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Nursery Schools: History (1844 – 1919)



Go back in time–generations back– back till the past grows misty– back to stately, quiet days, the days of hoop skirts and pantalettes, of tall hats and coaches. Can you see the first nursery? See its high front stoop, the quaint swinging sign, the brown walls, the rows of children–dressed alike, expressions alike, blank apathetic.  Can you see the queer high canopied cribs, taste that homemade bread and molasses?

These nurseries were started about 1854.  Think what that means.  Realize they came before even the dawn of social work as we know it.  Wipe from your memory every family agency, every clinic, board of health, even every kindergarten. Visualize the dismal “paupers” waiting for the dole, the ramshackle porches of county poor farms where ragged children played beside the drunken and insane, visualize little scarlet fever patients serenely playing with their brothers and sisters, consider a world where there was no diphtheria antitoxin. And another picture–the old “district school” children sitting stiffly in high backed desks, marching inline, droning empty words, the rawhide whip in the corner.

They Were Called “Day Nurseries”

What brought the nurseries so early in our history? It was the machine, the machine which faced working mothers with a desperate choice–the choice between destitution, and leaving their children uncared for.  Sometimes they left these with neighbors.  If they had no neighbors with whom to leave them they did the only thing they could.. they locked them in. Consider what it means to a three-year-old to be locked in a room alone all day. The inevitable happened. Two children were burned to death.  Another was killed by a fall from a window.  Although this was too early for clinics or family agencies, it was not too early for certain determined women to make up their minds that in their towns, at least, these things should not happen.  They rented space wherever they could, perhaps a house, perhaps a dingy room somewhere, perhaps quarters in a hospital–and offered to care for the children of these women.  They called these places “day nurseries.”  They had no strong supporting groups behind them, no precedent to follow beyond that of the kindly Frenchman, Monsiur Marbeau, who had organized a “creche” in Paris about ten years before, they blazed their own trails.

Good Samaritans

Just what were these first nurseries like? What went on within the drab brown walls?  The matron and her assistants–usually maids– were truly good Samaritans.  “Feed the starving, clothe the naked, enlighten the soul”–this was the gospel.  “What sheall [sic] we do for these children?” they said.  “No Father’s hand has ever been raised in blessing, no mother’s prayers have ever built up before them the path of vice, no household alter shed its incense to ward off the demons of temptation, no holy counsels led their spirits toward the right, but, born by no fault of theirs, and into the very arms of ignorance, sin, and cast even in infancy, into the seething Ganges of our city streets.”

The children usually reached the nursery in an utterly filthy condition– and ravenously hungry.  The first act was to bathe and feed them.  They were dressed in clean clothes, their own soiled clothes were shut up tightly in bags, ready to be put back on them at night.  They were fed: “Monday, mush and molasses; Tuesday, soup; Wednesday, hash; Thursday, beans; Friday, codfish and potatoes, varied occasionally by rice or bread and molasses.”

How did the children spend their time?  The little ones had toys–dolls, or swings, or balls.  the older ones were given special instruction to equip them for their station in life.  “All the children of suitable age are employed [sic] by turns in performing different portions of the house work under the eye of the matron, thus affording them an excellent opportunity of becoming fitted for servants or future housekeepers [sic].” Sewing was usually taught to the girls as “a suitable occupation for poor families.”

These were the days of “spare the rod and spoil the child.” They were the days of sternness and repression.  These children who like all children were born insatiably restless–longing to run and jump, to wonder and dream and imagine, to look and to make, marched to and fore in line, the ate their meals in silence.  Moral precepts were very important.  In the nursery “Tickets were given for punctuality, good behavior and proper performance of duties, which are redeemable by articles of clothing.” In other words, children were paid for being good. These were the days of moral stories.  Thus, “The Teacher has one day been reading to an attentive child, the story of a boy who, from winning marbles at play, had become in afterlife a wicked and notorious gambler……when one of the boy rose to his feet, confessed that had in his pocket twenty-five marbles which he had won from one of his playmates.”

Rich and poor lived in different worlds in those days. “There is something noble,” ran a report..;…in this stooping of cultivated…..minds to contact with the victims of degradation”.  There was no attempt to bridge this gap.  The attitude was one of rescuing the poor, taking them from their homes, “lifting them up to the shelter and sunshine.”  They took pride in the child’s separation from his home, were pleased if he cried when he had to leave the nursery at night, pleased if in his superiority to his parents, he demanded cleaner table linen than they gave him “because we have these things at the nursery.”  The mother? She was a person who appeared at the nursery door morning and night.  The home? It was a shadowy place, of a kind of “hinterland,” a place guessed at but seldom seen.


The world was changing, the tiny bustle replaced the hoop skirts, gas the candles.  The horse car wound its way down the street past gingerbread houses.  And the day nursery: It stands on the same street corner.  Here is the same sober front, the old sign, the brown walls.  But wait–there is a difference. There are strange sounds here.  Running feet where there was the dull thud of marching, busy activity, laughter in place of empty silence.  That circle of bright clean little figures, the clear voices singing, the play, the wide eyes glued on the story teller’s face.

