Three Sisters Who Showed The Way


Throughout that anxious decade Mary visited and corresponded with Mann, offering him her support in his new project—the reform of the Massachusetts common schools. This was no small offer, for as a teacher Mary had a good deal more experience with children than did Mann the statesman. Mary published at least one anonymous article defending Mann’s methods, and she began to write her own educational works for children and parents. The first of these, published in 1838, was called The Flower People, a collection of tales about a little girl named Mary who makes the acquaintance, one by one, of common garden plants. In these imaginary conversations with crocuses, violets, anemones, and geraniums, Mary Peabody was putting forth a radical educational view: that young children could be taught science through direct experience of the natural world. It would be nearly a century before John Dewey reached the same conclusion.

At last came the wedding, on May 1, 1843, a family affair with Mary and Horace’s old boardinghouse companion James Freeman Clarke officiating. The couple planned an extended European honeymoon with their friends the newlyweds Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe (the future suffragist and author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). The couples’ itinerary featured prisons, reform schools, insane asylums, institutions for the blind and the deaf. In short, it was to be a working holiday on which Mary, with her knowledge of foreign languages, was to serve as interpreter.

Mary could only delight that at last she had a “legal right to comb his hair & hold his head.” She wrote to Elizabeth when she reached London that “Mr. M & I shut the door of the little dining room and sat down together alone for the first time & it seemed a little bit like a home feeling. The only evil in my lot thus far has been this being in public....What a pleasant season that will be...when we are at housekeeping!!!”

Her wish would soon come true, for while in Europe Mary became pregnant. As soon as possible after their return to New England, Mary and Horace built a house in West Newton, Massachusetts, that would be as progressive as the family that lived in it. The Manns installed one of the earliest central furnaces in the United States and a “bathing room with a pump, as hot as Tophet, and a water closet annexed, hotter still.” These newfangled conveniences were not just whimsy. After waiting so long for marriage, the couple faced parenthood with the burdens of demanding work and advanced age. Mary Mann was now nearly forty; her husband, almost fifty. They needed whatever comforts they could afford.

Among Horace Mann’s papers is a newspaper clipping claiming the scientific benefits of rearing children late in life. The offspring, it was supposed, would inherit the health and greater brainpower of its mature parents. Mary and Horace Mann believed in this kind of speculation, but they were also part of a trend familiar to our own day for couples to postpone marriage and bear fewer children. Mary’s mother had married at twenty-four and given birth to seven children; Mary married at thirty-six and reared only three.

In most other ways Mary’s life was not to be a common one. Her wish to remain out of public scrutiny was never realized. Horace Mann was destined to become first a controversial opponent of corporal punishment and sectarianism in public education, then an outspoken abolitionist in the U.S. Congress, and finally the first president of Antioch College, an innovative, fully coeducational institution.

Mary continued her quiet support of her husband at home and in daily letters when his work took him out of town. And she turned her considerable skills to educating her children at home. Some of her experiments backfired. When she and her husband tried speaking only in French to their youngest son, Benjey, in hope that he might become bilingual, the boy’s speech became a muddle, understandable only to his immediate family. But for the most part, Mary held out for common sense. When her husband’s schoolteacher sister pressed Mary to give the four-year-old Horace, Jr., lessons in geography, she calmly refused. “I have not quite made up my mind yet,” Mary wrote to her husband, “to confine his ideas of creation within small boundary lines.”