Credited with establishing the first kindergarten in the United States, Margarethe Meyer Schurz was born on August 27, 1832, in Hamburg, Germany, the youngest of four children. Her mother died at her birth. Her father, Heinrich Meyer, a prosperous, socially liberal Jewish merchant, opened his home to artists and intellectuals. Margarethe grew up immersed in progressive ideas, such as uniting the small autonomous German states into one democratic country.
When Friedrich Froebel came to Hamburg to lecture on his new theories of educating children, Margarethe and her older sister, Bertha, attended his classes, becoming kindergarten enthusiasts. Bertha and her husband, Johannes Ronge, an ex-priest and revolutionary, were forced to leave Hamburg after the 1848 German revolution failed. Settling in London, in an area populated by German refugees, they opened a kindergarten. In 1851, Margarethe came to assist.
Carl Schurz, also exiled from Germany for revolutionary activities, arrived in London the same year. Visiting his friend Johannes Ronge, he met Margarethe, whom he described in his Reminiscences as a girl “of fine stature, a curly head, something childlike in her beautiful features, and large, dark, truthful eyes.” Carl and Margarethe fell in love at first sight and were married on July 5, 1852, sailing in August for America. They lived first in Pennsylvania, where their first child, Agatha, was born in 1853.
Margarethe, troubled by a lung ailment, returned to England with Agatha in 1855 for a water cure. Carl rejoined his family at the end of the year, taking them to Switzerland, where a second daughter, Marianne, was born. The family moved to Watertown, Wisconsin, in August 1856, where Carl’s parents, sisters, several other Schurz relatives, and many German immigrants had settled.
In the fall of 1856, Margarethe Schurz opened a kindergarten in her living room for Agatha and four young cousins, teaching them the songs and games she had learned from Froebel. She soon moved her German-speaking kindergarten to the center of Watertown, so that more children could conveniently attend. Schurz continued as director until 1858, when she and Carl moved to Milwaukee. The Watertown kindergarten remained in operation—although moved to another building—until prejudice against the German language during World War I forced it to close.
Traveling to Boston with Carl in the fall of 1859, Schurz met Elizabeth Peabody and explained Froebel’s principles to her, inspiring Peabody to set up the first English-speaking kindergarten in 1860 and to devote the rest of her life to promoting the kindergarten movement.
In 1867, when her third daughter, two-year-old Emma Savannah, died, Margarethe, her health weakened by grief, left for Europe with Agatha and Marianne. They stayed for over two years, returning to live in Washington, D.C., after Carl had been elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1871, a son, Carl Lincoln Schurz, was born and, in 1876, a second son, Herbert. Two days later, on March 15, 1876, Margarethe Meyer Schurz died at age forty-three.
Baylor, Ruth M. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: Kindergarten Pioneer (1965); Ellsworth, Edward. The Froebelian Kindergarten Movement, 1850–1880: An International Crusade for Political and Social Progress (1988); Fuess, Claude Moore. Carl Schurz: Reformer (1963); NAW; Obituary. NYTimes, March 19, 1876, 12:2; Quam, Dr. S. First Kindergarten in the United States. 3d ed. (1967); Shapiro, Michael Steven. Child’s Garden: The Kindergarten Movement from Froebel to Dewey (1983); Snyder, Agnes. Dauntless Women in Childhood Education, 1856–1931 (1972); Swart, Hannah Werwath. Margarethe Meyer Schurz (1989).
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Fleming, Susan. "Margarethe Meyer Schurz." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 6, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/schurz-margarethe-meyer>.