Women's History in the Kindergarten Correspondence

Women's History in the Kindergarten Correspondence

Letterhead for May French-Sheldon's Lecture Tour, 1892.

Letterhead for May French-Sheldon's Lecture Tour, 1892. Courtesy of: Kindergarten for the Blind Correspondence Collection, Perkins School for the Blind.

April 19, 2017

This spring, I began the process of digitizing and indexing the Kindergarten for the Blind Correspondence Collection. I am a graduate student at Simmons College completing an advanced internship as the final step toward earning my master’s degree. The Kindergarten Correspondence Collection consists of 39 volumes, spanning the years 1884-1921. Because the collection is so large, and each volume contains at least one year’s worth of correspondence, I was only able to begin the process, digitizing and indexing the first 11 volumes. Most of the correspondence relates to the administration of the Kindergarten and fundraising, as well as letters to and from parents, letters concerning admission to the school, and letters concerning the attendance and health of students. Many of the letters show the dedication of women in the community to helping the Kindergarten and its students.

The Kindergarten for the Blind, the first in the United States, was established in Jamaica Plain, MA in 1887. While the first class only consisted of 10 pupils, by 1895, over 70 children were enrolled. The purpose of the school is to educate blind children and assist them in gaining the skills they need to be successful and independent after they leave the school. In 1913, the Kindergarten for the Blind integrated into the Perkins School for the Blind when both relocated to their current campus in Watertown, MA, where it was renamed “the Lower School.”

While digitizing and indexing the Kindergarten Collection, I came across numerous letters of interest. Two such letters came from notable women who took an interest in the Kindergarten. One was received from the business manager of May French-Sheldon (Volume 2), American author and African explorer, the other from Isabel Barrows (Volume 6), the first female stenographer employed by the US State Department and Congress. Women’s support of the Kindergarten was quite important to its continuation, as many women gave donations and remembered the Kindergarten in their wills, as well as providing sponsorship for specific students in need. Many even opened their houses to students over vacations that had nowhere else to go.

Portrait of May French-Sheldon, 1891, by Van der Weyde.

Portrait of May French-Sheldon, 1891, by Van der Weyde. Courtesy of Wikimeida.

May French-Sheldon set out on an expedition to explore Africa unaccompanied in 1891. A woman exploring Africa in this time would have been remarkable by itself, but the fact that she refused the assistance of other male explorers and solely relied on African guides is exceptional. Her expedition took her around Lake Chala, meeting with many African chiefs during her travels. Upon her return she wrote a book about her experiences, Sultan to Sultan: Adventures among the Masai and other Tribes of East Africa, and undertook a lecture tour.

In 1892, her business manager corresponded with Michael Anagnos about the possibility of having French-Sheldon give a lecture on behalf of the Kindergarten, in which the proceeds would be split between the school and French-Sheldon. The several letters discuss terms for the engagement, as well as discussion on a press release. Unfortunately, there is no evidence in the Kindergarten’s Annual Reports that such a lecture took place. It is, however, very interesting to see how such events were planned and what terms were set. May French-Sheldon was among the first 15 women to be made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1892, and is the subject of the book, White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity by Tracey Jean Boisseau. I read this book in one of my history courses at Simmons, and found it to be a fascinating look into an impressive woman. Her showmanship and elaborate lectures attracted large crowds, and she was widely known for her impressive dress which she donned for meetings with African chiefs, which lead to her being known among them as "the White Queen."

Portrait of Isabel Barrows.

Portrait of Isabel Barrows. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Isabel Barrows was the first woman to do many things: the first woman employed by the US State Department as a stenographer, the first woman to work for Congress as a stenographer, the first woman to attend the University of Vienna to study ophthalmology, and the first woman ophthalmologist. She was also actively involved in the National Conference of Charities, the National Prison Association, and the Women’s Committee to Inspect Women’s Institutions. In 1899, Barrows provided her stenography services for the Kindergarten, recording the speeches given at an event by Mrs. Howe and a Mr. Wells. Originally planning to charge only a portion of her usual fee, Barrows later attempted to refuse all payment, giving her time as a donation to the Kindergarten, however, a well-timed check (dated on her birthday) convinced her to accept payment.

These two impressive women are among the many supporters of the Kindergarten over the years. By providing donations, lending time and energy, sending funds for students, as well as providing special services for the school (such as stenography), women were instrumental in supporting the growth and continuation of the Kindergarten. I, as a history student with a particular fascination in women’s history, found the number of women offering support or contributing in some way to the Kindergarten for the Blind truly fascinating. It has also been a very interesting experience, learning more about the digitization process and the Kindergarten.