Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Women's History Month - Kate Douglas Wiggin

"The soul grows into lovely habits as easily as into ugly ones, and the moment a life begins to blossom into beautiful words and deeds, that moment a new standard of conduct is established, and your eager neighbors look to you for a continuous manifestation of the good cheer, the sympathy, the ready wit, the comradeship, or the inspiration, you once showed yourself capable of. Bear figs for a season or two, and the world outside the orchard is very unwilling you should bear thistles."
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
Kate Douglas Wiggin was born in 1856 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father died while she was still quite young, and her mother moved her and her younger sister to Portland, Maine. Her remarried, and the family relocating to the small, rural town of Hollis, Maine.

Although she did not regularly attend a formal school growing up, she did receive home schooling lessons from her stepfather, Albion Bradbury, attended a district school when it was available, and then went on to attend various academies, eventually graduating in 1873, from Abbot Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Compared to the typical education provided for girls of this time, she was quite fortunate in that she was able to receive the attention she was given, and this likely influenced her desire to work to improve educational opportunities for others throughout her lifetime.

After her graduation in 1873, her family relocated to Santa Barbara, California, hoping the dry air and warm temperatures would ease Albion Bradbury's lung disease. It was here that she learned of a kindergarten training class opening in Los Angeles under the world-famous promoter of early childhood education, Emma Marwedel, and Kate enrolled. After graduation, she taught at a kindergarten in Santa Barbara, before moving to San Francisco in 1878. There she headed the first free kindergarten in California, on Silver Street, which had been started by her teacher and mentor, Emma Marwedel. By 1880 she and her sister Nora formed a teacher-training school.

In 1881 she married Samuel Bradley Wiggin. As was the custom at the time, once married, she had to resign her position at the school and training center, although she remained quite active advocating for better education for young children throughout her life. To raise funds for her Kindergarten, she wrote Story of Patsy (1883) and The Birds' Christmas Carol (1887).

In addition to her work as a writer and speaker, was also a songwriter and composer of music. For "Kindergarten Chimes" (1885) she created some of the lyrics, music, and arrangements. For "Nine Love Songs and a Carol" (1896) she created all of the music.

In 1888, she and her husband moved to New York, where she took a position as vice President of the New York Kindergarten Association. She stayed in that role for a number of years, and was honored for her service in 1912. It was during this time that she began lecturing and writing articles and essays regarding educational issue, and published quite a few in newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly. She collaborated with her sister on several scholarly works on the educational principles of Friedrich Froebel: Froebel's Gifts (1895), Froebel's Occupations (1896), and Kindergarten Principles and Practice (1896). She and her sister Nona produced The Republic of Childhood (1895-1896), based on her lectures.
Working with her sister Nora A. Smith, the two founded the Froebel Society, an alumni organization for the Training School. Wiggin and Smith worked closely together at the kindergarten and to write several books on the topic of early childhood education during this period. Their collaborations continued throughout their lives resulting in anthologies and works of fiction.
(source: UNE:Biddeford and Portland Maine)
Tragically, her husband Samuel died in 1889. In 1895 she married George Christopher Riggs. The couple traveled frequently. She based Penelope's Progress (1898) and Penelope's English Experiences (1901) on her experiences in Europe and England.

She is most well known for the beloved book about Rebecca and her two stern aunts living in the small village of Riverboro, Maine, in Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm (1903).
Though not the perfect child and driven by strong independence, the gregarious Rebecca Rowena Randall eventually softens the heart of her severe Aunt Miranda with her innocence and sensibility. She goes on to win the hearts of all those who meet her and read about her life from poverty to a richness of spirit and hope in a tale generous in humour that is acclaimed for its authentic portrayal of rural Maine, its people and culture.
(source: The Literature Network)
As members of New York society, the Riggs regularly attended social events with many other popular writers of the day, including Richard Harding Davis, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain. In fact, her friendship with Mark Twain seemed to be a warm one.
Samuel Clemens recorded in his personal notebook that he visited with Kate Wiggin at the home of a mutual friend in January 1894 and enjoyed her charming debates regarding kindergarten teaching methods. Clemens and his wife Livy socialized with both Kate and her husband Samuel Wiggin during the 1900s. At Clemens's seventieth birthday celebration hosted by Harper and Brothers on December 5, 1905, he was seated between Kate Douglas Wiggin and fellow author Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. In 1906 Clemens worked with Wiggin on behalf of copyright legislation to benefit American authors. In a letter to a family member Clemens referred to Wiggin as "That rare bird & darling of mine, Kate Douglas Wiggin Riggs."
He called her book Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm "beautiful and moving and satisfying." And she wrote an appreciation to Volume 11 of the Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition of Mark Twain's works is The Prince and the Pauper shortly before her death in 1923.

She and her husband spent time at her summer home in Hollis, Maine. The lovely house, called Quillcote, was around the corner from the town's library, the Salmon Falls Library, which she founded in 1911. Between trips around the world, speaking events, and socializing in New York, she maintained close ties to Maine. In 1897, she founded the Dorcas Society of Hollis & Buxton, Maine, a charity organization providing clothing to the poor. In 1904, she received an honorary degree from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. The Tory Hill Meeting House in the adjacent town of Buxton inspired her book (and later play), The Old Peabody Pew (1907).

Both Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Mother Carey's Chickens (1911) were also adapted to stage plays. Houghton Mifflin collected her writings in ten volumes in 1917.
During 1921, she and her sister edited an edition of Jane Porter's 1809 novel of William Wallace, The Scottish Chiefs, for the Scribner's Illustrated Classics series, which was illustrated by N. C. Wyeth.

In 1922, she was further honored by Bowdoin College.

When Bowdoin alumni wives in New York organized the Society of Bowdoin Women in 1922, fifty years before the college admitted women, they elected Wiggin as their first president because of her ongoing support for the college. The society had a dual purpose -- to plan luncheons and activities for wives during college reunions and to raise funds for the college. For a time, the college provided a meeting room for the society's members.

(source: During the spring of 1923 she traveled to England as a New York delegate to the Dickens Fellowship. Sadly, while she was there, she became ill and died of bronchial pneumonia. At her request, her ashes were brought home to Maine and scattered over the Saco River. Her autobiography, My Garden of Memory, was published after her death.

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