Education was of great importance to the Peabody family and the Peabody sisters each made great contributions to the education system.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was born May 16, 1804 in Billerica, Massachusetts. Her sister Mary Tyler Peabody followed on November 16, 1806 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sophia was the last daughter to be born on September 21, 1809, in Salem, Massachusetts where the family set down roots. Their parents, Nathaniel and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, had both received more education than was usual during the late 1700’s and both tutored their girls themselves. Mrs. Peabody was a school teacher and encouraged her daughters to become teachers as well. Nathanial Peabody also participated in his daughter’s education. He often tutored them and even spent time teaching Elizabeth Latin which eventually inspired her to learn 10 other languages.
In 1822, Elizabeth Peabody ventured out to start her own school in Boston. However, the school did not attract enough students and was forced to close. In order to earn money Elizabeth started working as a governess for several well to do families. She encouraged her sisters to do the same and even lined up a job as a governess for Mary Peabody. In 1825, Elizabeth, along with Mary, made another attempt at opening a school. This time they opened the school in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. The school remained successful until 1832 when a scandal was discovered involving one of the partners and the finances.
Sophia Peabody was more interested in art than teaching. Her sister Elizabeth arranged for her to study with some of the finest artists in Boston. Sophia sold some of her work and also was hired to do some prints for books. On a trip to Rome Sophia saw some of the work done by the most prominent artists in Europe. She concluded that her work was just mediocre and gave up art altogether.
Sophia had always had chronic ailments, so after her school in Boston closed Mary Peabody agreed to take her sister Sophia on a trip to Cuba for her health. While Sophia and Mary were away, Elizabeth Peabody began her own “reading parties” to support herself. At these reading parties Elizabeth gave lectures on the topics of literature and philosophy. She also began writing for Unitarian periodicals. In 1834, Elizabeth accepted an invitation to assist Bronson Alcott (Louisa May Alcott’s father) at his ground-breaking school. At Temple School, Alcott employed unique methods of teaching which involved self-expression and mutual respect. His aim was to bring out the pre-existing spirit within each child. Elizabeth taught Latin and geometry and recorded what was taking place at this experimental school. When Mary and Sophia returned from Cuba Elizabeth invited them to join her at Temple school but the two declined the offer. Instead Mary and Sophia opened their own school.
In 1835, Elizabeth Peabody published, Record of a School in which she explained her observations of the revolutionary school. Elizabeth praised Alcott’s methods but also distanced herself from him. Alcott also published a book on his teaching methods entitled Conversations with Children on the Gospels. Elizabeth thought his book went too far and that his discussions of the bible and human sexuality were far too radical for the American public. Elizabeth left the school and returned to her hometown of Salem.
Sophia Peabody eventually married Nathanial Hawthorn and participated in the transcendentalist movement and Boston’s Intellectual life. Despite Sophia’s health she had three children, Una, Julian, and Rose. Sophia encouraged her husband’s work and proved very loyal to him even when her support for him came between Sophia and her sisters.
Soon after, Mary Peabody married the famous educator Horace Mann. Mary had three sons, Horace Jr., George, and Benjamin. Since before they were married, Mary had been contributing lessons to Mann’s Common School Journal. After marriage she continued to actively participate in his plans for education reform. In particular, Mary helped to develop Antioch College which where Mann served as President. Mary also wrote the book, Christianity in the Kitchen in which she instructed that good nutrition was a moral duty.
Elizabeth Peabody was perhaps the most accomplished sister and never married. In 1840, Elizabeth opened the West Street Bookstore located in Boston. Her bookstore was quite popular among social reformers. She also became the first woman publisher. She published pieces such as Nathanial Hawthorne’s first children’s book and Henry David Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience.” In the span of 34 years Elizabeth managed to write 10 books and 50 articles, most of which pertained to education and social reform.
After Mann died in 1859, Mary Peabody once again teamed up with her sister Elizabeth. This time the two took on the task of developing kindergartens. Elizabeth was fond of the German philosophy of kindergarten started by Friedrich Froebel in which he frowned upon fear-based discipline. In 1863, Mary and Elizabeth published Moral Culture of Infancy and Kindergarten Guide and soon after started the Kindergarten Messenger. The two women hoped to start free kindergartens in poor neighborhoods. They were successful in their goal and opened the first kindergarten in America. Elizabeth traveled giving lectures and recruiting kindergarten teachers. The sisters also helped fund and support schools for Indian children. Elizabeth wrote a book about Princess Winnemucca and gave all the proceeds to the Princess to use on schools.
Sophia Peabody Hawthorne died in London in 1871. Mary Peabody Mann died on February 11, 1887 and Elizabeth Peabody died on January 3, 1894.
The Peabody Sisters Biography
Letters from Sophia to Elizabeth
Five College Archives
Ronda, Bruce A. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer On Her Own Terms. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
Tharp, Louise Hall. The Peabody Sisters of Salem. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950.
Marshall, Meagan. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. New York, N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.
Valenti, Patricia Dunlavy. Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: A Life, Volume 1, 1809-1847.