Isabel Greeley, Principal Matron of the Kindergarten 1887-1899

Isabel Greeley was the Principal Matron of Perkins Kindergarten - the first kindergarten for the blind

children playing on a playground

Cecile Mazzucco-Than, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and author of “A Form Foredoomed to Looseness”: Henry James’s Preoccupation with the Gender of Fiction. Since her 2004 articles on Emilie Poulsson published in The Hopkinton Crier, she has spent happy years researching and writing the as yet unpublished “To Make My Fingers Serve”: Emilie Poulsson and the Kindergarten Cause.

Our plans for today must include tomorrow’s possibilities

Isabel Greeley

When the Perkins School opened the first kindergarten for the blind in Jamaica Plain in 1887, male and female students lived and studied in separate buildings. Miss Isabel Greeley was hired as the first matron of the boys building and the first “Principal Matron” of the entire kindergarten (Sixty-Fourth Annual 125). She remained a “foster mother” as well as “a true and devoted friend” to the pupils for twelve years (Walsh 52). Born Mary Isabel Greeley on February 9, 1843 to Mary Jane Wheeler Greeley and her husband Samuel Plummer Greeley, a harness maker in Manchester, New Hampshire, Isabel Greeley most likely came to Perkins through a connection to Julia Ward Howe, and stayed to create a legacy of her own. 

Although she most often went by her middle name, she appears as Mary Isabella Greeley on the list of graduates from New Hampshire’s Concord High School in 1860, and she used a combination of her first name, her middle name, or the initials of either one throughout her life (“Graduates” 29). What she did to earn a living after high school is unknown. However, in 1884, Samuel P. Hale, Governor of New Hampshire, appointed the nearly forty-year-old Greeley as one of the state’s female commissioners to the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. (Folsom 234) 

For the same exposition, Julia Ward Howe of Boston had been asked to serve as “President and Chief of the Woman’s Department” (Fairall 422). Elaine Showalter’s biography of Julia Ward Howe states that she brought her “lieutenant” from Boston, Edna Dow Cheney, as well as her daughter Maud, who headed the Literary Department, and Miss Isabella Greeley (215).  Greeley’s official title was “Correspondent Secretary and Treasurer” (Fairall 422). Greeley “performed the double duty of private secretary to Mrs. Howe and treasurer of the Department of Women’s Work” (Fairall 24). Although Greeley was eleven years older than Maud Howe, Showalter’s biography identifies Greeley as “Maud’s good friend” implying that they knew each other before the New Orleans Exposition (Showalter 215). 

Greeley was forty-four years old when Perkins Director and founder of the kindergarten, Michael Anagnos, hired her. Her duties and devotion to the Perkins school and its pupils left her little time for herself. Shortly after she began as matron, a friend wrote: “You must enjoy your work. Still, it is not a position that I covet. I could not make myself equal to it I know” (Waterman). Over a decade later, the Assistant Matron of the Kindergarten Department resigned because she “decided that the position is too trying for the condition of [her] health” (Blois). Greeley, however, loved her job, and her twelve years at Perkins were well known as “her greatest life work” (Folsom). 

Hub of the kindergarten

Greeley was the hub of the kindergarten, on call every day, all day. She issued invitations to demonstrations and exercises given by the pupils to the public, calmed excited parents, and settled bills. When the owner of the General Merchandise supplier wrote “If you will remit $10.50, we will call it square,” Greeley squared the account (A. J. Hook).  When a Boston City Hospital administrator wrote, “As to any abatement, I do not see how it can be made,” and gave detailed reasons in several paragraphs, he was most likely responding to a letter from Greeley who had been trying to hold down costs (Boston). 

She took care of every aspect of the pupils’ lives from their admittance to their clothing, travel, spending money, illnesses, and daily meals which she shared with them. Mrs. W. B. Sprague was responding to a request from Greeley when she wrote: “Our ladies will be pleased to make, as you suggest, nightdresses for the children under your care, and we will buy the material, and begin work at our next meeting. Please inform us how many are needed, for what ages, and how you wish them made” (Sprague). Greeley even helped to prepare representative samples from “all the kindergarten gifts and occupations,” such as pupil Edith Thomas’ “fancy bag,” for the Perkins exhibit that won a bronze medal at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (Sixty-Second Annual 234).  

