The 1800s


In 1829 Perkins became the first school chartered for students who are blind. In its’ first century, the Institution would help advocate for other school's around the country, create a new system for printing and reading embossed text, publish and distribute books in this text, and become the leader in blind and deafblind education.

1829 John Dix Fisher

Portrait painting of John Dix Fisher ca. 1840. He is wearing oval shaped glasses, has auburn hair, and is well dressed in a black coat, grey vest, and grey stock collar.

Portrait painting of John Dix Fisher ca. 1840. He is wearing oval shaped glasses, has auburn hair, and is well dressed in a black coat, grey vest, and grey stock collar.

In 1829, Dr. John Dix Fisher chartered the first school for the blind in the United States.

View from inside the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, photographed in 2013. Photograph by Ravi Poorun, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

View from inside the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, photographed in 2013. Photograph by Ravi Poorun, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Dr. Fisher is recognized as a pioneer of medical reform. His many achievements include introducing the stethoscope to the United States, helping found Massachusetts General Hospital, and pioneering childbirth anesthesia. He was also an early proponent of evidence based medicine and in attendance at the Ether Dome when anesthesia was used for the first time in surgery.

Learn more about Dr. Fisher on the Perkins history pages and read an article about him from the Brown Medicine Magazine: “Quiet Pioneer: A tribute to Dr. John Dix Fisher ’20.”


Did you know? Dr. Fisher was inspired by what he saw while visiting the school for the blind in Paris at the time Louis Braille would have been a student or student teacher there. Dr. Fisher visited the National Institution for Blind Youth while studying medicine in Paris. It is the first school opened for children with blindness.

1832 First Students

“Catalogue of Blind Pupils of the New England Institution for the Blind. Opened in August 1832. Samuel Gridley Howe

Photograph taken from the first page of a ledger titled, “Catalogue of Blind Pupils of the New England Institution for the Blind. Opened in August 1832. Samuel Gridley Howe” The names and their ages listed are: Charles Arnold, 15;Charles Morrill, 20; Thomas Oaks, 23; Maria Penniman, [none given]; Abigail Carter, 8; Sophia Carter, 6; Benjamin Bowen, 13; Joseph B. Smith, 9; Margaret B. Teague, 19; and Caroline A. Sawyer, 14.

The New England Institution for the Education of the Blind (now Perkins School for the Blind) opens with 6 students aged 6 to 23.

The school rapidly outgrows its early homes. By 1839, there are 65 students. Read more about the early school locations: first director Samuel Gridley Howe’s home, Thomas Handasyd Perkins’ mansion on Pearl Street, and beginning in 1839, a former hotel in South Boston.

portraits of Sophia B. Carter, Charles B. Coddington and Abby B. Carter

On left a seated portrait daguerreotype of Sophia B. Carter and her pupil, Charles B. Coddington, circa 1845. Carter was one of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe's first pupils at Perkins who later worked at the school as an assistant teacher. Carter wears dark glasses and Coddington's eyes are downcast. Their left hands are clasped and Coddington's right arm is wrapped around Carter's back and holds her right wrist. On the right Seated portrait daguerreotype of Abby B. Carter (Abigail), circa 1845. She wears a patterned dress and small, oval glasses (possibly opaque). Abby holds a book in her right hand and rests the fingertips of her left hand on a side table.

Two of the first students Sophia and Abigail Carter, toured the US. in 1841 with Howe, demonstrating their skills and knowledge. The tour advocated for support and funding for the creation of schools and books for the blind. Sophia later becomes a teacher at Perkins, working closely with future students.


Read a classified advertisement seeking student applications for Perkins in the December 13, 1832 issue of the Boston Courier.

1835 Books


Most people think of braille when they think of books for the blind, but braille was still very new when Perkins began, and not widely used outside of France. Instead, people use embossed alphabets, that raise the text from the page.

Sample of Boston Line Type

Sample of Boston Line Type that Reads:

“She Walks in Beauty.”

She walks in beauty, like the night of Cloudless climes and starry skies; And all that’s best of dark and bright Meet in her aspect and her eyes

In 1835, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe develops an embossed alphabet called Boston Line Type. He also commissions Stephen Preston Ruggles to build a printing press that can publish books in Boston Line Type.

