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Wiggin, Kate Douglas Smith (1856-1923)


Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin (1856-1923): Pioneer in Kindergarten Education

and Author of Children’s Stories

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Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID ggbain 05033

Introduction: Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin (September 28, 1856 – August 24, 1923) was an American educator and author of children’s book. She founded the Silver Street Free Kindergarten, the first free kindergarten in San Francisco. She published and lectured on Froebelian kindergarten curriculum and was a life-long advocate for children.

Kate Douglas Smith was born in Philadelphia, PA, the daughter of Robert N. Smith, a lawyer, and Helen Elizabeth Smith. She had a younger sister named Nora. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother moved the family from Philadelphia to Portland, Maine. Three years later, Kate’s mother remarried to Albion Bradbury, and the family moved to the village of Hollis with a new baby brother named Phillip. Her education consisted of a short stint at a “dame school,” some home schooling under the “capable, slightly impatient, somewhat sporadic” instruction of her stepfather, a brief spell at the district school, a year as a boarder at the Gorham Female Seminary, a winter term at Morison Academy in Baltimore, Maryland and a few months’ stay at Abbot Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where she graduated with the class of 1873.

Early Career: In 1873, hoping to ease Albion Bradbury’s lung disease, Kate’s family moved to Santa Barbara, California, where Kate’s stepfather died three years later, leaving the family in financial difficulties. A kindergarten training class was opening in Los Angeles under Emma Marwedel (1818–1893),‪ and at the suggestion of social reformer Caroline M. Severance, Kate enrolled in the Pacific Model Training School for Kindergartners. After graduation, in 1878, she headed the first free kindergarten in California, on Silver Street in the slums of San Francisco. The children were “street Arabs of the wildest type” (according to Miss Marwedel), but Kate had a loving personality and dramatic flair. By 1880 she formed a teacher-training school in conjunction with the Silver Street kindergarten.

In 1881, Kate married (Samuel) Bradley Wiggin, a San Francisco lawyer.‪ According to the customs of the time, she was required to resign her teaching job.‪ Still devoted to her school, she began to raise money for it through writing, first The Story of Patsy (1883), then The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1887). Both privately printed books were issued commercially by Houghton Mifflin in 1889, with enormous success.

The Wiggins moved to New York in 1884. In July of that year, Kate Douglas Wiggin gave a presentation titled “The Relation of the Kindergarten to Social Reform“at the Fifteenth Annual Meeting of The National Conference of Charities and Correction Held In Buffalo, N.Y. July 5-11, 1888.

When her husband died suddenly in 1889, Kate Wiggin relocated to Maine. In 1895, she married a New York City businessman, George Christopher Riggs, who became one of her greatest supporters. With her sister, Nora A. Smith, she published scholarly work on the educational principles of Friedrich Frobel: Froebel’s Gifts (1895), Froebel’s Occupations (1896), and Kindergarten Principles and Practice (1896);‪ and she wrote the classic children’s novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), as well as the 1905 best-seller Rose o’ the River. Wiggins also wrote popular books for adults.

For a time, she lived at Quillcote, her summer home in Hollis, Maine  (now listed on the National Register of Historic Places). Wiggin founded the town’s library, the Salmon Falls Library, in 1911.‪

Later life and death: 

In 1921, Wiggin and her sister Nora Archibald Smith 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 Wyteh.  During the spring of 1923 Kate Wiggin traveled to Harrow, England as a New York delegate to the Dickens Fellowship. There she became ill and died, on August 24, 1923 at age 66, 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. In sorting through material for her autobiography, she put many items in a box she and her sister labelled “Posthumous.” Her sister Nora A. Smith later published her own reminiscences, Kate Douglas Wiggin as her Sister Knew Her, from these materials.

For further reading:

Curtis, Isabel Gordon (1902). An Author in Her Summer Home. An Interview with Kate Douglas Wiggin at Quillcote. Good Housekeeping, Vol. 35, No.1 (July, 1902) 1-5.
Kate Douglas Wiggin Collection, Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.
Marwedel, E. (1880). Kindergarten Work in California. American Journal of Education. Vol.30. 1880. 897-904.
Wiggin, K.D. and Smith, N.A.(1895). Froebel’s Gifts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Wiggin, K.D. and Smith, N.A.(1895 – 1896). The Republic of Childhood. (3 vols. I. Froebel’s gifts. II. Froebel’s occupations III. Kindergarten principles and practice. ). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Wiggin, K.D.(1885). Kindergarten chimes: a collection of songs and games composed and arranged for kindergartens and primary schools. Boston, O. Ditson & Co.


How to Cite this Article (APA Format):  Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin (1856-1923): Pioneer in Kindergarten Education
and Author of Children’s Stories.
Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

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