The SouthSide Story
In 1886, a group of women created the first "day nursery," or child care center, west of the Mississippi River. Today, that historic organization is called SouthSide Early Childhood Center. Explore this online exhibit to learn more about the challenges and successes that made SouthSide what it is today.
Many things have changed since 1886, but across the years, the people of SouthSide have continued to serve children, families, and their community.
“It’s very heartening to realize that legions of people before us had a strong social conscience, faced dilemmas, worked out solutions, and kept the agency going through an entire century! We have a wonderful heritage.”
- Barbara Torrence, Executive Director, 1985
Discovering how SouthSide has changed since 1886 - and how it has stayed the same - can build understanding about the organization today. What does SouthSide's history mean to you?
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs and documents in this exhibit can be found within the South Side Day Nursery Papers at the Missouri History Museum Archives. To see the collection or to research local history, visit the Museum’s Library and Research Center.
For More Information
The following are some resources to learn more about the history of SouthSide Early Childhood Center, of early childhood education, and of social services in St. Louis.
Corbett, Kathleen T. In Her Place: A Guide to St. Louis Women's History. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1999.
Drake, Ruth H., et al. "The History of South Side Day Nursery." 1995. Available within the South Side Day Nursery Papers at the Missouri History Museum Archives.
Lascarides, V. Celia, and Blythe F. Hinitz. History of Early Childhood Education. New York: Falmer Press, 2000.
Osborn, Keith D. Early Childhood Education in Historical Perspective. Athens, Georgia: Education Associates, 1980.
Rogers, Dorothy G., ed. Women in the St. Louis Idealist Movement, 1860-1925, Vol. 1, 2. England: Thoemmes Press, 2003.
By 1880, industry was growing in St. Louis. Warehouses, factories, and small workshops filled the southern part the city. Of the women wage-earners in this area, some worked as hired domestic help for wealthier families. Others worked in factories. Working mothers had few choices for child care. Often a child would stay at home with an older sibling, or perhaps with a young girl the family could afford to pay.
Recognizing a Need
In 1886, the story of one seamstress sparked the idea for the South Side Day Nursery. The worker, who came from Milwaukee, told her employer that she had no safe place to leave her children during the day. Seeing a true need in the city, a group of women from a sewing group at St. Louis’s Church of the Unity decided to act.
The First Meeting
The first meeting took place on March 17, 1886. On that day, fifteen women met at the home of Mrs. G.F. Durant. In order to help the seamstress from Milwaukee and others like her, Mrs. Durant and her friends decided to create a ‘day nursery,’ or child care center, in the southern part of the city.
The women on the new Board quickly got to work. On May 3, the “South St. Louis Nursery” opened its doors. One child came that day. Since many people in the neighborhood spoke German or Bohemian, pamphlets were soon printed in those languages. By the end of its first year, South Side cared for as many as twenty-four children in a day.
Ladies of the Board
The Unitarian women who organized the South Side Day Nursery lived in a new middle-class neighborhood on St. Louis’s south side. Their long-term commitment allowed the South Side Day Nursery to have a stable organization for decades. Mrs. C. M. Woodward was president for twenty years, from 1887-1907. The next president, Mrs. Anthony Ittner, had the role for sixteen. Mrs. Stracke was a Board member for more than twenty-five years.
For many years, Mrs. Stracke worked on the Board's Visiting Committee. In an effort to help families and the community as well as children, this committee regularly visited children's homes and mothers' workplaces. Members made 286 such visits in 1888 alone.
Mission“The object of the nursery shall be to prevent pauperism by assisting breadwinners with young children on their hands to earn an honest living.”
- Second Annual Report, 1888
SouthSide’s founders knew that providing childcare helped more than the child. They wanted to help solve the widespread problem of poverty in South St. Louis, and felt the best way to do this was helping families help themselves. Mothers paid five cents per day for a child to use the nursery. That same day, she could earn about one dollar at work. The early Board members proudly told supporters that the nursery helped these mothers earn a living without offering charity.
- 1621 South Tenth Street
1621 S. Tenth Street
Less than two weeks after the first meeting in March 1886, the new Board received some good news. Space in a two-story building at 1621 S. Tenth Street, formerly part of the Caroll School, was available. The layout, with two large rooms on either side of a hall, seemed suitable for a nursery. The property also had a yard that extended to the end of the block.
At first, the Caroll School let the new South Side Day Nursery use the rooms for free. After a few months, the Board had the option to rent the building. The founders worried that the rent of $35 per month was more than they could pay, but after some debate, they decided to stay. The brick building at the corner of 10th and Julia served as home to the South Side Day Nursery for 66 years—from 1886 until November 1951.
A Permanent Home
"For years then the nursery will be needed…the idea of purchasing some house suited to our purpose presents itself most strongly.”
-Second Annual Report, May 1, 1888
The women of South Side knew that working people would continue living in South St. Louis for many years. To help these future families, Board president Fanny Woodward urged the group to buy property. She strongly believed that the nursery should make a permanent home in the neighborhood.
In 1888 the South Side Day Nursery became incorporated, and so had the legal right to buy property. After spending more than a year fundraising, in May 1890 the nursery announced its success. For $5,000, South Side purchased its first home.
As the South Side Day Nursery became more widely used, it needed more space. For years, the nursery once again raised money for its Building Fund. The most success came from a Doll Bazaar in 1895, at which crowds of people came to see or buy dolls from around the world.
In 1897, workers transformed the building at 1621 S. Tenth. New plumbing, new paint, a new hall, and an entire new third floor were added. The larger building meant that a greater number of children and families could be served.