The go-to person

Greeley was the go-to person who made the decisions large and small. A letter from an executor seeking to distribute a $5,000 bequest demanded: “Will the matron of the Kindergarten for the Blind please inform me who are the managers or trustees of the Kindergarten School for the Blind?”(Solon). A note from Perkins Head Librarian, Sarah E. Lane, accompanied a more humble donation: “Charles brings you a pair of chickens which Willie Swift’s mother sent addressed to me” (S.E. Lane). When Mr and Mrs Albert Whiting, Willie Elizabeth Robin’s benefactors, invited Greeley “and your family of teachers” to their home in Hingham, she no doubt welcomed the break (Albert).

She depended on cooperation and generosity from parents and local businesses and services, but her first concern and her abiding pride was always with the children and her fellow teachers and staff. Each year, she prepared the “Report of the Matron” for Perkins Annual Reports that acknowledged her “vigilant attention” to the “daily affairs of the kindergarten” but focused on relating a detailed account of the personal and scholarly progress, and the health of the students (Sixty-fourth 215). In her 1895 report, for example, she used the flowery language of the time to convey a sincere belief that her position was providing her the “privilege of watching…the process of character-building which goes on without interruption in this garden of humanity” (Sixty-fourth 215). She extended the same feeling of being honored to serve to her announcement of the sudden death of her “beloved associate and friend,” almuna Cornelia Roeske (Archives blog), head of kindergarten music: “she leaves the record of a sweet and true life nobly lived” (Sixty-fourth 218).


In August 1899, Isabel Greeley retired. Her matron’s report for 1897 concluded with what could have been a motto for the next chapter in her life: “Our plans for today must include tomorrow’s possibilities” (Sixty-sixth 213).  She drew on her twelve years of experience overseeing the Perkins kindergarten as she joined Mrs. Sarah J. Davidson, who had retired the previous year after eleven years teaching in the boys’ department, to establish and operate a “private sanitarium for invalids in Brookline” (“Kindergarten”). One year later, Greeley became the first treasurer of the Boston Nursery for Blind Babies. Miss Bertha Snow, a former kindergarten teacher in a Hartford, Connecticut school for the blind, founded the nursery to provide special care and developmental exercises for infants and toddlers through age five when the children would progress to Perkins kindergarten (“Pity”). 

Although Greeley moved back to New Hampshire around the turn of the nineteenth century and continued her work for the Daughters of the American Revolution, she remained treasurer of the Boston Nursery and an active contributor and visitor to Perkins for the rest of her life. She spoke about her experience with the daily life of the first classes of children for the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Perkins kindergarten in 1912, and she returned in 1927 at the age of eighty-four to lecture on the early years of the kindergarten for Perkins new Special Methods department for teacher training (Langworthy 44). 

Greeley died on May 10, 1928 in New York City where she had lived with her younger brother for the final years of her life. She was buried in Bradford, New Hampshire and shares a grave with Davidson who died four years later and had been widowed for many years. In a post-humous tribute, Frank Walsh, a kindergarten alumnus, recalled Greeley as “guiding and encouraging” as well as bringing “happiness and sunshine” and acknowledged her as “one of the cornerstones of our beloved kindergarten” (52, 53).

Works cited

Suggested citation

Mazzucco-Than, Cecile. “‘Our plans for today must include tomorrow’s possibilities’: Isabel Greeley Principal Matron of the Kindergarten 1887-1899.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. November 15, 2021.

Tiled image of a portrait of Louisa May Alcott, circa 1870, "Give us A Kindergarten" pamphlet, and letter from Alcott to Director Anagnos, 1887.

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Two tiled portraits. On the left, a photographic portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner from 1888 courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. On the right, a group photographic portrait of the young students and on the steps of the Kindergarten for the Blind, circa 1893.

Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Kindergarten

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Michael Anagnos

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