graduation, in 1878, she headed the first free kindergarten in California, on Silver Street in the slums of San Francisco. The children were “street Arabs of the wildest type”, but Kate had a loving personality and dramatic flair. By 1880 she was forming a teacher-training school in conjunction with the Silver Street kindergarten.

In 1881, Kate married (Samuel) Bradley Wiggin, a San Francisco lawyer.‪ According to the customs of the time, she was required to resign her teaching job.‪ Still devoted to her school, she began to raise money for it through writing, first The Story of Patsy (1883), then The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1887). Both privately printed books were issued commercially by Houghton Mifflin in 1889, with enormous success.

Ironically, considering her intense love of children, Kate Wiggin had none. She moved to New York City in 1888.‪ (Editor’s Note: In 1888, Kate Douglas Wiggin gave a presentation titled “The Kindergarten and Social Reform“at the Fifteenth Annual Meeting of The National Conference of Charities and Correction Held In Buffalo, N.Y. July 5-11, 1888.)

When her husband died suddenly in 1889, Kate relocated to Maine. For the rest of her life she grieved, but she also traveled as frequently as she could, dividing her time between writing, visits to Europe, and giving public reading for the benefit of various children’s charities. In 1895, Kate Wiggin married a New York City businessman, George Christopher Riggs, who became her staunch supporter as her success grew. Her literary output included popular books for adults; with her sister, Nora A. Smith, she published scholarly work on the educational principles of Friedrich Frobel: Froebel’s Gifts (1895), Froebel’s Occupations (1896), and Kindergarten Principles and Practice (1896);‪ and she wrote the classic children’s novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), as well as the 1905 best-seller Rose o’ the River. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm became an immediate bestseller; both it and Mother Carey’s Chickens (1911) were adapted to the stage.

For a time, she lived at Quillcote, her summer home in Hollis, Maine,  (now listed on the National Register of Historic Places).  Quillcote is around the corner from the town’s library, the Salmon Falls Library, which Wiggin founded in 1911.‪ Kate Wiggin also founded the Dorcas Society of Hollis & Buxton, Maine in 1897. The Tory Hill Meeting House  in the adjacent town of Buxton inspired her book (and later play), The Old Peabody Pew (1907). Houghton Mifflin collected her writings in ten volumes in 1917.

Later life and death: Wiggin was an active and popular hostess in New York and in the community of Upper Largo, Scotland, where she had a summer home and where she organized theatricals for many years, as detailed in her memoir My Garden of Memory.

In 1921, Wiggin and her sister Nora Archibald Smith edited an edition of Jane Porter’s  1809 novel of William Wallace, The Scottish Chiefs, for the Scribner’s Illustrated Classics  series, which was illustrated by N.C Wyteh.  During the spring of 1923 Kate Wiggin traveled to England as a New York delegate to the Dickens Fellowship. There she became ill and died, at age 66, of bronchial pneumonia. At her request, her ashes were brought home to Maine and scattered over the Saco River. Her autobiography, My Garden of Memory, was published after her death. In sorting through material for her autobiography, she put many items in a box she and her sister labelled “Posthumous.” Her sister Nora A. Smith later published her own reminiscences, Kate Douglas Wiggin as her Sister Knew Her, from these materials.

Wiggin was also a songwriter and composer of music. For “Kindergarten Chimes” (1885) she created some of the lyrics, music, and arrangements. For “Nine Love Songs and a Carol” (1896) she created all of the music.

Source: Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kate_Douglas_Wiggin (Accessed: 7/19/15).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *