The Peabody Sisters

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (May 16, 1804-January 3, 1894), Mary Tyler Peabody Mann (November 16, 1807-February 11, 1887), and Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne (September 21, 1809-February 26, 1871)—were champions of reform movements, pioneers in modern educational theory, founders of the kindergarten movement in America and supporters of the arts. No less important was their function as central conduits in the small, complicated web of relationship that comprised the Transcendentalist movement, and the vital links they represented between institutional Unitarianism and its often estranged Transcendentalist offspring. Of the Peabody sisters, history remembers Elizabeth best, as the proprietress of the West Street Bookstore and as founder of the kindergarten movement in America. Yet all of the sisters remain significant examples of a distinctly Unitarian Transcendentalism that strove to realize its vision of human goodness through practical application in the world.

The sisters’ mother, Elizabeth Palmer, was an old-time Unitarian raised in the Rev. James Freeman‘s King’s Chapel. Married to the mild dentist Nathaniel Peabody, she was a strong personality who raised her five children with liberal religious ideas that had only to be scratched to reveal their Puritan roots. The oldest child, Elizabeth, responded to Mrs. Peabody’s teachings about the essential wickedness of the world with aggressive optimism. If the world was wicked, Elizabeth would set it to rights. While Mrs. Peabody was too liberal to believe in original sin, she did believe that as a result of the fall of Adam women were to endure special sufferings. Hence when Sophia began to experience headaches and other infirmities, her mother encouraged the symptoms as proof of a sensitive feminine soul. Mary, the middle daughter, was of a more moderate religious inclination.

The girls and their two brothers were raised in the Second (soon to be Unitarian) Church in Salem, Massachusetts, where at the age of only eight or nine, Elizabeth first heard the Rev. William Ellery Channing preach. It was the beginning of a lifelong reverence for the man and his teachings. On this occasion she was especially struck with his animated delivery, which she felt made it seem as if he were talking face to face with God.

While Elizabeth would sometimes urge her sisters (Sophia especially) to express greater commitment to Unitarianism, each of the Peabody sisters maintained lifelong affiliations with Unitarian churches, even as they moved in Transcendentalist circles where such support was sometimes unpopular. Once Lidian Emerson expressed to Elizabeth Peabody that she was grateful to Unitarianism for only one thing: it had led to Transcendentalism. Elizabeth responded without equivocation: as far as she was concerned, Unitarianism was “terra firma.”

In addition to inculcating early Unitarian thought in her daughters, Mrs. Peabody saw to their education. An avid reader and school teacher herself, she gave the girls early opportunities to try their hand at teaching. Mr. Peabody also tutored the girls, teaching Elizabeth Latin and eventually inspiring her to learn an impressive total of ten other languages.

Elizabeth’s ambition as a young adult was to escape Salem in order to experience the cultural riches and theological controversies of Boston. In 1822 she made her move and established a private school for girls in Boston. Despite support from influential Unitarian acquaintances such as Eliza Cabot, the school failed to attract enough enrollment to survive for more than a year. Elizabeth was then forced to take on a series of jobs as a governess in Maine, working first for the influential Unitarian family of Benjamin Vaughan.

Ever eager to arrange her sisters’ lives, Elizabeth wrote from Maine to suggest that Sophia take up the job with the Vaughans while she herself took a different position with a nearby family. Mary and Sophia concluded that Sophia was too young to become a teacher, so it was Mary who embarked on a teaching career at Elizabeth’s direction. Deciding that Sophia’s future lay in art rather than teaching, Elizabeth began to arrange lessons for her with the finest artists and teachers Boston had to offer. Later, as a married woman viewing the masters on a trip to Rome, Sophia would conclude that her talent was a mediocre one and give up her art. Before then, however, she achieved some notice, selling some of her work and making copies of art and illustrations for books.

In 1825 Mary and Elizabeth decided to make another assault on Boston and opened a girl’s school in the attractive suburb of Brookline. While there Elizabeth took the opportunity to seek closer contact with Channing. She attended his Federal Street Church as often as she could, and his sermons became the high point in her life. Channing began walking with her every Saturday in order to test out his sermon topics with her.

Eventually, over his initial objections, she became his amanuensis, copying out his sermons for distribution. Even years later, after Elizabeth had moved on, Channing would ask for her assistance whenever he had something to prepare for print. Elizabeth’s adoration of Channing lasted a lifetime; in her eighties, she published the highly complimentary Reminiscences of Rev. Wm. Ellery Channing. She also especially admired Theodore Parker and would later attended Church of the Disciples where James Freeman Clarke was minister.

