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Kindergartens: A History (1886)

Free Kindergartens

by Constance Mackenzie

Introduction by the Editor: The kindergarten was developed in the nineteenth century by Friedrich Froebel, a German reformer and educator. He built upon the ideas of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a Swiss follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s belief in the inherent goodness of children. During the 1830s and 1840s, Froebel made a case for the importance of music, nature study, stories, and play as well as symbolic ideas like children sitting together in the kindergarten circle. He advocated the use of “gifts” (or materials, largely geometric) and “occupations” (or crafts), which the teacher taught the children to manipulate. In 1837 Froebel opened the first kindergarten in Blankenburg, Germany.

In the United States Margarethe Schurz founded the first kindergarten in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1856. Her German-language kindergarten impressed Elizabeth Peabody, who opened the first American English-language kindergarten in Boston in 1860. The National Education Association began a kindergarten department in 1874, and teachers founded the International Kindergarten Union in 1892.

Editor’s Note: This entry is a presentation at the Thirteenth Annual Session of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction in St. Paul, Minn., July 15-22, 1886

The past thirteen years have been memorable for the free kindergarten movement in the United States. Previous to that time, the work was largely private, experimental, and within the limits of the well-to-do classes. ” Kindergarten ” was the shibboleth of the few. It was new, strange, mysterious, and consequently made slow progress, often slipping back, often standing still. It needed free work, on a broader basis, to insure it careful, unbiased investigation and adoption by the many. The year 1873, which found the new educational movement scarcely astir, was to witness the initial steps of a large work in the right direction. In the fall of that year, Miss Susan E. Blow, of St. Louis, Mo., made the generous offer of her services to the Board of Public Schools of that city, consenting to supervise and direct an experimental kindergarten, if the board would provide the room and the salary of one kindergartner. This offer was accepted; and a primary school teacher was trained, and installed as an assistant. The work of a year proving successful, the board opened in I874 two additional kindergartens, also under Miss Blow’s supervision and control. From that time, they were established as fast as teachers could be trained to take charge of them. At the end of five years there were two in nearly every first-grade public school in the city; and, today, St. Louis gives training to over four thousand little children, preparatory to sending them into the public schools.

From 1873 until 1877, St. Louis stood as the sole representative of free kindergarten work in the country. In 1877, Mrs. Quincy A. Shaw opened two kindergartens in the vicinity of Boston, Mass., at her own expense. She gave largely, also, toward the support of two in Cambridge, and in 1878 opened fourteen others, in 1879 twelve more. Since then, changes have been made; and there are at present twenty in and near Boston, with an enrollment of about thirteen hundred of the poorest children. These are, as they have been from the first, supported solely by the liberal charity of Mrs. Shaw.

In the summer of I878, Prof. Felix Adler, of New York, founder of the Society for Ethical Culture, spoke forcibly and effectively at a meeting of influential citizens of San Francisco, urging the necessity of putting into operation in that city a system of free kindergartens. The outcome of this was the organization of the still existing Public Kindergarten Society, which, starting with one kindergarten and fifty children, has at present three kindergartens, caring for two hundred of the poorest of the San Francisco waifs.

The next year, which set its seal of ” well done! ” upon the Public Kindergarten Society, proved also the inability of this one association to meet the needs of the large city. In the fall of I879, Mrs. Sarah B. Cooper and her Bible class took into their helpful hands the task of founding other of these child-saving institutions, and so started into existence the second free kindergarten society of San Francisco, under the name of the Jackson Street Kindergarten Association, since changed to the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association. This society gathers in more than eight hundred children, taken mainly from the gutters and the wretched ” homes ” of the slums of San Francisco.

In the same year with the later California society, Mrs. E. M. Blatchford, of Chicago, Ill., opened the first free kindergarten of that city. It was so successful that others were called for; and, in the fall of 1881, the Chicago Froebel Association was formed, and a teacher engaged to train a normal class of kindergartners. In 1882, the society supervised four kindergartens, which were finally so overcrowded that the pressure for more ample accommodations became irresistible; and, in i886, the number of kindergartens was increased to ten, with an enrolment of five hundred children.

