Monday, March 3, 2008

Pauline Agassiz Shaw

I promised an entry for the wife of Quincy Shaw, and here I deliver. Pauline Agassiz Shaw was the daughter of Swiss scientist and Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz. As with the daughter, the father will require an entry of his own. Pauline Shaw was everywhere in the world of Boston philanthropy, subscribing to seemingly every cause. Her special interests were in education and the care of poor women and children. She was known as the "godmother of kindergarten" for her support of the institution in Boston. While Elizabeth Peabody was the "mother of the kindergarten movement," it was Pauline Agassiz Shaw's money that bankrolled the first kindergartens in Boston, and led to the city of Boston absorbing the classes into its school system. With the success of her kindergartens, she moved on to funding nurseries and later settlement houses to aid the entire family. Rather than summarize her career, I decided to post this article, which gives you a flavor of the time that would be lost in my translation. They certainly had a way with words in those days.

While a school in Jamaica Plain was named after her father, Pauline Agassiz Shaw was similarly honored by the city of Boston in Dorchester. There is a 1917 tribute to her available online here.

Boston Daily Globe May 14, 1905

Angel To Poor Children Of Boston

Mrs Pauline Agassiz Shaw, a Great-Hearted Woman.

Daughter of the Famous Naturalist Now Supports Entirely Five Day Nurseries in This City - Cost to Her Must be Many Thousands of Dollars Yearly - Babies Cared for and Mothers of the Tenements Helped in Various Ways - Boys and Girls Amused and Instructed.

"You sleepy still, Tony? You must rouse up, for mother will soon be coming for her baby."

The little chap of two summers sat up in the snowy white little crib and poked his chubby fists into his big black eyes - the beautiful eyes of the Italian race.

Directly across the narrow aisle formed by long rows of white beds was a fair-haired, blue-eyed little girl seemingly less than 2 years of age lying on her back under the snowy counterpane gazing in placid contentment at the ceiling over her.

"It's get-up time, Lucy," said the attendant, as she patted one of the child's flushed cheeks lightly. "Mother will be here soon."

"Me go home," said the child.

"Yes, you'll go home just as soon as mother comes for you. I suppose you are ready to go home, too, Sally."

This time the attendant stopped by the side of a little bed in which a jet-black little descendant of Ham had raised herself to one elbow and was eyeing the attendant and the visitor sleepily.

"Sleepy still, Sally? Well, if you are you just lay down and take another nap. Brother will not be here for you until 5 tonight. He said when he left you here this morning that he would have to go to East Boston after school, and that he would be an hour late in calling for you."

There were 30 or 40 of the little white beds in the room, and there was a child in every bed. Most of them seemed to be the children of foreign-born parents, but now and then one saw a child of undoubted American ancestry. Some of the children were "Just over" from Italy or Russia or Poland or Armenia or some other land across the seas and early discovering that Helen Keller's name of the "City of Kind Hearts" had not been inaptly applied to the city of Boston.

Boston had the deserved reputation of being one of the most philanthropic cities in America. Its "Directory of Charities" is a large-sized volume, and when one looks it over one is convinced that there is still a great deal of the milk of human kindness in the world and that the spirit of philanthropy runs high in Boston.

Its list of great-hearted men and women is a long and honorable one, and far up toward the top of the list stands the name of one woman who has for many years devoted her time and her money with unstinting generosity toward bettering the conditions of the poor children of the city, and helping their mothers to bear the heavy burdens that come to those of the tenements. This great-hearted woman is Mrs Pauline Agassiz Shaw, who stands at the head of the woman philanthropists of Boston.

The daughter of the great naturalist, Louis Agassiz, it was but a fulfilment of the law of heredity that she should be a woman of high ideals and unusual force of character. Nor was it to be wondered at that she should take a very great interest in the cause of education.