From its first years, the South Side Day Nursery was truly a community organization. Most of the nursery’s first clients lived within two or three blocks of 10th and Julia. In 1890, it served nearly sixty families who lived within half a mile. Some working mothers moved to the area just to live near the nursery.
Most families in the neighborhood came from Germany or Bohemia. (Bohemia was part of what is now the Czech Republic.) An area called “Bohemian Hill” centered on St. John Nepomuk Church, just a few blocks from South Side. These German and Bohemian immigrants worked in nearby breweries, cotton factories, and foundries. By 1920, many families also came from Hungary, Sicily, Slovakia, Austria, and elsewhere. As the neighborhood changed, South Side continued to serve the community.
- Life at South Side
Life at South Side
“The child is washed, fed three times daily, and made happy and comfortable for the day. A few years of such treatment has an influence for good on future lives which cannot be overestimated.” -Fifth Annual Report, 1891
In the first years of the South Side Day Nursery, its main goals were to keep children safe, clean, and well fed. With many children and a range of ages to look after, little thought was given to educating the children. By the early 1890s the nursery served seventy-two families. On one day that year, the matron and two assistants looked after forty-four children. Nineteen were infants under one year old.
Nursery days were long, both for the children and the staff. Children began arriving before 7:00 each morning, and some stayed for ten or twelve hours. Upon arrival, the matron bathed each child and put him or her in clean clothes kept at the nursery. The day revolved around washing, meals, and naptimes. Infants were kept on the nursery’s second floor. Older children left to go to the Caroll School across the street for part of the day.
More than a Nursery
“We have been fortunate in being able to supply the mothers with work, also to meet the demands made upon us for women to work.”
-Twenty-third Annual Report, 1909
The South Side Day Nursery acted as more than a child care center—it was also an informal employment agency. Mothers came to South Side looking for work, usually hoping to do a day’s worth of cleaning or laundry in someone’s home. The service worked the other way, too. In 1889, Board members visited seventy “lady employers” to inform them about South Side. As a result, households turned to the nursery for domestic help. In 1907 alone, the matron received 230 requests for women workers.
Children and Families
“A charity like this should not submit to prejudice…” -Board Minutes, March 17, 1886
From its beginning, the founders of South Side had to decide who they wanted to help. In the very first meeting, they decided to accept children of all races. Nevertheless, it took some time to overcome other common prejudices.
When the nursery first opened, only children of married or widowed working women were admitted. This meant that the Board rejected applications from unmarried mothers or working fathers. In September 1886, Nenny and Christian, the children of the local stone-cutter, were taken out of the nursery for this reason.
It took less than a year for this to change. In 1897, South Side accepted an application from Mrs. Hahn, an unmarried mother of twins. The Board decided from that point forward to look at each case one by one.
Remembering Mrs. Pinckert
“She was a woman of great executive ability, kind to the children, tactful with the mothers, firm with her help, and very acceptable to the managers in every way.”
- 23rd Annual Report, 1909
In the nursery’s second year, Emilie Pinckert was hired as matron, or head caretaker. Mrs. Pinckert became a fixture at South Side. For thirteen years, she cared for hundreds of children, managed staff and expenses, and found work for mothers. Mrs. Pinckert lived upstairs at 10th and Julia with her son, Waldemar. Her sister, Clara, also worked at the nursery. Like many people in the area, Emilie and Clara’s parents were German immigrants. When Mrs. Pinckert died in 1909, at age 48, the longtime matron left $100 to the nursery.
- Expanding Roles
“Yet we are doing much less than we ought...” -Second Annual Report, 1888
From its earliest days, the people of South Side looked for ways to expand the nursery’s role in the community. In the early 1890s, the nursery started a kindergarten. This new part of South Side sparked an emphasis on education. Rather than worrying only about health and safety, the kindergarten focused on children’s learning and creativity. To help in this effort, the nursery joined with other groups in St. Louis and across the country. To serve a community need, South Side also began welcoming older children during lunch and after school hours.
“...the children have acquired freedom of expression and originality of thoughts. Through the music, drawing, and color work and contact with nature, they have manifested an innate love for the beautiful.”
-Fourteenth Annual Report, 1900
At first, children only attended the kindergarten on days when their mothers were at work. Over time, the teachers and Board realized that the children benefited more from a regular schedule. In 1899, it began accepting students for free on days when their mothers were not working. Five years later, when the nursery was in financial trouble, South Side’s lawyer recommended closing the kindergarten. Instead, members of the Board personally pledged to raise the needed money.
The Kindergarten Movement
Miss Emma Snyder is “an efficient kindergartner, and one who is truly filled with the spirit of Froebel.”
-Fourteenth Annual Report, 1900
In the kindergarten room at South Side sat a bust of Friedrick Froebel. Froebel, a German educator, started the kindergarten movement in the early 1800s. He taught that young children develop through structured crafts, music, and play. Like South Side, many early kindergartens also tried to help families in need. In 1873, Susan Blow started the first public-school kindergarten in the United States in St. Louis.
In this photograph, a woman at South Side plays a piano piece from a March 1899 issue of The Musician, part of “The Educational Interests of Music” monthly series.
A Community Effort
“Resolved - that the South Side Day Nursery Association join the Missouri State Board of Women’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations, hoping to help and be helped in working for womankind” -Monthly Board Minutes, January 1893
The South Side Day Nursery did not work alone in its mission. People and groups regularly donated time, money, and supplies. Board members often visited other charities, attended conferences, and read about the newest trends in child care. South Side joined the National Federation for Day Nurseries, the Provident Association, and more. In the years ahead, professional groups like these would play an even more important role in the history and development of the South Side Day Nursery.