With Mary’s capable help and Channing’s vocal respect for Elizabeth, the school in Brookline thrived until 1832, when Elizabeth learned that a partner in the school was mishandling the school’s finances. In the wake of the school’s closure, Mary reluctantly agreed to take the ailing Sophia to Cuba for her health while Elizabeth looked for means of supporting herself. It was at this time that she became the first woman to conduct “reading parties,” lectures to small groups of women on various literary and philosophical topics in return for the price of a ticket. On the advice of her new friend Horace Mann, Elizabeth also made small amounts of money writing for such liberal Unitarian periodicals as the Christian Register.

In 1834 Elizabeth returned to education, responding to Bronson Alcott‘s invitation to assist him at his revolutionary Temple School. She taught some of the standard subjects, such as Latin and geometry, and kept an exact record of Alcott’s interactions with his pupils as a means of informing the public about his radical experiment. When Mary and Sophia returned from Cuba, Elizabeth suggested that they both join her. Practical Mary thought that Alcott was asking for a lot of work for little in return. Instead Mary and Sophia opened a school together with Sophia, healthier but still experiencing headaches, primarily teaching drawing.

At the beginning of the Temple School experiment, Elizabeth’s educational philosophy seemed quite consistent with Alcott’s, though Elizabeth arrived at her philosophy through a Channing-inspired stress on the human likeness to God, and Alcott, through a more Transcendental route. Alcott’s starting place was always the idea of the pre-existing Spirit. He believed that, once the children were aware of the spark of Spirit within themselves, they would understand the local and universal expression of justice and be moved to act benevolently. When Elizabeth wrote that “to contemplate the Spirit in ourselves, and in our fellow man, is obviously the only means of understanding social duty, and quickening within ourselves a wise Humanity—In general terms,—Contemplation of Spirit is the first principle of Human Culture; the foundation of Self-education,” she was describing the philosophy she could share with Alcott

In essence Elizabeth’s own educational philosophy was a practical application of the Unitarian optimism as to the inherent human goodness, especially of the young, combined with the ideas of self-culture she took from Channing. She had always taught by foregrounding her own intellectual delight and curiosity as the means of inspiring children both to enjoy learning and also to take on greater moral responsibility. “When a child has been led to enjoy his intellectual life, in any way,” she wrote, “and then is made to observe whence his enjoyment has arisen, he can feel and understand the argument of duty which may be urged in favor of attention.”

Record of a School was published in 1835 to considerable interest. In her preface to the book, Elizabeth attempted to distance herself from Alcott, praising many of his methods but also suggesting how they might be misunderstood. When Alcott sought to publish Conversations with Children on the Gospels the following year, Elizabeth blanched. More sensitive to issues of propriety than Alcott, she felt that Conversations, with its discussion of the Bible and human sexuality, went too far, not for her own taste, but for America at large. In his discussions with his students, Alcott had made a few statements such as “love forms babies,” which today seem impossibly vague, but which at the time represented the first example of anything like sexuality education in the schools. When Alcott refused to modify or withdraw Conversations, Elizabeth broke her connection to the school and returned to Salem. She proved to be correct about the reception of Conversations. Soon after its publication it was widely denounced, especially by more conservative Unitarians such as Andrews Norton, who were glad for the opportunity to discredit Transcendentalism.

Sophia Peabody
Sophia Peabody

The Peabodys’ retreat to Salem was not all bad. In 1837 Sophia met her neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne as he came to call on Elizabeth, who had identified his talent early and who would eventually draw the attention of the Emerson circle to Hawthorne. Sophia and Nathaniel were married by James Freeman Clarke on July 9, 1842, in the back room of Elizabeth’s West Street Bookstore. Despite one miscarriage and her mother’s dire predictions about her frailty, the Hawthorne’s first child Una was born on March 3, 1844, to be followed by a brother, Julian and a sister, Rose. Throughout the marriage Sophia proudly encouraged Hawthorne’s work, both when money was exceedingly tight and later when she accompanied him to Europe during his diplomatic career. Her fidelity to Hawthorne came at some cost to her relationship with Elizabeth and Mary in later years when Hawthorne’s laudatory campaign biography of Franklin Pierce alienated her two vigorously anti-slavery sisters.

Elizabeth opened the West Street Bookstore in Boston in 1840, and for a decade it was the chief gathering place for Transcendentalists and social reformers of all stripes, attracted in part by her large stock of foreign-language publications. It was here that Margaret Fuller held her famous conversations for women. During this time Elizabeth also published the famous Transcendentalist journal The Dial for two years. In 1849 her own Aesthetic Papers appeared, including in its only issue the first publication of Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience” and also Sampson Reed’s essay on the innate quality of “Genius,” which fueled the Transcendentalist debate about genius versus talent.