Mrs Shaw was one of the first women in Boston to recognize the value of the kindergarten as an educational force, and it was through her generosity that the first kindergartens for the children of the poor were established in this city. For 10 years Mrs Shaw supported at her own charge Kindergartens all over Boston at an annual expense of many thousands of dollars per year, for she bore the entire expense, including rent of rooms, salaries of teachers, etc. In time the school board of Boston became convinced of the high educational value of the kindergarten and included it in the school system of the city, thereby relieving Mrs Shaw.

Then Mrs Shaw gave her attention to the day nurseries, the first of which she had established in Boston in the year 1878, so that for nearly 30 years Mrs Shaw has carried on this form of benevolent and philanthropic work in the city. These days nurseries have gradually enlarged their sphere of usefulness until they have become social settlements in the scope of their work and influence.

Visitors to the late St Louis fair may have noticed a large number of photographs illustrating the work of these day nurseries or social settlements. These photographs attracted a great deal of attention particularly on the part of those interested in educational and philanthropic work. Some of the photographs are used in illustrating this article.

Mrs Shaw now supports entirely five day nurseries in Boston. They are located in the tenement house districts of the city. One is on Ruggles st in the same block in which that other philanthropic institution, the Ruggles-st church is situated; another is on North Bennett st, in the very heart of "Little Italy"; a third is in the thickly congested tenement house district of Albany st; the fourth is at Cottage pl in Roxbury and the fifth is in Cambridgeport.

Various names are given to these institutions. They are called day nurseries, neighborhood houses, children's houses, social settlements, and one grateful mother has been known to refer to them as "mother's blessings." They are very much alike in the general scope of their work, and all have been the means of social salvation to hundreds and even thousands of the poor of the city.

The cost of maintaining them is known only to Mrs Shaw and her secretary and general overseer of the work, Miss Laliah B. Pingree, but it is known that the aggregate expense per year must amount to many thousands of dollars - more, it is certain, than any other woman in Boston is spending in purely educational and philanthropic work. It is entirely a labor of love on the part of Mrs Shaw, and her sole reward is in seeing the beneficent result of her work.

Helpfulness to mothers and children is the keynote of this work, and this results in helpfulness to the home in general. Hundreds of the "little tots" in the tenement-house districts of the city have reason to rise up and call Mrs Shaw blessed.

When the writer of this article was on his way to the North Bennett-st day nursery he found himself completely "turned around" in the maze of short, narrow and winding streets to be found in "Little Italy" and he stepped into a shop to ask the proprietor to direct him to the day nursery.

"Don't know nothin' about no such place," said the shopkeeper who was intent on selling a yellow plush album with a gilt-edged mirror in the cover to a woman whose bare toes could be seen through the holes in her mud-covered shoes. Hitching her ragged shawl back to her shoulders by suddenly elevating both arms as if for flight on imaginary wings, the woman turned and said: "You mean the place where they keeps the little kids while their mothers is away at work?"

"Yes, I do."

"Well, it's right on this street at the corner of North Bennett, and a God-blessed place it is for the kids and their mothers. I don't know what a woman living in the tenements I lives in would do if they didn't take care of her two kids there at the day nursery while she hustles cleanin' car winders for a livin' for 'em. Her husband's down on the island."

"You think then that the day nursery is a good thing?"

"Fine, and the lady that keeps it up is a ministerin' angel and it's a pity there ain't more like her. They does the square thing by the younguns there at the day nursery."

A visit to any one of Mrs Shaw's philanthropic institutions would confirm this statement if faithful and loving and wise care constitutes the "square thing" in the care of childhood.

As early as 7 in the morning the babies begin to arrive at the day nurseries, borne in the arms of the mother, the father or older brothers and sisters. There are no caste lines and no red tape in the receiving of children. The color line is unknown and the kinky-haired infant African, the shining black-haired Italian, the little blonde Polander and the dusky-skinned Armenian lie down in peace together in the big, clean crib room of the day nursery. They play together in harmony in the large, sunny playroom, with its wealth of toys and its atmosphere of cleanliness and cheeriness. There may be a little passage at arms now and then, but a child's anger, like its grief, is not for long, and harmony is soon restored by the ever-watchful teacher or attendant.

