Editorial Feature

5 Things You Should Know About George Peabody

Meet the Father of Modern Philanthropy

When you think of millionaire philanthropists, you may think of people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, and chances are the name George Peabody doesn’t enter your list. So who was he? Born in 1795, George Peabody was a forerunner to modern-day philanthropy and was widely known for his generosity towards educational initiatives, affordable housing, and the arts.

Here are 5 things you should know about his life:

1. He went from rags to riches by working 10 hour days

Peabody was born in South Danvers, Massachusetts to a working-poor family of eight children. At the age of 11 he was forced to leave school to become an apprentice, as his family couldn’t afford to continue paying for his education — a misfortune he never forgot and that would shape his humanitarian efforts in the future.

When he was 14, his father died and George’s family home and many of their belongings were sold in order to pay off debtors. It was up to George and his brothers to financially support their mother and sisters.

The George Peabody House Museum, Massachusetts

This began a life of hard-work, importing wholesale dry goods in Baltimore and climbing the ranks of the business world until he eventually established a merchant bank, George Peabody & Co, and made his fortune. He reportedly worked habitual 10 hour days, and once went 12 years without taking more than three days off at once.

2) He rescued America’s contribution to The Great Exhibition of 1851

In 1851, London hosted The Great Exhibition, where nations from around the world displayed art, design and the wonders of their manufacturing industries in a huge, glittering ‘Crystal Palace’ that stretched over 10 miles.

Unfortunately, America hit a snag when it came to showcasing their contributions. American exhibitors received no official government sponsorship, so while they had a ship to transport the goods, there were no funds to unload the exhibits and get them to London.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 (London, UK), by Nash, Haghe and Roberts, 1851(From the collection of EXTRACTION)

When George Peabody, living in London at the time, heard of the dilemma he donated $15,000 of his own money to facilitate the transportation, arrangement, and decoration of the exhibits. His investment proved a success, and crowds gathered to see Colt’s revolver, Cyrus McCormick’s reaping machine, Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave, and other wonders. This was just the beginning of Peabody’s various philanthropic activities.

"The Greek Slave," by Hiram Powers, by Southworth & Hawes, 1848 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

3) He donated over half of his fortune to charity

Peabody donated to numerous ventures, but above all he valued causes that echoed the struggles he had faced in his upbringing. He said of his childhood poverty, “it is now too late for me to learn and I can only do to those that come under my care, as I could have wished circumstances had permitted others to have done by me.”

Recipients of his philanthropy included: his hometown, where he built the Peabody Institute Library; in Baltimore, he founded the Peabody Institute of Baltimore, which included a music conservatory, art gallery, lecture hall, and reference library; and the Peabody Essex Museum, whose mission is to celebrate art and the world in which it was made, and broaden cultural perspectives.

Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel, by Jarrod Staples, 2009 (From the collection of Peabody Essex Museum)

Never forgetting how we was deprived of education as a child, he was greatly passionate about providing the less-fortunate with the opportunity to improve their situation. At the end of the Civil War, he set his sights on restoring damage in the Southern States, and established the Peabody Education Fund to strengthen and promote primary and secondary education, and fund teacher training institutes.

Overall, George Peabody provided donations of more than $8 million of his $16 million fortune to numerous public causes, earning him the title of "father of modern philanthropy."


George Peabody distributing the prizes at the Working Classes Industrial Exhibition, Guildhall (From LIFE Photo Collection)

4) He refused a baronetcy from Queen Victoria

For a man who had amassed such a great fortune, Peabody had a reputation of being thrifty to the point of stinginess when it came to himself. He rarely dined out, did not own his own carriage and was reportedly found once standing in the rain outside his office by a colleague who enquired, “I thought you were going home?’ To which Peabody replied: “I am, but there’s only been a two-penny bus that has come along as yet. I’m waiting for the penny one.”

On the other hand, Peabody’s generosity to others made him a hero, both in America and the United Kingdom. Queen Victoria offered him the title of baron (which he refused) and he was the first American to be made a Freeman of the City of London, for his contribution to housing initiatives for the working class in the city. In 1867, he was awarded a Congressional Gold medal, and statues were unveiled of him in London’s Royal Exchange and in Mount Vernon, Baltimore.

The George Peabody Statue, The Royal Exchange, London

5) He was buried on both sides of the Atlantic

Upon his death, the British royal family wished to have him buried at Westminster Abbey to honor is philanthropic contributions to the city - the first American to be offered a grave there. However, Peabody’s dying words had been “Danvers-Danvers! Don’t forget”, referring to the instructions in his will to return his remains to the small town in Massachusetts where he grew up.

Westminster Abbey, London

He was, however, temporarily buried in Westminster Abbey, until his body was returned to America by a joint squadron of British and American naval vessels. He was then finally laid to rest in his beloved birthplace of Danvers, which had been renamed to the town of Peabody, in honour of his charitable contributions towards improving society and the lives of those less fortunate than him.

- Explore the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum

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