A stack of seven books

Color photograph showing a stack of books printed At Perkins in 1835. The spines are damaged and worn, many of which have some kind of tape supporting the old binding. Books shown are: Murray’s English Grammar, Selection of Psalms, and Blind Child’s Spelling Book.

7 books are printed in 1835:

  • The Acts of the Apostles (Bible, New Testament)
  • Selection of Psalms (Bible, Old Testament)
  • Murray’s Grammar of the English Language (a widely used English grammar book, originally published in 1797)
  • The Blind Child’s Spelling Book (text created for Perkins)
  • An introductory Reading Book for Children (text created for Perkins)
  • The Dairy Man’s Daughter (A widely distributed story about religious conversion. Read a copy via Project Gutenberg.)
  • Baxter’s Call To the Unconverted (A religious text. Read a copy via the Internet Archive.)

Wondering what Boston Line Type feels like? If you visit the Perkins Museum, there are two books in the museum available to touch! They are located on tables near the Reading and Writing and Deafblind Exhibits. The Research Library can also share sample cards with you.

1837 Laura Bridgman

Wight wearing a shawl wrapped around her (left) and onto Bridgman's hand (right). Bridgman wears a sash around her eyes and finger-less gloves.

Portrait of Laura Bridgman and her teacher Sarah Wight circa 1845. Wight stands at left with a shawl wrapped around her and spells into Bridgman's hand. Bridgman wears a dress with long sleeves with many pleats down the front. She wears a sash tied around her eyes and finger-less gloves. 

Laura Bridgman was two years old when she became deafblind due to an outbreak of scarlet fever that killed her two older sisters. She came to the attention of a doctor associated with Dartmouth College, near her home in Hanover, New Hampshire.



Did You Know?: As an adult Bridgman would befriend Perkins student Anne Sullivan and teach her the manual alphabet. They lived in the same cottage for several years, and Bridgman was always delighted to have people to talk to.

An illustration of an article from Chamber's Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts. Bridgman sits at a desk while engaged in writing manual alphabet on her left arm. She wears an eye sash which is also worn by her doll lying next to her on the floor.

An illustration from an article about Laura Bridgman in the 1845 issue of Chambers’s Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts. Bridgman is shown sitting at a desk engaged in writing the manual alphabet on her left hand. A man is seated across from her. Bridgman is wearing her eye sash, which is also worn by a doll lying on the floor in front of her. There is also a woman in the background knitting.

In 1837, Laura Bridgman came to Perkins as a student just before she turned eight years old. She is considered the first child who was deafblind to complete a formal education. She was a prolific letter and journal writer, wrote poetry, and was very expressive about her opinions, experiences, and even her dreams.

Read more about Laura Bridgman on the Perkins History site. Our digital collections include photographs, textiles, and journals Laura created.

1839 A New Location

1910 color postcard showing South Boston campus of Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind

1910 color postcard showing South Boston campus of Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind. The building was formerly a hotel and stood on a hill. The trees in the foreground are mostly bare of leaves. A lone figure stands on the street in front of the school.  

In 1839, the school moved to its third location, a former hotel in South Boston. Over the following years, it expanded and bought surrounding property to add cottages and other buildings.

Portrait of Thomas Handasyd Perkins

Circa 1850 portrait daguerreotype of Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854). He is facing right, wearing a dark jacket and has a great deaf of white hair. 

The move is made possible by Thomas Handasyd Perkins who facilitates the sale of the mansion he had donated in 1833 (the school’s second location). To honor his generosity, the school is renamed the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind.

Learn more about Thomas Handasyd Perkins on the Perkins history site.


Did You Know?: When Perkins donated his mansion in 1839, he did so on the condition that funds be raised from the community. This helped ensure sustainable collaboration. $50,000 was raised in a month.

Read more about the move to the third location in the 1840 Annual Report on the Internet Archive.

1842 Charles Dickens

Portrait of Charles Dickens

Profile portrait of Charles Dickens taken between 1867 and 1868. Dickens has a greying long beard and moustache, is facing the camera at a slight angle, and is wearing a dark suit with a white shirt. Photograph by Jeremiah Gurney - Heritage Auction Gallery, is in the public domain.

In 1842, Charles Dickens visits Perkins as part of a tour of the United States. He enthusiastically praises Howe’s work with Laura Bridgman in his book American Notes.


