Foreign Bookstore
[biography, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody]
New England Transcendentalism

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Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
an outline biography

  Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was born in Billerica, Massachusetts in May 1804 as the oldest of an eventual seven children of Nathaniel Peabody and Elizabeth Palmer both of whom were teachers. Nathaniel later retrained in dentistry and practiced at Salem, Massachusetts.

  Elizabeth was taught by her parents from an early age with her mother encouraging a high degree of accomplishment in a broad range of subjects. She excelled in the history, literature and Latin whilst also being quite daring as a horsewoman as well as a crack shot. Elizabeth was very close to her sisters Mary Tyler (born 1807) and Sophia Amelia (born 1809).

  Elizabeth became a school teacher in 1822 and spent some years in that profession and private tutoring in Boston and Maine. She and her sister Mary were the principals behind a successful private school in Brookline for a time.

  A most popular and influential Unitarian minister, Dr. William Ellery Channing, enrolled his daughter Mary in Miss Elizabeth and Mary Peabody's school in 1826, many new pupils followed this example, and the school was given a significant boost in popularity and attendance. Miss Elizabeth Peabody incidentally raised her profile of social prominence by becoming accepted, because of her own talents, as a virtual assistant to Dr. William Ellery Channing in some aspects his pastoral role. Particularly relevant in this regard was Miss Elizabeth Peabody being consulted in relation to the framing of the sermons that Channing was planning to deliver. In these times it was often the case that the content, and delivery, of a sermon was of prime importance in retaining the attention and respect of a congregation.

  The Peabody's school eventually failed largely due to a mishandling of its finances by a third party. Mary then spent some time assisting the ailing Sophia on a trip to Cuba in search of an improvement in health whilst Elizabeth became the first person in Boston to support herself by conducting "reading parties," or lectures to small groups of women on various literary and philosophical topics in return for the price of a ticket. Other modest income was derived from the writing of articles for publications.

  Elizabeth Peabody also went to work for Bronson Alcott at his innovative Temple School that had opened in 1834 in Boston and was to be informed by a transcendentalist ethos. This school failed however and Elizabeth Peabody suffered some significant immediate loss by way of accumulated unpaid salary at this time. More significantly she was to also suffer a more enduring loss of acceptability as a teacher because of her association with the controversial educationalist Bronson Alcott.

  In 1837 the rather attractive Miss Sophia Amelia Peabody met her neighbour Nathaniel Hawthorne as he came to call on Miss Elizabeth Peabody. Elizabeth had helped to bring Nathaniel Hawthorne's talent to a wider recognition drawing the attention of the Ralph Waldo Emerson circle to Hawthorne. The poet Jones Very was also decisively noticed as a literary figure by Elizabeth Peabody and Emerson in 1839.

  In these times Elizabeth Palmer Peabody decided to attempt to earn a living by going into business as a book seller and subscription librarian.

  In these times it was not socially expected that women would seek to involve themselves as business people. As publisher as well as book seller Elizabeth tended to disguise her gender somewhat by styling herself as E.P. Peabody. It seems certain that Elizabeth was the first woman publisher in Boston and was very likely also the first in the United States also. She helped to edit and publish the sermons of Dr. William Ellery Channing and some works by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her single issue of a would-be Transcendentalist periodical, Aesthetic Papers, included the first publication of Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience.

  Elizabeth believed that a book shop ought to not merely sell books but should function more widely as a meeting place for authors and readers to congregate, discuss and purchase books. Her Boston book shop (opened at 13 West Street, Boston, in July 1840) flourished and soon such people as Margret Fuller, the Emersons, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes came to speak there. The Foreign Library aspect was advertised as only being open to fifty subscribers each of whom were to subscribe five dollars for a years borrowing priveleges. It was anticipated that only works of high intrinsic merit would be on the library shelves with most editions actually being in foreign languages.

  The New England Transcendentalists were particularly drawn to and influenced by the works of a number of foreign authors, such as the German writers Kant, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Schelling, Goethe, and Novalis, the French writers Cousin and Constant, the English Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth. More explicitly mystical and philosophic titles such as those by Plato and several Neoplatonists writers, Emanuel Swedenborg, and the Sayings of Confucius were also in demand as were such Hindu sacred texts as the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads.

  Many in England and America were exposed to German thought through the writings of Coleridge and Carlyle. Coleridge's Aids to Reflection, first published in 1825, was edited in 1829 by James Marsh, who added a lengthy introduction elucidating German philosophy for the American reader. Carlyle wrote a life of Schiller and translated from Goethe. Between 1838 and 1842, George Ripley edited and published, in fourteen volumes, Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature, which included translations from French and German authors.

  The inspiration and confirmation that the New England Transcendentalists found in foreign literature, coupled with the limited availability of foreign books, presented an opportunity tailored to Miss Peabody. With her considerable linguistic attainments, broad and deep reading, and love of intellectual pursuit toward the end of perfection of self and society, she combined knowledge, enthusiasm, and idealism in setting up the Foreign Library.