There is a kindergarten for the older children, and work rooms, game rooms and schoolrooms for still larger children, for the work is not limited to children of nursery age. It extends to the mothers themselves, and there are mothers' clubs and mothers' meetings of various kinds.

There are in the tenement house districts many mothers as ignorant as their children of the real duties of a mother. They are helplessly inefficient, and any one but Mrs Shaw and equally broadminded women would regard them as hopelessly so. Some of them know so little regarding the proper use of the needle that they cannot sew on a button properly or do the simplest repairing of their children's garments as it should be done. Willing as they may be, they do not know how to give their children intelligent home care.

The very little children are kept at the day nurseries from the time they are brought to the institutions in the morning until their parents of older brothers and sisters come for them in the evening, when the day's work of the school closes. In the meantime the children are cared for in the kindest and most intelligent way. They are given a good, nourishing dinner at noon, and after that they go to the crib room for the mid-day nap it is well for children to have until they are 5 or 6 years old. All their imperative little wants are well attended to, and the mother goes to her work in the happy assurance that her children are as well cared for as they would be in their own home. Indeed, she knows that they are receiving better care that it would be possible for her to give them.

Now and then the father of a motherless child brings the little one to the nursery to be cared for while he is away at work, and it is six in the evening before he calls for the child to carry it back to his dark and silent home. a whole volume of sorrowfully true incidents could be written in a history of any of Mrs Shaw's day nurseries, and a cheerier volume of equally true incidents could also be written regarding them.

The opportunities of these "Neighborhood Houses" are unlimited and the scope of their work has so broadened that it includes almost everything helpful to home life. The older children and the mothers carry into their own homes the helpful influences of the Neighborhood houses.

In a single one of these institutions 120 girls between the ages of 10 and 20 years meet once each week in nine different clubs. Instruction and amusement are very happily combined at these meetings.

There are also eight clubs with an aggregate of more than 100 boys as members. Sloyd, basket-weaving, chair-caning, gymnastics, games reading and a good deal of general recreation take up the time of these clubs.

As many of 30 mothers meetings have been held in a single year in some of these neighborhood houses. There have been talks, music, readings and a great deal of sociability helped along by light refreshments.

The educational influence of true work is invaluable, while no one can estimate the extent of its moral influence. In all this great "City of Kind Hearts" there is no more sympathetic heart than of Mrs Shaw,and no work more helpful to humanity than hers.


  1. Let us not forget that one of the first kindergartens that Shaw financed and Peabody developed was in JP!
    There is a nondescript plaque at the corner of Thomas and Centre Streets to commemorate the fact. It's in the corner of the Dunkin Donuts parking lot.
    JPHS members annually re-gild (ok, we use gold pen) the sign so passersby can read it.

  2. I saw a reference to JP somewhere, but not a location. I'll have to get a donut some time in their honor.

  3. I attended kindergarten and first grade in the PAS elementary school at the corner of Morton and Norfolk Streets in Mattapan (or maybe it was Dorchester?) in 1950 and 1951. Wonderful school, wonderful teachers, wonderful memories. Then we moved, still in Boston, to Dorchester where I attended the Charles H. Taylor School from grades two through six - also a wonderful school.

  4. The P.A. Shaw school is still there on the corner. Morton street is generally considered the border between Mattapan and Dorchester, so that would put the building just inside Dorchester.

  5. Mrs. Shaw continued the legacy of her in-laws, the Shaws, sharing her wealth with those of the working class, regardless of racial identity. This family were leading Abolitionist and their beloved son, Robert Gould Shaw, gave his life to help Black Americans be recognized as men of valor on the battlefield.

  6. I was in Kindergarten and 1st grade 1967.