Dickens later wrote to Howe inquiring about the cost of printing embossed editions of The Old Curiosity Shop, published in 1841. He funded its printing in 1869. A copy is on display in the Perkins Museum.

Color photograph of a copy of "Old Curiosity Shop"

Color photograph of a copy of "Old Curiosity Shop", by Charles Dickens which shows the spine and cover of the book. This large volume is printed in Boston Line Type and the leather bound spine says “Old Curiosity Shop,” [volume] “III” and “Perkins Institution for the Blind.” 

Read the 1868 letter from Charles Dickens asking Samuel Gridley Howe about the cost of printing an embossed edition of Curiosity Shop.

Read responses to the printing in the 1869 annual report (on the Internet Archive)

1876 Samuel Gridley Howe

Portrait of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, circa 1846

Portrait of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, circa 1846

Samuel Gridley Howe dies in 1876 at the age of 72. He had served as Director of Perkins for 45 years. His successor was Michael Anagnos, his long-time secretary and assistant, as well as his son-in-law.

Howe had a long and varied life. He fought in the Greek revolution between 1824 and 1827, and is still honored by the Greek government to this day. He and his wife, Julia Ward Howe, were both active abolitionists. They were actively involved in the social and intellectual life of Boston.

Learn more about Samuel Gridley Howe on the Perkins history site.


Illustration of the Virginia Institution for the Deaf & Dumb & Blind from the Institution’s 1853 Annual Report.

During his first years as director, Howe visited 15 states, getting schools started in Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.


Howe helped start schools for children with intellectual disabilities in 1848 and deafness in 1867.


Did you know? In 1846, Howe began interviewing children with intellectual disabilities. His notes include early documentation of what likely would be considered autism today.

1881 Howe Memorial Press

Portrait of Michael Anagnos

Three-quarter profile of Perkins' second director Michael Anagnos, circa 1859-1904. He has a long beard and is wearing a suit, vest and bow tie.

In 1881, Michael Anagnos, second director of Perkins, fundraises $1,000,000 for the Perkins Press, which is renamed the “Howe Memorial Press”

Illustration of the How Memorial Press

Illustration of a printing press with the inscription “Howe Memorial Press” engraved on the left side of the machine. The gears are exposed underneath a stand that holds a piece of paper on the top the machine. 

A year later a resolution stated that this endowment should not only benefit Perkins, but “make our publications accessible” to New Englanders, schools for the blind, and State public libraries.

Learn more about books for the blind and early printing approaches on the Perkins history site.


Did you know? In the 1880s, Howe Memorial Press began producing books in American Braille along with Boston Line Type, the embossed system printed at Perkins since 1835.

1882 - 1912: Daily Life at Perkins


A Perkins produced tactile map of New England, circa 1900. Embossed on thick paper and mounted on cardboard, this hand painted map has blue water and a yellow and white decorative border. The land contains raised state borders, mountain ranges. Explore this digitized map on the Tactile Maps Collection on Flickr.

Classes at Perkins in this period included reading, writing, arithmetic, higher mathematics, language, literature, music, history, geography, philosophy, political economy, natural history, and physical sciences.


According to an 1884 commencement speech by John S. Dwight, Perkins curriculum also included “above all the art of honest thinking and of simple, clear expression.” This speech in the 1884 Perkins Annual Report is available to read on the Internet Archive.


A box of fortune telling cards, circa 1908 from the Perkins Archives. The box shows a gypsy holding up a card in front of two young girls. The cards next to the box show people with labels such as “Strange News,” “A Fair Young Man,” and “A run of Luck”. Each card has been brailled on the top.

Students also learned household and manual skills. In their free time, they played games including checkers, bagatelle, parcheesi, dominoes, and devil-among-the-tailors (a form of table skittles).  They also arranged informal talks on a wide range of topics. In 1897, these included “War”, “Prize fighting”, “Farming”, “Wild animals”, “The subway”, and “What they do in other countries”.


Did you know? The girls at Perkins at this time lived in the cottage arrangement that continues today, but the boys were all in one large “congregate” housing building, due to limited space. The five cottages housed 22 people each: 16 girls, 1 housemother, 3 or 4 teachers, and a cook. They slept two to a room, and everyone in the cottage shared in the chores. A detailed description is available in the 1910 Perkins Annual Report.

1887: Kindergarten

Kindergarten teachers and students group portrait, 1893.