Late in the winter of 1881, several private citizens of Chicago established the society known as the Chicago Free Kindergarten Association, which had for its objects: first, the founding and maintenance of a free normal training class; secondly, the establishing in that city of a system of free kindergartens, to be supported by private contribution. Today, this society has under its charge fourteen kindergartens, giving training to eighteen hundred children, from the poorest homes in the city.

In the autumn of 1879, Miss Anna Hallowell, of Philadelphia, who had from the first taken a warm interest in the work in Boston, decided to try the same experiment in her city, beginning with one kindergarten, to be supported by private contributions from friends. The success of one encouraged the establishment of others; and, by the co-operation with her of the Society for Organizing Charity and other benevolent associations, five were opened in the following eight months. In 1881, the work assumed such proportions that a society was formed and incorporated, under the name of the Sub-primary School Society. It was hoped that ultimately kindergartens would be adopted by the Board of Public Education, as a part of the public school system.

Growing work called for growing funds to meet expenses. City councils were petitioned, and the amount of five thousand dollars was granted for two successive years. In the next year and the next, renewed applications obtained each time a grant of seven thousand five hundred dollars. The society today supports twenty-nine free kindergartens, with an enrollment of one thousand children, mostly from the poorest and most ignorant classes, frequently from the most degraded and vicious. Half of the expenses and accommodations are met by appropriations from the city treasury, and half from associate committees connected with various charitable institutions.

From the first, the attitude of the Philadelphia Board of Public Education has been friendly and generous. The use of vacant rooms in public school buildings has been cheerfully accorded, and helpful consideration and encouragement always extended by the superintendent, Prof. James MacAlister.

In his annual report for 1885, Mr. Edward T. Steele, president of the board, earnestly recommended kindergartens as part of the public school system. The consideration of the subject is at present before the board.

The Cincinnati Free Kindergarten Association, established in 1879, supports six kindergartens, whose three hundred children are of the poorest class in the city, embracing a large foreign element.

In 1880, we find Milwaukee, Wis., considering the advisability of following the wise lead of St. Louis. A kindergarten was opened in connection with the Central School, under the directorship and management of Miss Sarah A. Stewart, former principal of the normal school of Milwaukee. In 1882, two additional were opened; and the present year finds twelve public kindergartens training nearly fourteen hundred children.

The Milwaukee Mission Kindergarten Association, still in its infancy, was established in i885, and has already under its charge, in its three kindergartens, one hundred and fifty children.

New York can probably boast of a greater number of free kindergartens within her limits, outside of kindergarten associations, than any other city in the Union. Oakland and San Jose,’Cal.; Denver, Col.; Hartford and New Haven, Conn.; Portland, Me.; Pittsfield and Florence, Mass.; Louisville, Ky.; Baltimore, Md.; Detroit, Mich.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Buffalo and Oswego, N.Y.; Providence, R.I.,– are, in addition to the cities cited above, giving free training to more than two thousand children in and out of institutions.

As a basis for this report, a carefully prepared set of questions, asking for information on free kindergarten work, was distributed to all who were believed to have had practical experience. These were responded to with a promptness as gratifying as it was helpful.

An examination of the replies shows an average age for each kindergarten child of four and a half years. The classes reached range from those in ” moderate circumstances” to “our future criminals,” with a strong majority in favor of the latter. Between these two extremes are “children of the working classes,” “the poor,” “the very poorest,” making the average class those of “low and degraded parentage.” From these, we exclude the public school kindergartens of St. Louis and Milwaukee.

To the question, “What is the apparent influence of the kindergarten upon the children?” comes a deluge of answers, their burden being, without exception, that the effects have been only beneficial. St. Louis sums it up as follows: “The influence of the kindergarten upon the children is strongest in developing power. They grow in self-directing activity, intellectually and morally, strikingly manifested wherever the kindergarten influence is purest and strongest; and the entire training results in habits of mind and body which noticeably conform to a well-developed ideal in the mind of Froebel.”

