Patsy and Kate

You know who Kate Douglas Wiggin is - she wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. And, as a student of books for children, you also know that Rebecca as Wiggin wrote her is not the same person as the Rebecca played on the screen by Shirley Temple. The book Rebecca is much sharper-edged and, under the surface layer of Victorian sentimentalism, does a realistic assessment of her society. (One reviewer points out that Rebecca is overjoyed that her family farm will be destroyed by the railroad company that buys it.)

Rebecca, which was published in 1903 and is still in print today, is the only one of her books most people know about. But it was far from being her only work. Her very first book, in fact, was a small volume entitled The Story of Patsy, written in 1883 as a fundraiser for her San Francisco kindergarten.

Kate Douglas Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1856, grew up in Maine, and moved to southern California in her teens. The stepfather who had moved the family there also made some bad land investments and died in the 1870s, leaving seventeen-year-old Kate the family breadwinner.

She trained as a kindergarten teacher. This was a specialized occupation (qualified early childhood development specialist) defined by the work of Friedrich Froebel in Switzerland. When she graduated, Kate and her mother, sister, and stepbrother moved to San Francisco, where Kate opened the Silver Street Free Kindergarten, a sort of Head Start program with social work trimmings. Kate was principal teacher and principal fund-raiser for the Kindergarten, so successfully that she paid off her family's debts within three years, and firmly established the school in the community. (The building itself, and the neighborhood it served, were destroyed in the fire of 1906.)

Patsy was expanded for commercial publication in 1889. The official plot follows the short school career of Patsy Dennis, whose drunken father threw him downstairs (breaking his back) when he was six, and who is now nine. But because the book was written on behalf of the Silver Street Free Kindergarten, it tells us a great deal about the school and the neighborhood.

"Miss Kate" and her assistant "Miss Helen," between them, teach 80 three- to six-year-olds, five days a week from nine to two. There is no tuition charge; the children bring their own lunches, and an amazing array of aid, from donated clothing to help finding housing, is available to their families.

With a few cultural adjustments (not that either Hispanics or African Americans are lacking in Silver Street) the story could be written by a teacher in a modern Head Start program. The Kindergarten teaches numbers, handcrafts, correct grammar, socialization, music, art and manners. They take field trips and have holiday parties. A successful product of the program should have no trouble with first grade in the local public school. The student body is highly varied, with names of a mixed ethnicity that many might think is the product of the end of our own century, not the last one. Although my own favorite is Maria Virginia de Reyes Perkins, the gamut runs from Mercedes McCafferty through Half-dan Christiansen to Paulina Strozynski.

Child mortality in this 19th-century slum is high. There is room for Patsy in the classroom at the beginning of the story because a child has just died. In the middle of the book, Daga Ohlsen (at three years old the only fluent English speaker in her family) dies. And Patsy, as you might guess, dies in the end.

In 1881 Kate Douglas Smith became Kate Douglas Wiggin, and moved to New York with her lawyer husband in 1884. She continued to do public relations and fundraising for kindergartens, and in fact was in California on a business trip when Wiggin died in New York in 1890. By this time, she was established as a writer and speaker. She remarried in 1895, becoming Kate Douglas Riggs, and died in 1923. She continued to travel (her second husband was wealthy), write, and raise money for Free Kindergartens. She had operated her own training school in San Francisco, and in the 1890s (with her sister) she wrote three textbooks on Froebel's theories.

Many of Wiggin's stories, now virtually unknown, are available - of all places - on the World Wide Web. Like Patsy and Rebecca, these works put a shiny sentimental gloss on top of solid social observation. Take a look at and spend some time reading some of her shorter works. - Jo Anne Fatherly


"Kate Douglas Wiggin" by Francelia Butler, in Writers for Children.

"Kate Douglas Wiggin" by Rebecca J. Lukens, in Twentieth-Century Writers for Children.

Kate Douglas Wiggin as Her Sister Knew Her. Nora A. Smith; Houghton Mifflin, 1925.

My Garden of Memory: An Autobiography. Kate Douglas Riggs; Houghton Mifflin, 1923.

The Story of Patsy: a Reminiscence. Kate Douglas Wiggin, 1907 edition.


The Story of Patsy, 1883.
The Birds' Christmas Carol, 1887
A Summer in a Cañon, 1889
Timothy's Quest, 1890
The Story Hour (With Nora A. Smith), 1890
Polly Oliver's Problem, 1893
A Cathedral Courtship, 1893
Penelope's English Experiences, 1893
Penelope's Progress, 1898
Penelope's Irish Experiences,1901
The Diary of a Goosegirl, 1902
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1903
Half-a-Dozen Housekeepers, 1903
Rose o' the River, 1905
New Chronicles of Rebecca, 1907
Mother Carey's Chickens, 1911
A Child's Journey with Dickens, 1912
Penelope's Postscripts, 1915
The Romance of a Christmas Card, 1916
Twilight Stories (wth Nora A. Smith), 1925

© 1999 Jo Anne Fatherly. This article appeared in The Whispered Watchword, newsletter of The Phantom Friends.