Supporting early childhood professionals worldwide in
their efforts to craft thriving environments for children and adults.
By Dorothy W. Hewes, Ph.D.Go to page: 1 2 3
America's oldest child care centers were started during a period of economic growth and intellectual turbulence. Although there were a few wealthy families during the 18th century, someone described the nation as having "pyramids of money in a desert of want." By the mid-1800s, however, professional and business men began to prosper. As the morally superior gentler sex, middle-class wives improved their minds and discharged obligations to the unfortunates of society through church, club, and literary groups. There was no unifying sense of sisterhood, no mutual faith or endeavor.
When the German kindergarten of Friedrich Froebel became known to English-speaking Americans during the 1870s, women became energized by his idea that within each child lies the potential for self-realization and self-learning, a potential developed not through stern discipline but by "learning by doing" in a joyous play school. Parents abandoned old beliefs in children's innate depravity to promote development of their innate goodness through the kindergarten system. Three to six year olds could learn morality and citizenship while they enjoyed educational games and songs or busied themselves with bead stringing, block building, paper folding, and the construction of "forms of beauty" with wooden slats or parquetry blocks. Mothers could extend their domestic role by assisting the teachers in the classroom, learning new methods to apply at home.
There were less than a dozen kindergartens in 1870, all dependent upon parent fees. Ten years later, when there were about 400 in 30 states, most of them had some form of outside financial support. Early sponsors included the New England Women's Club, Sorosis, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (with its motto of "Prevention, Not Reform - the Kindergarten Not the Prison is True Philanthropy").
Women of all social classes, religious denominations, and political orientations banded together to promote both charity and fee-paid kindergartens. Affluent matrons gave generously to the cause. Jane Stanford contributed $30,000 to San Francisco's Golden Gate Kindergarten Association by 1887, and her later endowment of $100,000 helps explain its position on our current list (page xx). Pauline Agassiz Shaw, who used some of the profits from her husband's copper mining interests to underwrite 31 Boston kindergartens by 1882, objected to the term "charity" because it was demeaning to the recipients. Names like Armour, Vanderbilt, and Hearst are also on the donor lists, but some kindergarten association members pledged 50› a month, saved penny by penny.
Whatever their financial status, these women shared more than a faith in Froebel's system; they shared inferior status in a society that was controlled by men. Even in the National Education Association, the Kindergarten Department represented a chasm between genders that was greater than any distinctionsbased upon professional training.
The expansion of charity kindergartens, many of them in churches, supplemented or replaced some of the custodial day nurseries for poor working mothers. In her history of kindergartens, Nina Vandewalker wrote that "the new institution became recognized as the most valuable of child-saving agencies, with mission kindergarten work so valuable among wealthy young women as to be almost a fad." Although about half of the country's 4,000 kindergartens were philanthropic when the 1893 depression began, mere numbers cannot capture the evangelical fervor contained in letters and publications of the period; Ross aptly called it "The Kindergarten Crusade."
Kindergarten advocates were often considered to be "sentimental," but this term can mean the use of sensitivity and emotions rather than logical processes. It was a feminine strategy that made a strong impact during an era when people were concerned with the moral, social, and political aspects of good citizenship; a clearly rational approach would never have gained momentum. However, extravagant claims were often made - as when Mary Mann wrote that entire neighborhoods were transformed if "little minds" were "fertilized" by the kindergarten. "Fathers found entertainment in the children's singing to keep them home from the grog shop" and the beer money went into a savings fund.
American enthusiasts also added their own interpretations to the original German writings. For example, Froebel devised the "Snail Game" as a transition from active outdoor play to indoor activities. Children were to join hands with the teacher, who slowly turned so that the line formed a spiral and then uncoiled to become a circle. The American translation ended with the mystical interpretation that this symbolized the wholeness of humanity but missed its practical intention.
Critics could easily point to writings like these to condemn the whole system - and to provide a basis for their own advanced ideas. But to children in the urban missions, on the Indian reservations, at places like the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company where there were 27 home languages, or in countless parlors where mothers presided over a cluster of young neighbors, the hours in kindergarten were filled with delightful activities.
Our list of oldest child care organizations includes a substantial number that originated in settlement houses that were established as multipurpose service centers in urban poverty areas. One of the first was in Detroit, opening in 1881; but the best known was Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago. Its kindergarten, opened in 1889 as a model of beauty and convenience, had competent staff assisted by students from Alice Putnam's training classes. Many others were equally excellent, but some were so horrible that the first child care licensing laws were developed as an attempt to control the worst of them.
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