To the question, “Do you notice any beneficial effects of the kindergarten upon the children’s homes?” the testimony is enthusiastically in the affirmative from all who speak from close and personal observation. As upon the children, so through them, upon the homes, the improvement in cleanliness, tidiness, order, is marked; speech and manners grow gentle, the house becomes an attractive home. “Many mothers have assured the teachers that, through the effect of the kindergarten upon their children, their own thoughts and actions have been influenced. They have learned to realize the duty of being ‘good mothers.’ Fathers have noticed their boys’ interest in the shop-work, and have become more interested in intelligent observation of their own work. The family life has grown more happy.”

Many quote the testimony of public school teachers to the effect that the influence of the kindergarten is seen often in the older brothers and sisters of the little children.

The question, “In what direction is the influence of the kindergarten most potent?” finds the answers echoing one another in such expressions as, ” In developing will power,” ” In training children to think,” “In developing the power of self-control,” “In establishing systematic habits,” “In teaching obedience,” all of which may be condensed into one phrase,- in character-building.

We give the next two questions together, because in so many instances one covers the ground of both. “In your judgment, does the kindergarten prevent crime, and in what way? Does it prevent pauperism, and in what way?”

Three papers answer in effect that, with so many outside counteracting influences to be taken into account, a positive reply in the affirmative cannot be given. Two say that crime and pauperism are prevented, modifying this by a consideration of home and after training. “The kindergarten itself does not, of course, bear directly upon crime,” writes one of our correspondents; “but, if the entire after education of the child were carried out according to the principles of the kindergarten, there can be no doubt that its effects would be strongly felt in every direction. At present, however, whenever the training the child has received in the kindergarten is not continued after he leaves there, and is even, as is often the case, directly opposed to it, the influence of the short and temporary experience of the kindergarten cannot but be weakened by later contradictory training. The prevention of crime would lie in developing the active virtues, the germs of which are awakened and presented as ideals in the kindergarten. Kindergarten training continued would aid in reducing pauperism by developing self-helpful activity. The beginnings of manual training are part of the kindergarten. The child’s hands and eyes are ever busy to produce and observe.

“Nearly every trade and art has its place in Froebel’s system, which gives the child the alphabet of them all by calling upon him to master the materials and principles common to all. Hence, the manual training side, developed and continued, would give all people the desire for and the power of self-supporting activity, and in this way reduce pauperism.”

Others answer that the kindergarten does prevent crime and pauperism: “by teaching the child to respect the rights of others “; “by developing the power of invention, with ability to execute”; “by preventing idleness, and encouraging industry”; “by training the hand to work, and the mind to love and respect that work “; “by training the child to be self-dependent “; “by teaching energy, dispatch in work, and diligence.”

From 1873 to 1886, the number of kindergarten children in this country has been steadily increasing from a handful of one thousand to twenty thousand. The kindergarten system is now old enough and strong enough to speak for itself. The prejudice of the few, who will not see the hurtful zeal of unwise advocates, who claim for it more than it claims for itself, though- it did much to hinder its first uncertain steps, now holds it back no longer.

With the practical experience of public kindergarten work contributed by two cities; with a State law passed within the last few months in Connecticut, to the effect that three years shall be the legal minimum age of admission to the public schools of that State; with progressive men and women awakening to a realization of the value of good early training for children,- the future is full of hope that the kindergarten will become the basis of public education, as well as the introductory step in all work for the reduction and prevention of crime and pauperism.

Source: Mackenzie, C. (1886, July). Free kindergartens. Proceedings of The National Conference of Charities and Correction. Retrieved from

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Mackenzie, C. (1886, July). Free kindergartens. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from




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4 Replies to “Kindergartens: A History (1886)”

  1. Do you have any information about the New York Free Kindergarten for Colored Children 1895, located at 237 West 41st Street, Elizsbeth J
    Graham being one of the founders?

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