Come downstairs.  in a quiet office two women are talking–one the comfortable, kindly matron, the other an anxious, tired looking young woman.  As she talks the young woman gradually relaxes, She settles back.  Who is this woman?  She seems to be the mother of one of the children upstairs.  Has the nursery opened its door to her too– she was only an instrument, a means of transportation, of getting the child to and from the nursery.  A few blocks away from this nursery is a further change.  Beyond the dismal flight of stairs comes a knock on the door of one of the wretched tenements.  A smiling clergymen has come to see Johnny’s father and mother–has come “from the nursery.”

Simple incidents, but what vast changes.  A new horizon, a new goal.  The influence of the great educator, Froebel, has reached across the water and is softening the bleak air of the nursery.  A new profession is in the making.  The old charity– the dole, the county poor farms, the stigma of poverty– are on the way out.  Rich and poor are drawing nearer together.  There is a new creed.– “the only charity which amounts to much is that which takes the form of education in some way,” and “that we help people to help themselves.” Again, “if you teach a man, you have only given him the capacity to learn more.”


1844    First creche stated in Paris by M. Firmin Marbeau

1954    First day nursery in United States started at Nursery and Child’s Hospital, New york City (Closed 3 years later)

1855    Josephine Jewell born in Hartford, Conn.

1858    Day Nursery started in Troy, N.Y.

1861    Day Nursery started in Philadelphia, Penns.

1878    Day Nursery started in Boston, Mass.

1879    Mrs. Arthur Murray Dodge helps organize Virginia Day Nursery in single room, Washington Square, New York City.

1892    First Conference of day nurseries organized by Mrs. Dodge.  Ninety day nurseries in existence at this time.

1895    New York Association formed.

1897    Day Nursery exhibit at World’s Fair.  One hundred seventy-five day nurseries in existence. Chart relative to standards of day nurseries in the United States giving date of organization, attendance figures, and limited data on investigation. Buffalo reports training school for nursery maids.

1893    National Federation of Day Nurseries organized.  “Its object shall be to unite into one central body all day nurseries, and to endeavor to secure the highest obtainable standards of merit.”

1900    Mrs. Dodge takes small office for Federation, guaranteeing rental of $15  a month herself. Three statistical forms published by Federation.

New York Association office established Commissioner of Public Charities and Charity Organization Society request more day nurseries in New York City to save children from full-time institutional care since New York does not have outdoor relief.

1902    250 day nurseries in existence.

Reports from Boston Conference of Day Nurseries and Chicago Association.

1905    280 day nurseries in existence.

Statistics covering number of day nurseries: Chicago 17- Boston 15- Philadelphia 15- Cleveland 6- St. Louis 5- San Francisco 5.

Mrs. Dodge: “Kindergarten in our nurseries is now almost universal… Neighborhood work now includes mother’s meetings, sewing and cooking classes, manual training, boys’ clubs, libraries and reading rooms….”


Reference to some investigation of families being made.

New York City Board of Health has supervision over nurseries.

Report from Philadelphia Association.

Admission cards printed by the National Federation.

1906    Mrs. Dodge: “The expansion of the work from the primary idea of feeding and housing babies to its present scope which includes kindergartens, educational work for mothers,

industrial classes for older children, summer outings and family visiting, touches the interests of both philanthropic and educational organizations.”

1907    New York Association wins gold medal for exhibit of photographs at Paris Paper Exposition.

1910    85 nurseries in greater New York.

1912    500 day nurseries in United States.

90 day nurseries in New York City — 50 belong to the Association (4 colored, 9 hebrew, 22 catholic.) Forty have graduate kindergarteners; 20 more have “so-called kindergarteners” presided over by those with varying degrees of training. Sixteen have summer homes.

1914    Alteration in admission policy necessitated by changing industrial conditions.  Some children with both parents admitted.

1916-19    Following centers reported organized, with chairmen for each: New York Center (organized first) includes New York, New Jersey, Connecticut: headquarters — New York City.

Mid-West center includes Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma: headquarters — Chicago.  New England Center includes all New England states except Connecticut: headquarters –Boston

1917    Reported California is only state with state law governing day nurseries.

1919    Report of cooperation with the Government as to war work:  Preparation to enlarge facilities or to establish new quarters.

Departure of nursery managers for overseas necessitate renewed efforts.

Special vigilance required to prevent too great encouragement of mothers to enter industrial pursuits.

Cooperation with Children’s Bureau to insure adequate standards in day nurseries started by corporations receiving rush war orders.

Reported day nursery committee of Cleveland with help of Federation assists in establishment of city ordinance governing day nurseries.

Source: Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Library. More information is available at:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Historical sketch of the day nursery movement. (2013). Retrieved [date accessed] /?p=9006.