In the Schoolyard
Schooling was a privilege and not a given for families in nineteenth-century South of Market. While the children of wealthier families might stay at school until they were in their late teens, for working class families the situation was very different. Boys might be apprenticed in the trades as young as 14. Girls might stay home to help with the house and younger siblings. Older girls often took work as servants.
A string of free kindergartens in the South of Market gave children of the working class access to basic education. The Silver Street Kindergarten was the first free Kindergarten west of the Rocky Mountains. Organized in 1878 by philanthropist Felix Alder, Kate Douglas Wiggin was hired to run the school. Although Mrs. Wiggin may best be known as the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the expansion of free kindergartens may be a more noteworthy legacy. The Silver Street Kindergarten was used as the model for the development of other free kindergartens in the neighborhood. One of the reasons for the school's success was the large number of small children who lived nearby on Perry and Silver streets.
The Silver Street Kindergarten occupied a building that had housed a variety of educational institutions on land owned by the Crocker family. The building was available after the Rincon Grammar School moved into its new building further up the street. The photograph above of the school taken about 1879 shows the juxtaposition of the tidy building façade with picket fence and the side yard walled from public view. Descriptions of the interior can be found in Kate Wiggin’s autobiography, My Garden of Memory, and The Story of Patsy. The latter is a social commentary about life in the neighborhood. In My Garden of Memory, Wiggin describes her initial experiences at the Silver Street Kindergarten:
“The first few days after my arrival in San Francisco were spent in the installing of stove, piano, tables, benches, and working materials, and then the beautifying began, the creation of a room so attractive and homelike, so friendly in its atmosphere, that its charm would be felt by every child who entered. Inspiration to cleanliness and courtesy, by furnishing an atmosphere of beauty and shining neatness everywhere, was my thought. A child may note for the first time that his hands are dirty when dainty, bright-colored working materials are given him.”
The Story of Patsy provides some other clues about the interior of the kindergarten:
“I sank into my small rocking-chair, and, clasping my arms over my head, bent it upon the table and closed my eyes.
The dazzling California sunshine streamed in at the western windows, touched the gold-fish globes with rosy glory, glittered on the brass bird-cages, flung a splendid halo round the meek head of the Madonna above my table, and poured a flood of grateful heat over my shoulders. The clatter of a tin pail outside the door, the uncertain turning of a knob by a hand too small to grasp it: ‘I forgitted my lunch bucket, ‘n had to come back five blocks. Good-by Miss Kate.’(Kiss.) ‘Good-by, little man; run along.’ Another step, and a curly little red head pushed itself apologetically through the open door. ‘You never gave me back my string and buzzer, Miss Kate.’”
Two privies associated with the Silver Street Kindergarten were excavated. Privy 1, located on the northwest corner of the lot, can be seen in the 1879 seen in the photograph of the school. The privy is the back building on the left with the open door. It was probably filled in and converted to flushing toilets after February of 1890 when the lot was connected to city water. The date is rather late, since many neighboring lots were connected in the 1860s. There was a box drain leading to the privy that may have come from a sink supplied by well water, possibly used for washing little faces and hands. Artifacts recovered from Privy 1 offer glimpses of children’s experiences at the school. The deposit contained 977 slate pencils, 33 toys, and a variety of household items. While the discarded toy tea sets may have been broken while teaching proper table manners, perhaps the marbles were confiscated items whose owners failed to retrieve them.