  The library and bookshop occupied the front parlour of the building. Other Peabody family members were involved in the enterprise as assistants. Paintings by Sophia Peabody, which were available for purchase, hung on the walls.

  Elizabeth added authorship of books, articles, and pamphlets to her list of accomplishments. There were several childrens titles, text books, teaching aids, and novels. On one occasion Elizabeth had to bear financial loss when all of the copies one of her titles, of which she had herself recently been the publisher were lost in a warehouse fire.

  Elizabeth Palmer Peabody became the eventual publisher of the transcendentalist magazine, The Dial. Elizabeth was quite active in transcendentalist circles - she herself contributed articles to The Dial. Prominent transcendentalists such as Margaret Fuller were amongst those who availed of the bookstore premises to hold meetings, lectures, and conversational classes. The bookstore served as an important organisational focus for New England Transcendentalism. Much of the planning towards the establishment of the utopian Brook Farm community was conducted at the Peabody bookstore and library.

  Elizabeth retained a life long commitment to Unitarianism from the age of eight or nine when she had first heard the Rev. William Ellery Channing preach at the Second Church in Salem, Massachusetts. Transcendentalism was for Elizabeth something other than, and different to, the Unitarianism to which she personally adhered.

  Their meeting of 1837 led to the marriage of Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne in a ceremony performed, by James Freeman Clarke in July 1842, in the back room of Elizabeth's bookstore. In May, 1843, another family wedding took place there as Mary exchanged vows with Horace Mann who was later to become a Congressman and President of Antioch College.

  By circa 1845 Elizabeth's book shop was struggling for want of customers and persons wishing to hold intellectual meetings there. Times had changed and issues that had been keenly inquired into had lost their immediacy of interest. The shop remained open however into the early 1850's.

  All in all, the Foreign Library was, for several years, a vital place. Miss Peabody loved being at the center of intellectual ferment. In later years, she wrote about what it had meant to her: "I had ... a Foreign Library of new French and German books, and then I came into contact with the world as never before. The Ripleys were starting Brook Farm, and they were friends of ours. Theodore Parker was beginning his career, and all these things were discussed in my bookstore by Boston lawyers and Cambridge professors. Those were very living years for me."

  Elizabeth was employed for a short time again as a teacher but subsequently spent some ten years earning a modest living by personally traveling widely to promote, and sell, coloured charts that she had herself developed as a teaching aid in the study of history. During these years she became intrigued by the theories of a German educator by the name of Friedrich Froebel who thought that children should be taught in a caring and fun atmosphere rather than by instilling fear in them throught the threat of a physical discipline.

  When Horace Mann died in 1859, a heartbroken Mary returned from Ohio to Elizabeth, purchasing a house for herself and her sister in Concord. There the two sisters once again opened a school while Mary set about writing the Life and Works of Horace Mann, which was later published in three volumes.

  In 1860 Elizabeth and her sister Mary began the first kindergarten in the United States. It was located in Pickney Street, Boston, and based on the concepts developed by Friedrich Froebel. With her sister Mary, she also wrote and published the book called the Moral Culture Guide to Infancy and kindergarten Guide, which was very successful within the educational field. Elizabeth traveled widely promoting and constructing kindergartens.

  In 1867 she voyaged to Europe to take notes on the schooling in several countries and to more directly study Froebel's methods in an effort to gain inspiration as to what would work in America. In 1870 when she returned, Elizabeth set up the first free public-school in the United States.

  Her main goal upon her return to the United States was to develop kindergartens all over America and in a few years kindergartens had spread all the way to San Francisco. Elizabeth Peabody held training classes and lectures, she wrote articles for magazines and also served as editor of the widely influential Kindergarten Messenger (1873-1877).

  In 1882 Elizabeth was invited to speak at the Bronson Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy, she was so successful that she was asked back for a second speech.

  The Paiute Indian Princess Sarah Winnemucca came to Elizabeth and Mary Peabody for help at a time when her people's lives were being dramatically affected by migrations of white Americans which encroached upon the Paiute's traditional lifestyles. Mary Peabody wrote a book about the hardships of the Princess's people. Elizabeth gave lectures and continued to appeal to people for donations. The Peabody sisters helped Sarah Winnemuca to establish an Indian run school. This school was bilingual and was supportive of Paiute traditions. The Peabody sisters were however made to seem naively idealistic, rather than worldly, by association when a scandal emerged in the schools finances. This was one of the last projects Elizabeth would work on with Mary who died on February 11, 1887.

  For the next few years Elizabeth was largely confined to her bed but still continued her projects and crusades for just causes.

  Elizabeth Palmer Peabody died on January 3, 1894.

New England
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Henry David Thoreau
Margaret Fuller
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
The Brook Farm


Start of
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
An outline biography