Pauline Agassiz Shaw

Pauline Agassiz Shaw (1841-1917)

photo of Pauline Agassiz ShawIn 1881, when Pauline Agassiz Shaw (1841-1917) founded the North Bennet Street School to train primarily European Jewish and Italian immigrants in skilled trades, Boston’s North End was home to thousands of recent immigrants who crowded into the neighborhood’s tenement houses in search of a better life.

The once fashionable neighborhood of the 1600s and 1700s had by the mid-1800s become an over-crowded place for mariners and those employed in the maritime trades. In the following century, the promise of jobs in the newly industrialized America brought the Irish, Portuguese, Polish, Armenians, European Jews, and Italians to the North End. Philanthropists and social reformers like Pauline Agassiz Shaw, Helen Osborne Storrow (Paul Revere Pottery), and Lina Hecht (Hebrew Industrial School) responded by establishing organizations where immigrants could receive education, training, and services. The North Bennet Street School—America’s first trade school— today holds an international reputation for courses in fine furniture, architectural restoration, violin making, furniture, and carpentry.

Pauline Agassiz Shaw was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, to the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz and his wife Cècile Braun; both families were known for their scientific and artistic achievements. Pauline she was the youngest child, and adored by her parents. Sadly, when Pauline was seven years old, her mother died and she and her siblings were sent to live with relatives in Switzerland for two years. In 1850, they were reunited with their father in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he had accepted a professorship at Harvard. In Cambridge, Pauline completed her education, and in 1860, at the age of nineteen, she married Quincy Adams Shaw, a wealthy investor in copper mines. The couple resided on a spacious estate in Jamaica Plain, and “summered” on Boston’s North Shore at Pride’s Crossing.

As Pauline Shaw’s five children were born, she naturally took an interest in their education and wished to apply the best methods for their instruction. Finding Boston educational offerings lacking, she established a school at 65 Marlborough Street, which was a pioneering institution of modern, progressive, well-rounded education. With her husband’s financial backing and support, she expanded her efforts to care for children and families throughout Boston.

As George C. Greener stated during her memorial service in 1917, “In deciding the education of her own children Mrs. Shaw moved in almost untrodden and pioneer paths of teaching. With her broad mind and wide outlook the next step was to consider thoughtfully how the facilities at their command met the needs of the less fortunate children. She found their curriculum inadequate, and ill fitted to prepare them for the highest citizenship. Education to them was a meaningless drill, bearing no relation to real life … with full comprehension of and with no criticisms for the existing systems, she understood that educational experiments are the function of private enterprise, rather than of public institution … this experimental work appealed strongly to Mrs. Shaw and for thirty-five years she was the mainspring of this work at North Bennet Street.”

Pauline Agassiz Shaw is responsible for institutionalizing kindergartens in the Boston Public Schools. While Elizabeth Peabody first introduced Freidrich Fröebel’s German philosophy of “kindergartens” to Boston, Pauline Shaw funded fourteen kindergartens in Boston during the 1880s. In 1887, the Boston School Committee accepted responsibility for her programs, gradually adding more.

Pauline Shaw also funded day nurseries where poor and working women could leave their children in a safe, clean environment during the workday. She opened the first one in 1877 in connection with one of her kindergartens. Seven more followed in 1879 and 1880. In a tribute during her memorial service, Adeline Moffat explained Pauline Shaw’s motivation: “From the first, her rare, constructive mind saw beyond the confines of the nursery into the worlds of the little ones when they should leave hospitable care. Education of the child and of the mother and of the community became at once an integral part of the plan … the aim has been not only to provide for the care and training of the children in the kindergarten method but to reach the home through the influence of the work and the visiting of the matron in them.” In connection with the nurseries, classes in nursing, hygiene and temperance were offered, along with those in sewing, cutting, and mending.

Pauline Shaw now expanded her social service efforts by opening neighborhood houses in Boston and Cambridge where whole families received services. In some cases, these institutions evolved out of her day nurseries. They welcomed all members of the communities where they were located. As Robert A. Woods described during her memorial service, “No racial distinctions were ever registered in connection with any of her enterprises. Her insistence upon this principle has been the means of preserving neighborhood unity and loyalty even across the color line.” One of these neighborhood houses continues to operate today in Cambridgeport as the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House.

Even though Pauline Agassiz Shaw did not live to see women achieve the right to vote, she was a fierce supporter of woman suffrage. As Maud Wood Park wrote about her, “she became convinced that the equality of women before the law was indispensable to social progress that should be permanent.” Pauline Shaw served as president of the Boston Equal Suffrage Association for Good Government for sixteen years, an organization she founded, once directing her members, “Let us enter this new year of work united and happy in the coming together again for the fulfillment of our pledges of the past, united in the sure hope of realizing the form of government which Lincoln has immortalized by the words, ‘Government of the people, for the people, and by the people,’ which at last is really by the whole people.”

Pauline Shaw believed that women’s active involvement in government would help ensure world peace. “The two great causes in the world to-day are the peace movement and equal suffrage,” she once said. “They are independent, but suffrage will help to establish more quickly the overthrow of the war system.” The year of her death, 1917, brought an end to World War I, but not, unfortunately, an end to war.

Pauline and her husband took an interest in prison reform, for “the broken, the hopeless, the abandoned,” reformer Maud Ballington Booth once explained. “In my work within dark, gray walls, Pauline Agassiz Shaw has been my greatest help and inspiration, and it is through her generosity and that of Mr. Shaw, that comfort and help, and a new start and a new home have been brought to tens of thousands of men whom the callous world looked upon as outcasts.”

Pauline Agassiz Shaw’s memorial service was held on Easter Sunday, 1917, at Faneuil Hall in Boston. An estimated 2,000 people attended, including David Walsh, the Governor of Massachusetts, and Charles W. Eliot, the former president of Harvard, to pay tribute to a pioneering woman whose “expectation of good from the untried, social work, kindergartens, day nurseries, manual training, prevocational and industrial classes now enrich and broaden the lives of our young people,” George Greener eulogized. “Life to her was large and broad and her ideas have spread across the country … she never regarded her work as completed.”

– Bonnie Hurd Smith