About 38 small children and 8 teachers pose for a group portrait on the steps of the Kindergarten Department of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, 1893. Thick vines cover the lower walls of the building and a wide arch covers the small porch at the top of the stairs leading to the entrance of the building. Learn more about this photograph and find more in the Kindergarten Collection on Flickr.

After 7 years of tireless fundraising by Perkins Director Michael Anagnos, the nation’s first kindergarten for children who are blind opens with 10 pupils in Jamaica Plain. Learn more about the kindergarten’s history on


Many of the donors were children. Donors include “Miss Soper’s Kindergarten Class in Somerville,” and “a little boy and a girl, a dollar each.” Perkins students raised $2,000. Access the 1896-1897 Kindergarten Fund donation list on the First Annual Report of the Kindergarten for the Blind, available on the Internet Archive.

Painting of Isabella Stewart Gardner painted by John Singer Sargent in 1888.

Painting of Isabella Stewart Gardner painted by John Singer Sargent in 1888. Gardner stands in a black dress, hands together in front of her. She has a pearl belt and pearl and ruby necklace on. A vibrant floral pattern of red and gold fills the background. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Did You Know? The inaugural Treasurer of the Ladies Auxiliary Society was Isabella Stewart Gardner. The society raised funds for the Kindergarten after its opening.

1888: Helen Keller at Perkins

A very young Helen Keller stands next to a seated Anne Sullivan, while Anne fingerspells into Keller's hand.

Studio portrait of a young Helen Keller standing next to a seated Anne Sullivan, while Anne fingerspells into Keller's hand, circa 1888. Helen’s left arm is around Anne’s right shoulder. Anne faces Helen. Explore the full photograph and more on the Perkins Archives Anne Sullivan Flickr Collection.

1888: Helen Keller Comes to Perkins. Helen and Anne studied at Perkins for extended periods between 1888 and 1892. She studied a number of subjects including French, arithmetic, and geography.


In the 1891 Annual Report, Perkins Director Michael Anagnos observes, "she spends much of her time in the library.” Helen enjoyed spending time in the Perkins Library reading embossed books and exploring the collection of bird and animal specimens in the tactile museum. Access the digitized report on the Internet Archive, and read more about Helen’s fondness for the Library on the Archives Blog.

four books shelved next to each other

Four embossed books once owned and donated to Perkins by Helen Keller in 1909, 1910, and 1915. Titles include The Merchant of Venice, Litterature Francais, and The Dog Tribe.

Did You Know? Keller donated books from her personal collection to Perkins. The collection includes volumes of novels, poetry, and non-fiction. Explore the titles in the Helen Keller Embossed Book Collection.

1897 Home teaching adults

Illustrated profile of Perkins Alumna Miss Lydia G. Hayes, 1900

Illustrated profile of Perkins Alumna Miss Lydia G. Hayes, “The Blind Girl Who Is Teaching Those Similarly Afflicted” from the Boston Sunday Post, November 11, 1900. Her hair is in a bun as she faces left. Read the digitized article this illustration was taken from on the Internet Archive.

Perkins Institution alumni decide to home teach adults and Director Anagnos agrees to supply expenses “beyond their means.” in the 1898 Perkins Annual Report. The need came out of concern for an adult blind population who, uneducated as children or newly visually impaired were left dependent and unable to read.  A newspaper article titled “The Adult Blind: The Peculiarly Unfortunate Situation” in the Monday, November 22nd 1897 article in the Boston Transcript discusses the issue and the efforts of Perkins Alumni and Perkins Institution in trying to alleviate this problem. This article has been digitized and is available on the Internet Archive.


By 1900 the Massachusetts Legislature appropriates money for home teaching and alumnus John Vars is appointed head of the new Home Teaching Department at Perkins in 1901. Read more about this in Perkins Digitized Clippings 1886-1906 on the Internet Archive.

A chart of the Moon system of embossed text.

A chart of the Moon System with a printed alphabet and embossed moon type below each letter. A close up of the chart illustrates the simple letter forms of Moon Type in detail.

Moon Type was and still is a system of embossed type helpful in teaching older adults and those with less tactile sense, to read. The symbols are similar to the roman alphabet but large, simplified, and reliant on curves, angles, and lines. A roman lowercase letter b looks like a lowercase j, for example.