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Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Kindergarten

Isabella Stewart Gardner is most known today as the founder of the museum named after her in Boston. She was also a vital donor and volunteer who served leadership roles in funding the Kindergarten for the Blind and would also serve as a member of the Perkins Corporation from 1889-1923.

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.

Two tiled portraits. On the left, a photographic portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner from 1888 courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Gardner is wearing a dark dress made of a fabric that is reflective, dark gloves, and a hat decorated with what may be an ostrich feather. On the right, a group photographic portrait of the young students and on the steps of the Kindergarten for the Blind, circa 1893.

Introduction

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) is most known today as the founder of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. While she was collecting art that would later be housed in her museum, she was also donating money and her time to help lead efforts to raise funds for the Kindergarten for the Blind. A relationship between Gardner and the Perkins School for the Blind seems to have developed around the time that Perkins second Director Michael Anagnos was working to start a kindergarten. She served leadership roles in that endeavor and would also serve as a member of the Perkins Corporation from 1889-1923. The relationship would expand to include a niece and nephew who continued the relationship and the leadership.

A kindergarten

On May 2, 1887, the first kindergarten for students who were blind in the United States opened its doors. Two years prior to this, six acres were purchased in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. The process of fundraising for the purchase of land and a building to house the Kindergarten was led by Perkins’ second director, Michael Anagnos. Prior to 1887, Perkins accepted only those pupils who were over nine years old (McGinnity et al., “Kindergarten”). Knowing the value of early education, Perkins’ Board and Michael Anagnos sought to accept younger children who could gain independence earlier and become better prepared as students.

Fundraising and women’s clubs

Fundraising efforts for the cause of the Kindergarten for the Blind included calls to the public by Perkins, but relied heavily on partnerships with women. Between the 1870s and 1920s women’s clubs became a significant way that American women would learn about and influence public policies through meetings and volunteering (“Women’s Clubs”). Julia Ward Howe, who was married to Perkins founding Director Samuel Gridley Howe, is credited with starting this movement (“Women’s Clubs”). Women’s clubs helped kick off many initiatives across the country, including those related to education, and kindergartens (Ward 207). The Ladies’ Auxiliary Society for the Kindergarten and a Visiting Committee began work in the 1880s to raise awareness and funds for the Kindergarten’s cause. The membership of both groups included many women of status in Boston, including Isabella Stewart Gardner who also happened to be a friend of Julia Ward Howe and very close friends with her daughter Maud.

Isabella Stewart Gardner

Isabella Stewart Gardner was an art collector and patron of the arts whose unconventionality set her apart in Boston Society, particularly as a woman. By the 1880s Gardner along with her husband John “Jack” L. Gardner, were traveling extensively abroad learning about and collecting art work, rare books and manuscripts, and more. After the death of her husband in 1899, Gardner proceeded with their plans to open a museum on the Fenway to house their collections which is now called the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Volunteer work

A story in the January 5, 1888 edition of the Evening Transcript, reported that at the quarterly meeting of the board of trustees, held on January 4th, Gardner became one of 12 unanimously elected members of the kindergarten Visiting Committee (Perkins Institution, 108). In a Perkins commencement program for the class of 1889, Gardner is also listed as treasurer of the Ladies Auxiliary Aid Society (“Commencement” 2A).  The Visiting Committee would have meant the opportunity to get to know students and staff, providing advice to them both. As treasurer of the committee’s Auxiliary Aid Society from 1888-1892, she helped raise funds for what was referred to as the kindergarten’s current expenses.

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s name appears on many appeals in newspapers and pamphlets of the time, where instructions for sending annual subscriptions for current expenses may be sent to, “the treasurer of this organization, Mrs. J. L. Gardner, No. 152 Beacon street, Boston” (“Commencement” 2A). One such appeal noted that while Gardner was in Europe donations should be sent to Miss Winthrop’s address instead (“Kindergarten” [April 1890] 7). Gardner served as treasurer to the Ladies Auxiliary from 1889-1892. She would serve as a member of the Perkins Corporation from 1889-1923.

Donor

Correspondence in the Perkins Archives from Gardner to Director Anagnos document her time as treasurer with correspondence noting donors and sums, so that Anagnos could thank the donor himself. Gardner herself donated to the Kindergarten, including $1,000 in 1887 (“Kindergarten” [June 1887], 84). Correspondence documents a donation she made in 1886 of $100 for the Kindergarten in memory of Anangno’s wife, Julia Roman Anagnos, who died in March of that year (Gardner, 223). In response to one of Gardner’s notes about a donation received in 1888, Anagnos includes a message of gratitude that reads, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart, not only for the great material assistance which you have bestowed upon the cause of the blind, but also for your great sagacity in inducing others to come forward and do likewise” (7). Gardner continued her relationship informally with the school for many years. Correspondence in the Perkins Archives indicate she was invited to functions including Christmas concerts and graduations, which she sometimes attended.

Gardner’s Museum and Perkins

When Gardner was preparing to open her museum at the end of 1902, she invited students from Perkins to test the acoustics of the music room, providing them with a “full-size audience of boys and girls for an afternoon concert” while keeping the room a secret before the opening celebration concert (“Publications” 7).

A pair of purple satin slippers owned by Gardner and given to her goddaughter would be given to Claudia A. Potter a drama teacher at Perkins, presumably to be used as costume in 1950. In 1954 Potter would donate the slippers to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where they are now part of the Gardner’s Museum’s collection (SP1954.I.a-b).

Legacy leadership

Olga Eliza Gardner (1869–1944), Isabella Gardner’s niece succeeded Gardner in the role of Treasurer of the Ladies Auxiliary Society in1892. Olga Gardner is listed as a member of the Visiting Committee as late until 1937, when the fiftieth anniversary of the Kindergarten and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Director Michael Anagnos was celebrated. George Peabody Gardner Jr., Isabella Gardner’s nephew served as an Officer and Trustee at Perkins from 1922 until 1945.

Further reading

Works cited

Suggested citation:

Hale, Jen. “Anna Stewart Gardner and the Kindergarten” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA, March 7, 2024.

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