Born this day in 1835: Sarah Brown Ingersoll Cooper (1835–1896), pioneer in the kindergarten movement
Sarah Brown Ingersoll Cooper was born Sarah Brown Ingersoll in Cazenovia, New York. She was educated at Cazenovia Seminary and at Emma Willard’s Troy Seminary. At Cazenovia she met her future husband, Halsey Fennimore Cooper, whom she married in 1855. The couple had four children, two of whom died in infancy.
Before marrying, Cooper taught school and worked as a governess. After marrying, she moved with her husband to Tennessee. He was editor of the Chattanooga Advertiser and she worked as assistant editor. When the Civil War broke out, they fled North.
In 1864 her daughter Mollie died. Cooper fell ill, and did not begin to recuperate until the family moved to San Francisco. Cooper became active in San Francisco society. She began writing, taught bible classes, and engaged in philanthropic work. She was active in women’s clubs and worked for suffrage and other women’s causes. The bible class she taught became wildly popular, but she was eventually brought up on charges of heresy. She defended herself against the charges, gaining both strong support and national attention. She chose to leave the Presbyterian Church on her own account and took up with the Congregationalists.
She was a tireless reformer and a sought-after public speaker. Her greatest efforts went into the kindergarten movement. She opened her first kindergarten in 1879, serving the poor preschoolers of San Francisco’s infamous “Barbary Coast.” It was the first free kindergarten in the western United States. In 1884 she founded the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association to administer the several kindergartens she had opened by then. In little more than a decade the association boasted 40 kindergartens. Her schools became models for hundreds of other kindergartens in the U.S. and abroad. In 1891, Cooper was elected as the first president of the international Kindergarten Union.
Cooper’s husband, who had suffered a humiliating job loss, committed suicide in 1885. Cooper’s daughter Harriet was her companion and dedicated secretary. Harriet’s own depressive episodes worried Cooper’s friends, but Cooper refused to institutionalize her. Harriet axsphysiated them both with gas in their shared apartment in 1896.
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