On May 1, 1843, the bookstore was the site of another family wedding as Mary exchanged vows with Horace Mann. Mary had been infatuated with Mann since well before her trip to Cuba, though while there she had imagined that perhaps he was in love with Elizabeth, causing some hard feelings between the sisters. Mary had been of service to Mann well before their marriage, contributing lessons to his Common School Journal. She continued to contribute to Mann’s career as an advocate of public schooling, a reform-minded congressman, and President of Antioch College. The Manns had three sons: Horace Jr., Benjamin and George.

May Peabody
Mary Peabody

During their marriage Mary wrote Christianity in the Kitchen, 1858, a surprisingly modern book that developed the themes of the moral duty to follow good nutrition, the importance of presentation, and a certain spice-less interpretation of French cooking that would make the Boston School of Cooking famous much later. When Mann died in 1859, a heartbroken Mary returned to Elizabeth, purchasing a house for herself and her sister in Concord. There the two sisters once again opened a school while Mary set about writing a biography of her husband and collecting his works.

Elizabeth’s passion was now for kindergartens and the German educator Friedrich Froebel. Froebel rejected fear-based discipline and emphasized the importance of fostering children’s curiosity about nature and their own senses. Froebel also believed in avoiding excessive introspection in the very young, a particular relief to Elizabeth after her experiences with Alcott. Together Mary and Elizabeth published Moral Culture of Infancy and Kindergarten Guide, 1863, explaining some of the new ideas. Further influenced by Horace Mann’s belief that public education could create citizens who would celebrate democracy and work to eradicate social injustices, and Channing’s belief that evil could only be transmitted to innocent children through an evil and unjust environment, Elizabeth became especially interested in the possibilities of a free public kindergarten in disadvantaged neighborhoods. After collecting adequate funds for the first such school, Elizabeth traveled and lectured widely, advocating kindergartens and recruiting and training kindergarten teachers. Once again Mary served an invaluable supporting role, seeing to much of the business behind the scenes and editing and contributing to the Kindergarten Messenger. She later found time to write the novel about Cuba that she had always dreamed of completing. Her Romance of a Real Life in Cuba Fifty Years Ago was posthumously published in 1887.

Elizabeth and Mary were together when they learned of Sophia’s death from illness in London in 1871. In their own later years they continued to be involved in a enormous variety of reform activities including women’s suffrage, world peace, and Native American rights. The sisters, especially Elizabeth, were sometimes ridiculed for their naive altruism, as when they raised money for Princess Sarah Winnemucca, a Native American Piute woman, who they supposed would build schools for her people. After they had supported Winnemucca for six years, the schools were only being started and the Princess was unable to account for the expenditure of the funds. Until the end the Peabodys believed in the justice of these causes and remained convinced of the power of their optimism. Mary died on February 11, 1887, Elizabeth following on January 3, 1894.

The Berg Collection at the New York Public Library has many original letters written by the Peabody sisters, Sophia especially. The collection also includes Sophia’s diaries. The Massachusetts Historical Society has the only journal of Mary Peabody Mann and also letters between Horace and Mary. The Antioch College Library in Yellow Springs, Ohio has some additional materials in its Mann collection. The Concord Free Public Library has some letters from both Elizabeth and Sophia to Bronson Alcott. Elizabeth’s letters are collected in Bruce A. Ronda, editor, The Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: American Renaissance Woman (1984). Aside from works mentioned above Mary wrote Flower-People: Being an Account of the Flowers Themselves, Illustrated with Plates (c1840-43); Life Among the Piutes; Their Wrongs and Claims (c1883); and, with son Georges Combe Mann, The Life and Works of Horace Mann (1865; additional material, 1891). Elizabeth wrote Reminiscences of Rev. Wm. Ellery Channing (1880), a hagiography, and Last Evening with Allston and Other Papers (1886).

Megan Marshall, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (2005); Gladys Brook, Three Wise Virgins (1957); and Louise Hall Tharp, The Peabody Sisters of Salem (1950) are group biographies of the Peabody sisters. Biographies of Elizabeth include Ruth M. Baylor, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: Kindergarten Pioneer (1965) and Bruce A. Ronda, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer in Her Own Terms (1999). Mary and Sophia are written up together with their husbands in Louise Hall Tharp, Until Victory: Horace Mann and Mary Peabody (1953) and Lou Ann Bigse Gaeddert, A New England Love Story: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody (1980). The Peabody sisters also feature largely in books about their circle of acquaintance: Madelon Bedell, The Alcotts: Biography of a Family (1980); Carlos Baker, Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait (1996); and Joel Myerson, editor, Transcendentalism: A Reader (2000).

Article by Susan Ritchie
Posted September 16, 2001