Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri
By Nicole Heisick
Creator of Kindergartens (1843-1916)
At a time when most classrooms were dull and undecorated and lacked energy, Susan Blow’s classroom was the polar opposite. She filled it with decorations and taught kids through playing, creating the first-ever kindergarten classroom in Carondelet. With her enormous success, the program grew to 53 classrooms in the area over the next six years and eventually established an early childhood education program still used today.
The first of six children, Blow was born to wealthy businessman Henry Taylor Blow and his wife Minerva Grimsley Blow in St. Louis on June 7, 1843. She lived in her Mississippi riverfront home until she was six, when her father decided to move the family to the French settlement of Carondelet after a great fi re and cholera epidemic swept through the city.
Because of her father’s wealth, Blow grew up in a comfortable lifestyle and received a top-notch education. She attended a private school in New Orleans, had lessons with governesses at home, and left for private school in New York at 16. She studied there for several years before the school shut down in 1861 because of the Civil War.
During the Civil War, Blow moved back to her parents’ home in Missouri, where she learned on her own using the family library. Blow loved learning and wouldn’t let anything stop her from studying.
After the Civil War, Blow’s father was appointed as ambassador of Brazil. Blow went with him and worked as his secretary for 15 months. From there she traveled to Germany, and this move ultimately shaped what would become her life’s work. There, she watched children learn important language, math, and science skills by playing with objects such as balls and blocks in kindergarten classrooms.
Blow was inspired to bring this type of educational instruction to America. When she returned to the United States, Blow dedicated herself to learning everything she could about teaching kindergarten. She studied, brainstormed ideas, and talked with educators. Her father asked Dr. William Torrey Harris, the superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, to open an experimental kindergarten, which Blow offered to direct if provided with a room and teacher.
In September 1873, Blow opened the first public kindergarten at the Des Peres School in Carondelet. Blow’s classroom stood apart because it was bright and cheerfully decorated. It was filled with low tables and benches, plants, books, and toys, making it the perfect learning environment for young children. Students learned about colors, shapes, and fractions, as well as the importance of keeping themselves clean, eating well, and getting regular exercise.
Based on the success of her first classroom, public schools in St. Louis and around the country started kindergarten classrooms using Blow’s classroom as a model. By 1879, there were 53 kindergarten rooms in the St. Louis school system.
Blow toured the country, giving lectures on education until three weeks before her death on March 26, 1916. Her model for kindergarten education is still used today.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re showcasing our Top 10 Women of Missouri, featured in the February 2012 of Missouri Life and selected by our panelists. To read our panelists’ bios, click here. For a full list of our 95 nominees for Top 10 Women of Missouri, click here. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life magazine.