Women in History: Susan Blow, Founder of U.S. Kindergartens

8, March 2011

March is National Women's History Month, and we'll be bringing you profiles of St. Louis women who have made history happen. This week's profile is about Susan Blow, credited with opening the first kindergarten in the United States. The following is an excerpt from Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery, by Carol Ferring Shepley. It has been edited for length.

Susan Blow (1843–1916).

Today, it is taken for granted that elementary school starts with kindergarten. In 1873, Susan Blow fought to bring this concept into the St. Louis Public Schools, making St. Louis the first school district in the nation to offer kindergarten. By the time of her death in 1916, more than 400 cities had kindergartens in the public schools.

Susan Blow was born to wealth and privilege as the first of nine children of Henry Taylor Blow and Minerva Grimsley Blow. Her father had made a fortune in lead manufacturing, among other businesses. The family was very religious: Henry Taylor Blow had founded a Presbyterian church. Her parents placed a high priority on education: Her father had contributed the funds to build the Blow School, a public school still in existence.

Although Victorian families placed little emphasis upon educating their daughters, the Blows did put Susan in and out of school several times. At age six, she spent several months in a French school. She then stayed home until she was sent at age eight for a short stint to a school in St. Louis. A governess guided her studies until she was 14, when her father brought in a teacher to start a classroom for Susan and a few friends in Carondelet [a neighborhood in St. Louis]. At 16, she and a sister were sent to New York to attend a finishing school known as Miss Haines’s, which was not a “thorough one.” Fortunately, her father had a fine library where she read extensively such authors as Hegel, Kant, and the Concord school of transcendentalism. Further demonstrating her remarkable intelligence, she taught herself Portuguese so she could serve as her father’s secretary when he was ambassador to Brazil.

Attentive parents, the Blows worried about “her aversion to everything except study.” Indeed, she never married and was considered a member of the St. Louis School, a literary, philosophical, and educational movement. In 1871, the family made the grand tour of Europe, and Susan became acquainted with the work of Friedrich Froebel, a Swiss educator who believed education should begin in early childhood when a child’s intelligence and aptitude for learning could be trained through play. She observed the Froebel-inspired kindergartens that had spread throughout western Europe, Germany in particular, and resolved to bring them back to her hometown. Her father was willing to set up her kindergarten as a private school, but she felt that her mission lay with the children of the public school system.

Her beliefs dovetailed with those of William Torrey Harris, St. Louis superintendent of schools and then U.S. commissioner of education and the man for whom Harris-Stowe Teachers College was named. Faced with a city that had grown in population from 30,000 in 1840 to 300,000 in 1870, the new superintendent wisely undertook a study of the distribution of children throughout the city. What he learned was that many children attended school for only three years, particularly those living along the levee and in the factory districts. Many children were roaming the streets by the age of three. Harris gave Blow his full support with her kindergarten mission, for he believed it would take slum children off the streets and teach them habits of cleanliness and give them a taste for learning they would not otherwise receive. Later, he came to believe that the children of the wealthy also needed kindergarten because they might be neglected and left with servants.

With Harris’s blessing, Blow went to New York for a year to study Froebel’s methods with his disciple, Maria Kraus-Boelte. Upon her return in 1873, the school board of St. Louis accepted Blow’s offer to direct the city’s first public school kindergarten in room four of the Des Peres School in Carondelet, with a paid assistant, Mary A. Timberlake, working under her direction.

Kindergarten room in Des Peres School in 1873 in St. Louis, Missouri.

The program was so successful that each of the city schools came to start its own kindergarten until the 68 pupils of the Des Peres School in 1873 had grown to nearly 9,000 in schools throughout the city in the 11 years that Blow directed the program. In 1875 when the school board attempted to end the program in a cost-cutting measure, 1,500 people signed a petition that successfully urged them not to do so. In his annual report of 1875–1876, Harris devoted 40 pages to the kindergarten. The next year, the United States Centennial Commission in Philadelphia recognized Blow’s exhibit with an award to St. Louis for the excellence of kindergarten within the public school system. Her students took her methods all over the country. Not only did she accept no remuneration for her efforts, but she also donated her own money to buy supplies for the kindergartens. Many young women, 150 in 1876–1877 alone, volunteered as assistants in her kindergartens as well.

All of her hard work exhausted her. In 1884, she stopped working because her doctors had diagnosed her with a thyroid condition known as Graves’ disease. She stayed in St. Louis for four more years until she moved to Boston in 1884 along with Laura Fischer, who went to direct the kindergarten program of the Boston Public Schools. Blow wrote a book on Dante that was published in 1890. In 1893 after an operation, her health improved, and she began the first of five books on Froebel’s theories. She helped found the International Kindergarten Union. In 1910, her address to this organization in a meeting held at St. Louis’s Soldan High School was met with a standing ovation. Despite the fact that she had no high school education, she was given a three-year appointment to the Teachers College of Columbia University.

In 1895, she moved to Cazenovia, New York, to be near one of her sisters. She began lecturing about early childhood education across the country, quitting just a month before her death [in 1916]. Susan Blow was a woman with a mission that she accomplished by drawing upon her personal wealth and her remarkable intelligence.