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 : Dr. John Dix Fisher
- 1832: First students
- 1835 : Books
- 1837 : Laura Bridgman
- 1839 : A new location
- 1842 : Charles Dickens
- 1876 : Samuel Gridley Howe
- 1881 : Howe Memorial Press
- 1882 - 1912: Daily Life at Perkins
- 1887: Kindergarten
- 1888: Helen Keller at Perkins
- 1897: Home teaching adults
Table of Contents
- Did You Know
1829 John Dix Fisher
In 1829, Dr. John Dix Fisher chartered the first school for the blind in the United States.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
1842 Charles Dickens
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.
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
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.
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
In 1881, Michael Anagnos, second director of Perkins, fundraises $1,000,000 for the Perkins Press, which is renamed the “Howe Memorial Press”
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Perkins.org.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.