What Is a Kindergarten?

Wraparound cover art for “What is a Kindergarten?”

The kindergarten (literally “children’s garden”) movement began in 1837 when Friedrich Fröbel founded a play and activity institute in the Bavarian town of Bad Blankenburg. His idea was to create a social transition for children between home and school, and that they should be nourished like plants in a garden. Fröbel’s ideas soon began to spread around Europe and then to America, where the first kindergarten opened in Boston in 1860 and the first public kindergarten in St Louis in 1873.

Title page of “What is a Kindergarten?”

In his 1901 book What Is a Kindergarten?, published by Elder & Shepard, landscape architect George Hansen takes the German word literally: he advocates physically putting the children in a garden. For Hansen there is room enough to do this: “The broad acres of our United States yet comparatively undivided … and [few] are too costly to furnish the ground upon which our kindergartens shall be founded.” Instead of “the basements of our school buildings,” Hansen wants the children out in the open:

We compare a man to an oak, a woman to a birch, a girl to a lily, a boy to a weed. This surely has foundation in reason. … Remember, every child in your charge is an Edison, every tot a Columbus, and the idealizing disposition of all of them sees a Garden of Eden in a vacant lot. I insist upon mere association of plants and children.

To bring home his point, Hansen included nine plates (see example below) of how to include garden areas on school grounds of different sizes and shapes. “If a glance at the series of plates  gives the impression that every one of them might as well be the appointment of an area surrounding a private home as that of a kindergarten, their objects are served.” If Hansen were alive today, he would be joining Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters in evangelizing the Edible Schoolyard Project.

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Page 12-13 of “What is a Kindergarten”

George Hansen (1863-1908) was born in Hildesheim, Germany. His grandfather, Rev. J. G. K. Oberdieck was a famous pomologist (the study of fruit) and was rewarded by the Prussian government with a guaranteed spot at the university for whichever of his grandchildren took a delight in horticulture. George was selected and attended the Royal College of Pomology in Potsdam. In 1885 he moved to England and worked for F. Sander & Company in their orchid house, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society.

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Page 72 and Plate I of “What is a Kindergarten?”

Hansen came to America in 1887 and became foreman of the University of California Foothill Experiment Station in Jackson (Amador County). He became a distributor of exsiccatae, or specimens, of the Sierra Nevada flora, and wrote a book about it called Where the Big Trees Grow (1894). It was also in this year that Hansen completed his magnum opus, for which he is still best known, The Orchid Hybrids.

In 1896 Hansen suffered a spinal injury which made walking extremely painful. He moved to the Scenic Tract in Berkeley, on the north side of the University of California campus, and for the next twelve years scarcely left the confines of his house and garden. But during those twelve years he published What Is a Kindergarten? and continued to sell his botanical books and specimens. In 1902 Elder & Shepard also published five keepsakes called the Baby Roland Booklets, a photographic essay of his young son Roland.

George Hansen died at his home in Berkeley on 1 March 1908, from complications of his spinal injury. He was only 45 years old.

The Garden Book of California

The most famous sentence about gardening from California’s Arts & Crafts period is “Hillside Architecture is Landscape Gardening around a few rooms for use in case of rain.” Often ascribed to the poet and naturalist Charles Keeler, the line appears not in The Simple Home, as is sometimes cited, but in an untitled 1906 pamphlet distributed by Berkeley’s Hillside Club. The pamphlet’s author is probably either Annie Maybeck or her husband, architect Bernard Maybeck, whose architectural drawings are used as the pamphlet’s illustrations.

Belle Sumner Angier’s Garden Book of California is cut from the same cloth. She certainly would have known of Keeler and Maybeck, and it’s reasonable to suppose that he urged her to write the book. Angier harps on many of Keeler’s favorite topics: bad architecture, regular exercise and the stresses of modern life. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter “Out-of-door Living Rooms”:

“Stay a great deal in the open air.” How frequently we hear the phrase in California, and how much we enjoy as individuals the carrying out of the advice, especially when we are so fortunately situated as to be able easily to avail ourselves of the privilege; yet, as householders, what little preparation is made for enjoying with any degree of regularity fresh air and brilliant sunshine! … We recognize the value of the daily sun-bath and of vigorous exercise in the open air, yet we plan our gardens all open to the street, leave our porches open to the rude gaze of every passer-by, persistently cramp our garden space with this or that crude building, buying fifty-foot lots and covering them withour badly contrived architecture; and this in the face of the fact that many of us have been ordered to California to live out-of-doors.

Oh, we are a decidedly inconsistent people! I could count on my fingers the well-planned arbors, summer-houses, covered seats, or even open and partially sheltered garden seats I have seen in my travels through the gardens of California. I do not even try to find a reason for this condition of affairs. There really couldn’t be any worth considering.

The hills of Italy cannot give a more artistic vantage-spot for the pergola than do those of California. Amalfi and Ravello, Naples or Florence, can show no more beautiful opportunities for this form of out-of-door architecture than beautiful Belvedere, or Berkeley, or Montecito, or San Buenaventura, Los Angeles or San Diego.

The common use of rustic work that is extravagantly artificial in character, the too often bizarre and unreal forms that are used in the making of garden-houses in some way seem to disturb the sense of harmony. And yet the garden-house, the arbor and the pergola may all be made so satisfying to family life—so important to American family life—since they offer inducements toward a measure of relaxation almost foreign to our people without which we shall continue to earn the title of the most nerve-worn nation of the earth.

Little is known about Belle Sumner Angier. She was from Los Angeles, and perhaps was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Express.

Decorations for the book are by Spencer Wright.

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Dust jacket of "The Garden Book of California"
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Title Page of "The Garden Book of California"
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"The Garden Book of California," page 104-5
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"The Garden Book of California," page 106-7