George Peabody and the Peabody Institute
Peabody was born in Massachusetts, in 1795 in a town now named after
him into a family of limited means. He received a minimal formal
education and began his career as an apprentice in a grocery store.
He briefly worked with his brother in a draper's shop in
Newburyport, He later moved on to the south to join his merchant
uncle in Georgetown,
enlisted in the army during the War of 1812, and met Baltimore
merchant Elisha Riggs. After the war, Riggs and Peabody moved to
Baltimore and started a dry goods wholesale business in 1815 under
the firm name of Riggs, Peabody and Company. The company flourished,
in large part because of Peabody's energy and fine business sense,
and opened branch offices in Philadelphia and New York. In 1829, the
firm name changed to Peabody, Riggs and Co., and in 1830s, when
Riggs retired and Peabody became senior partner, the firm was one of
the largest and most prosperous mercantile firms in the country.
built the base of his fortune in Baltimore. By the late 1830s,
however, he had moved beyond mercantile interests to become a
financier, and in 1836 he decided to move to London, then the center
of the financial world. Later, when he began to dispense his great
wealth worldwide in numerous philanthropic gifts during the 1850s,
he remembered with fondness his 20 years in Baltimore and the many
lasting friendships he had made in the city.
February 1857, Peabody wrote to his friends and other leading
citizens in Baltimore with a startling proposal:
...I have determined, without further delay, to establish and
endow an Institute in this city, which I hope, may become useful
towards the improvement of the moral and intellectual culture of
the inhabitants of Baltimore, and collaterally to those of the
State; and also, towards the enlargement and diffusion of a
taste for the Fine Arts.
letter, Peabody outlined the elements of the institute he
proposed--a library, a scholarly lecture series, an academy of music
and an art gallery--and eventually gave $1.4 million to endow it.
The Baltimore of 1857 was a thriving commercial center but at the
same time culturally bereft, and Peabody sought to remedy this sad
situation with one stroke.
institute opened its doors in 1866, and the new library was
dedicated in 1878. The lecture series was initially well received,
but ceased when Johns Hopkins University became well established;
the art gallery was eventually superseded by the magnificent Walters
collection. The conservatory
of music, however, became one of the leading conservatories in the
country, and the library, although surpassed in size by the
libraries of Johns Hopkins and Enoch Pratt, remained a scholar's
treasure. It was also, undoubtedly, Peabody's tremendous gift that
inspired those who came after him--notably, Enoch Pratt, Johns
Hopkins and Henry Walters--to give generously to the city and people
the Peabody Conservatory of Music and Library are departments of the
Johns Hopkins University. Conservatory graduates hold positions of
prominence throughout this country and the world as teachers,
vocalists and instrumentalists with the foremost institutions and
professional musical organizations. Faculty and graduates perform
regularly with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Baltimore Opera
Company, as well as many other musical organizations in the area.