Susan Elizabeth Blow (1843 – 1916)
Susan Blow was the founder of the first public kindergarten in the United States. She was an intelligent, well-educated, and dedicated teacher. She published many books about kindergarten education. Blow trained teachers to teach in a way that appealed to young children. She devoted her life to giving children an educational experience that was aimed at their level and would inspire them to become lifelong learners.
Susan Elizabeth Blow was born in St. Louis on June 7, 1843. She was the oldest of six children. Her parents were Henry Taylor Blow and Minerva Grimsley Blow. Henry was an important man in St. Louis business. He also served in the Missouri State Senate from 1854 to 1858 and the United States Congress from 1863 to 1867. President Lincoln appointed him minister, or ambassador, to Venezuela. Later, President Grant made him minister to Brazil. Henry Blow is perhaps best known for his support for the freedom of Dred Scott, an African-American man who had once been enslaved to Blow’s parents, Peter and Elizabeth Blow.
In 1849, when Susan was six years old, a cholera epidemic swept through St. Louis. Cholera is an infectious and deadly disease. Henry Blow moved his family to Carondelet, a French settlement five miles down the Mississippi River from St. Louis, to escape the fever. There he built a spacious house and helped found a church and public school. Because of her father’s wealth and position in society, Susan had a very comfortable lifestyle. She had private teachers and could read books from her family’s large library. Many children her age did not have what Susan had. Poor children in St. Louis and around the country had little education and were often forced to go to work at an early age.
“The Best Advantage in Education”
Henry Blow knew that his oldest child was very intelligent. In a letter dated 1857 he wrote, “Sue must have the best advantage in education.” At first, Susan had lessons with her private teachers at home. Then she attended the McCauley School in New Orleans where she studied arithmetic, French, grammar, and reading. In 1859, when she was sixteen, Susan attended Miss Haines’s School in New York City. This school practiced up-to-date teaching methods from Europe. Susan’s education there was cut short, however. In 1861, at the onset of the Civil War, the school was closed and Susan returned to Missouri where her family was pro-Union and against slavery.
Throughout the Civil War, Susan Blow continued studying on her own, reading widely from her family’s library. She met with the St. Louis Society, a group that discussed important educational and social issues of the day. After the war, Blow went with her father to Brazil and worked as his secretary. After his appointment ended, Blow traveled with her family to Germany. There she observed the kindergarten classrooms inspired by Frederick Froebel, a leader in early education. She noticed that young children learn important language, math, and science skills by playing with objects such as balls and blocks. She decided that children in the United States could benefit from this kind of instruction.
Creating a Kindergarten Program
From 1872 to 1873, Susan Blow worked with two other educators to create a strong kindergarten program for the United States. She opened the first public kindergarten in September 1873 at the Des Peres School at Carondelet, St. Louis. Many classrooms at the time were plain and furnished with desks sized for older children. Blow’s kindergarten classroom was bright and cheerful. It had low tables and short benches just right for small children. It had growing plants, good literature, and blocks, balls, and yarn for children to work and play with. Blow’s students learned about color, shapes, and fractions. They also learned about keeping themselves clean, eating well, and getting exercise. “If we can make children love intellectual effort,” wrote Blow, “we shall prolong habits of study beyond school years.”
Instead of simply living a life of leisure provided by her family, Susan Blow dedicated herself to improving education for young children. She taught for eleven years at Des Peres School for no pay. Public schools in St. Louis and around the country started kindergarten classrooms using Blow’s classroom as a model. By 1879, there were fifty-three kindergarten rooms in the St. Louis school system.
Susan Elizabeth Blow was a leader in American education. She gave lectures, wrote books, and trained teachers in many cities across America. Blow continued to lecture on kindergarten education until three weeks before her death on March 26, 1916. She is buried in her family’s plot at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
Research and text by Carlynn Trout
Borwick, Jim and Brett Dufur, eds. Forgotten Missourians Who Made History. Columbia, MO: Pebble Publishing, 1996.
Christensen, Lawrence O. et al, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 86–88.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies, 2 volumes. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Volume 1: 27–28.
McCandless, Perry and William E. Foley. Missouri Then and Now, 3rd ed. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001. pp. 272–273.