Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

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  • Known for: role in Transcendentalism; bookshop owner, publisher; promoter of kindergarten movement; activist for women's and Native American rights; older sister of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne and Mary Peabody Mann
  • Occupation: writer, educator, publisher
  • Dates: May 16, 1804, to January 3, 1894


Elizabeth's maternal grandfather, Joseph Pearse Palmer, was a participant in the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the Battle of Lexington in 1775 and fought with the Continental Army as an aide to his own father, a General, and as a Quartermaster General. Elizabeth's father, Nathaniel Peabody, was a teacher who entered the medical profession about the time Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was born. Nathaniel Peabody became a pioneer in dentistry, but he was never financially secure.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was raised by her mother, Eliza Palmer Peabody, a teacher, and was taught in her mother's Salem school through 1818 and by private tutors.

Early Teaching Career

When Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was in her teens, she helped in her mother's school. She then started her own school in Lancaster where the family moved in 1820. There, she also took lessons from the local Unitarian minister, Nathaniel Thayer, to further her own learning. Thayer connected her to the Rev. John Thornton Kirkland who was the president of Harvard. Kirkland helped her find pupils to set up a new school in Boston.

In Boston, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody studied Greek with a young Ralph Waldo Emerson as her tutor. He refused payment for his services as a tutor, and they became friends. Peabody also attended lectures at Harvard, though as a woman, she could not formally enroll there.

In 1823, Elizabeth's younger sister Mary took over Elizabeth's school, and Elizabeth went to Maine to serve as teacher and governess to two affluent families. There, she studied with the French tutor and improved her skill in that language. Mary joined her in 1824. They both returned to Massachusetts and in 1825 opened a school in Brookline, a popular summer community.

One of the students in the Brookline school was Mary Channing, daughter of Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody had heard his sermons when she was a child and had corresponded with him while she'd been in Maine. For almost nine years, Elizabeth served as a volunteer secretary to Channing, copying his sermons and getting them ready to be printed. Channing often consulted her while he was writing his sermons. They had many long conversations and she studied theology, literature, and philosophy under his guidance.

Move to Boston

In 1826 the sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, moved to Boston to teach there. That year, Elizabeth wrote a series of essays on Biblical criticism; these were finally published in 1834.

In her teaching, Elizabeth began to focus on teaching history to children - and then began to teach the subject to adult women. In 1827, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody started a "historical school" for women, believing that the study would lift women out of their traditionally narrow confined role. This project began with lectures, and evolved more into reading parties and conversations, anticipating Margaret Fuller's later and more famous conversations.

In 1830, Elizabeth met Bronson Alcott, a teacher in Pennsylvania, when he was in Boston for his wedding. He was later to play an important role in Elizabeth's career.

In 1832, the Peabody sisters closed their school, and Elizabeth began private tutoring. She published a few textbooks based on her own methods.

The next year, Horace Mann, who had been widowed in 1832, moved into the same boardinghouse where the Peabody sisters were living. He seemed at first to be drawn to Elizabeth but eventually began to court Mary.

Later that year, Mary and their still-younger sister Sophia went to Cuba and stayed in 1835. The trip was designed to help Sophia regain her health. Mary worked in Cuba as a governess to pay their expenses.

Alcott's School

While Mary and Sophia were away, Bronson Alcott, whom Elizabeth had met in 1830, moved to Boston, and Elizabeth helped him to start a school, where he applied his radical Socratic teaching techniques. The school opened September 22, 1833. (Bronson Alcott's daughter, Louisa May Alcott, had been born in 1832.)

At Alcott's experimental Temple School, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody taught for two hours each day, covering Latin, arithmetic, and geography. She also kept a detailed journal of the class discussions, which she published in 1835. She also helped the school's success by recruiting students. Alcott's daughter who was born in June of 1835 was named Elizabeth Peabody Alcott in honor of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a sign of the esteem in which the Alcott family held her.

But the next year, there was a scandal around Alcott's teaching about the gospel. His reputation was enhanced by the publicity; as a woman, Elizabeth knew that her reputation was threatened by the same publicity. So she resigned from the school. Margaret Fuller took Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's place at Alcott's school.

The next year, she began a publication, The Family School, written by her mother, herself, and three sisters. Only two issues were published.

Meeting Margaret Fuller

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody had met Margaret Fuller when Fuller was 18 and Peabody was 24, but Peabody had heard of Fuller, the child prodigy, earlier. In the 1830s, Peabody helped Margaret Fuller find writing opportunities. In 1836, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody talked Ralph Waldo Emerson into inviting Fuller to Concord.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's Bookshop

In 1839, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody moved to Boston and opened a bookstore, the West Street bookshop and lending library at 13 West Street. She and her sister Mary, at the same time, ran a private school upstairs. Elizabeth, Mary, their parents, and their surviving brother Nathaniel lived upstairs. The bookshop became a meeting place for intellectuals, including the Transcendentalist circle and Harvard professors. The bookshop itself was stocked with many foreign books and periodicals, anti-enslavement books, and more; it was a valuable resource for its patrons. Elizabeth's brother Nathaniel and their father sold homeopathic remedies, and the bookshop also sold art supplies.

Brook Farm was discussed and supporters found at the bookshop. The Hedge Club held its last meeting at the bookshop. Margaret Fuller's Conversations were held at the bookshop, the first series starting November 6, 1839. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody kept transcripts of Fuller's Conversations.


