From Kindergarten to Columbia Teachers College: Patty Smith Hill Departs for New York

Patty Smith Hill (1868-1946) is likely best known for, along with her sister Mildred Jane Hill, writing the song “Good Morning to All,” featuring the tune that eventually became “Happy Birthday To You,” which we have all sung or been sung, with greater or lesser happiness depending on what age we happen to be turning. But Hill was most prominently known in her lifetime as a pioneer of kindergarten education in Louisville and in the United States. She was a leader in the development of kindergarten education, and among the founding members of the Louisville Free Kindergarten Association, which she led as superintendent from 1893 until leaving at the age of 37 to join the faculty of Columbia University Teachers College in 1906.

Patty Smith Hill in 1905.

Patty Smith Hill in 1905

While in Louisville, Hill introduced pedagogical methods that were of great interest to influential educators and theoreticians including John Dewey, Colonel Francis Parker and Dr. William Hailmann, all of whom visited her classrooms. Her reputation as a progressive experimenter led Dr. James Earl Russell, then Dean of Columbia Teachers College, to invite her first for a series of lectures in 1905 and then to join the permanent faculty in 1906.

Seen below is the handwritten draft of the letter, dated March 5, 1906, Hill sent to the board of overseers of the Louisville Free Kindergarten Association, announcing her decision to depart for Columbia. The letter is held by the Filson as part of the Patty Smith Hill Papers.

After a brief introduction, the letter states:

“I can not tell you the agony of mind this [decision] has caused me, for no one can appreciate what it means to part with people who have co-operated with me as this board has for nineteen years.[…] Nothing but the sternest sense of duty could induce me to take this step, but as I have given the best years of my life to the work here I now feel that the continued and urgent calls from the East must be listened to and a larger service awaits me in New York City.”

Letter from Patty Smith Hill to LFKA, March 5, 1906

Letter from Patty Smith Hill to LFKA, March 5, 1906

Hill goes on to urge the board to grant her successor the same respect and support she received, and pays tribute to her predecessor in the role of superintendent, Ms. Anna Bryan. At Columbia, Hill founded the Speyer School Experimental Playroom (later Horace Mann Kindergarten), and in 1929 received an honorary Doctor of Letters in recognition of her achievements.

Kindergarten was in those times by no means an assumed step in the educational system, and was viewed with skepticism. Hill shepherded kindergartens from a role as outside entity into a formal part of public education in Louisville and across the country.

Sadly, decades after the bold and forward-thinking beginnings of kindergarten education in Louisville, little evidence remained of the influence of Hill, Bryan and their cohort. Due to budget constraints, public kindergarten programs were abandoned by the Louisville Board of Education in 1956 and were not reinstated until 1966, two years after the national Head Start Program was founded as part of President Johnson’s Great Society.

Today, though the role of kindergarten in early childhood education is secure, some of the arguments made by the likes of Hill and Dewey in favor of creative play in education are again at issue, as preparation for examinations at ever lower grade levels limits the school time given to other activities. As the pendulum of educational theory and practice sways from creative play to quantitative evaluation and back again, it will return over and over again to the contributions of Patty Smith Hill.

The remainder of the letter follows.



Aaron Rosenblum

Aaron Rosenblum is an Associate Curator of Special Collections at The Filson Historical Society.

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