One hundred years ago a German schoolmaster named Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel opened in Blankenburg the world's first kindergarten. Lonely, eccentric Friedrich Froebel, who had left school at a tender age to become a forester's apprentice because his teachers thought him a dunce, believed that children were "young plants needing to be nurtured carefully." In the garden of his private academy, which gave the kindergarten its name, Teacher Froebel supervised the play of his neighbors' children in a systematic manner, until his socialistic and irreligious leanings moved the Prussian authorities to close the school.
That broke Friedrich Froebel's heart, he died soon afterward. Last week fell not only the centenary of the kindergarten but Friedrich Froebel's birthday, and 750,000 restless U. S. kindergarteners had to sit still on their little red chairs long enough to hear his story.
First U. S. kindergarten was started in 1856 in Watertown, Wis. by Mrs. Carl Schurz, wife of the famed Thuringian revolutionary who became Lincoln's Minister to Spain, Hayes's Secretary of the Interior and the first German-born citizen to sit in the U. S. Senate.* Under such auspices the kindergarten soon attracted philanthropists. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, mother of William Randolph, opened one for the children in her husband's mining community at Lead, S. Dak. and financed the Parent-Teachers' Association mainly to promote the kindergarten movement.
A young teacher in San Francisco's dismal Tar Flat section named Kate Douglas Wiggin (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) made the kindergarten popular in one of her first tales, The Story of Patsy. When the Atlantic Monthly damned the kindergarten as "a joy saloon," spunky Miss Wiggin flashed: "I like the name. Anyone who has seen, as I have, the dreary tenement rooms in which many children live would be glad to give them little tipples of joy." [Another generous early patron was Boston's Mrs. Quincy Shaw, who at one time kept 30 kindergartens going. Once a youngster who was asked "Who is it brings the flowers adorning earth anew?" promptly piped "Mrs. Shaw."]
No longer a philanthropy, the kindergarten has steadily penetrated the U. S. public school system since St. Louis opened one as an experiment in 1873 under Superintendent William Torrey Harris, who as
U. S. Commissioner of Education (1889-1907) saw kindergartens established in more than 400 U. S. municipal school systems. After Depression retrenchments in 52 cities, including Chicago, Commissioner John Ward Studebaker's U. S. Office of Education made the Froebel Centenary a happy birthday by reporting that kindergartens, with budgets, were on the upgrade, are now available to 30% of the nation's 5-year-olds.
*Current German-born Senator: New York's Robert Ferdinand Wagner.