The literary periodical The Dial was also discussed at the bookshop. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody became its publisher and served as publisher for about a third of its life. She was also a contributor. Margaret Fuller did not want Peabody as the publisher until Emerson had vouched for her responsibility.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody published one of Fuller's translations from the German, and Peabody submitted to Fuller, who was serving as Dial editor, an essay she'd written in 1826 on patriarchy in the ancient world. Fuller rejected the essay; she liked neither the writing nor the topic. Peabody introduced the poet Jones Very to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody also "discovered" the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and got him the custom-house job that helped support his writing. She published several of his children's books. There were rumors of a romance, and then her sister Sophia married Hawthorne in 1842. Elizabeth's sister Mary married Horace Mann on May 1, 1843. They went on an extended honeymoon with another pair of newlyweds, Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe.

In 1849, Elizabeth published her own journal, Aesthetic Papers, which failed almost immediately. But its literary impact lasted, for in it she had published for the first time Henry David Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience, "Resistance to Civil Government."

After the Bookshop

Peabody closed the bookshop in 1850, shifting her attention back to education. She began promoting a system of studying history originated by Gen. Joseph Bern of Boston. She wrote on the topic at the request of the Boston Board of Education. Her brother, Nathaniel, illustrated her work with the charts that were part of the system.

In 1853, Elizabeth nursed her mother through her final illness, as the only daughter at home and unmarried. After her mother's death, Elizabeth and her father moved briefly to Ruritan Bay Union in New Jersey, a utopian community. The Manns moved about this time to Yellow Springs.

In 1855, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody attended a women's rights convention. She was a friend to many in the new women's rights movement and occasionally lectured for women's rights.

In the late 1850s, she began promoting public schools as a focus of her writing and lecturing.

On August 2, 1859, Horace Mann died, and Mary, now a widow, moved first to The Wayside (the Hawthornes were in Europe), and then to Sudbury Street in Boston. Elizabeth lived there with her until 1866.

In 1860, Elizabeth traveled to Virginia in the cause of one of the participants in John Brown's Harper's Ferry Raid. While in general sympathy with the anti-enslavement movement, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was not a major figure in the movement.

Kindergarten and Family

Also in 1860, Elizabeth learned of the German kindergarten movement and the writings of its founder, Friedrich Froebel, when Carl Schurz sent her a book by Froebel. This fits well with Elizabeth's interests in education and young children.

Mary and Elizabeth then founded the first public kindergarten in the United States, also called the first formally organized kindergarten in America, on Beacon Hill. In 1863, she and Mary Mann wrote Moral Culture in Infancy and Kindergarten Guide, explaining their understanding of this new educational approach. Elizabeth also wrote an obituary for Mary Moody Emerson, aunt and influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1864, Elizabeth received word from Franklin Pierce that Nathaniel Hawthorne had died during a trip to the White Mountains with Pierce. It fell to Elizabeth to deliver the news to her sister, Hawthorne's wife, of Hawthorne's death.

In 1867 and 1868, Elizabeth traveled to Europe to study and better understand the Froebel method. Her 1870 reports on this trip were published by the Bureau of Education. That same year, she set up the first free public kindergarten in America.

In 1870, Elizabeth's sister Sophia and her daughters moved to Germany, living in lodging recommended by Elizabeth from her visit there. In 1871, the Hawthorne women moved to London. Sophia Peabody Hawthorne died there in 1871. One of her daughters died in London in 1877; the other married returned and moved into the old Hawthorne home, The Wayside.

In 1872, Mary and Elizabeth founded the Kindergarten Association of Boston and started another kindergarten, this one in Cambridge.

From 1873 to 1877, Elizabeth edited a journal she founded with Mary, Kindergarten Messenger. In 1876, Elizabeth and Mary organized an exhibit on kindergartens for the Philadelphia World's Fair. In 1877, Elizabeth founded with Mary the American Froebel Union, and Elizabeth served as its first president.

The 1880s

One of the members of the early Transcendentalist circle, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody outlived her friends in that community and those who had preceded and influenced it. It often fell to her to memorialize her old friends. In 1880, she published "Reminiscences of William Ellery Channing, D.D." Her tribute to Emerson was published in 1885 by F. B. Sanborn. In 1886, she published Last Evening with Allston. In 1887, her sister Mary Peabody Mann died.

In 1888, still involved in education, she published Lectures in Training Schools for Kindergartners.

During the 1880s, not one to rest, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody took up the cause of the American Indian. Among her contributions to this movement was her sponsorship of lecture tours by the Piute woman, Sarah Winnemucca.


Elizabeth Palmer Peabody died in 1884 in her home in Jamaica Plain. She was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. None of her Transcendentalist colleagues survived to write a memorial to her.

On her tombstone was inscribed:

Every humane cause had her sympathy
And many her active aid.

In 1896, a settlement house, Elizabeth Peabody House, was founded in Boston.

In 2006, the remains of Sophia Peabody Mann and her daughter Una were moved from London to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, near the grave of Nathaniel Hawthorne on Author's Ridge.

Background, Family

  • Mother: Eliza Palmer Peabody
  • Father: Nathaniel Peabody
  • Peabody Children:
    • Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: May 16, 1804 to January 3, 1894
    • Mary Tyler Peabody Mann: November 16, 1807 to February 11, 1887
    • Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: September 21, 1809 to February 26, 1871
    • Nathaniel Cranch Peabody: born 1811
    • George Peabody: born 1813
    • Wellington Peabody: born 1815
    • Catherine Peabody: (died in infancy)


  • Well-educated privately and in schools run by her mother

Religion: Unitarian, Transcendentalist


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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody." ThoughtCo, Nov. 1, 2020, thoughtco.com/elizabeth-palmer-peabody-biography-3530587. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, November 1). Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/elizabeth-palmer-peabody-biography-3530587 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/elizabeth-palmer-peabody-biography-3530587 (accessed March 27, 2023).