Prior to 1847 the State of Missouri made no provision for the education of blind citizens. In that year the legislature authorized $80 per year for the education of indigent blind youth, with a lifetime cap of $160 per person – enough for two years of schooling. In addition the total sum appropriated for blind education was $1,200 per year – which would educate a total of 15 blind pupils! In the early part of 1851 the Missouri legislature appointed a committee to inquire into the feasibility of including education of the blind at the institution for the “deaf and dumb,” which was established that year; meanwhile private citizens had taken the matter into their own hands.
The nucleus of a Missouri school was started immediately, when Mr. Whelan accepted his first pupils – Elizabeth Taylor, a 14-year old from St. Louis, and Daniel Wilkinson, a seven-year old from Cape Girardeau. Mr. Whelan taught these two students for several weeks in his boarding house in downtown St. Louis and then took them to Jefferson City to demonstrate their progress and ask for state aid. Success was not a foregone conclusion as the legislature had recently expressed the following opinion of education for the blind:
"There are only a few blind persons in Missouri, the United States census reports to the contrary notwithstanding. It would be time, labor and money lost to try to teach the blind to read or do anything else."
Fortunately, both Elizabeth and Daniel were talented both intellectually and musically and their accomplishments persuaded the legislature to authorize the founding of a school to be called “The Missouri Institution for the Education of the Blind.” The school’s inaugural date was February 27, 1851. In addition the state granted the school an appropriation of $3,000 per year for five years on condition that its founders first raise $10,000 privately.
It took the founders several months and additional student exhibitions, but eventually they raised the $10,000 and the Missouri Institution for the Education of the Blind was formally opened on November 1, 1851. The school remained a privately-controlled endeavor for several years until its founders determined they could not continue to support it. In 1855 the school came under the control of the Missouri state legislature. Over the following 160 years of its existence Missouri School for the Blind has been under the supervision of various state departments, including the State Board of Guardians and the State Board of Charities and Corrections, and since 1921 it has been operated by the Missouri Department of Education.
As the school grew it needed ever-larger quarters and in 1856 it moved into its own building at 20th and Morgan (now Delmar) in downtown St. Louis. The building had been purchased for $27,000 and, after enlargement and remodeling, would be able to house 100 pupils. By 1870, with enrollment reaching 125, however, the school had outgrown these accommodations and received $50,000 from the state to add two wings that tripled the size of the former space (see photo below). In addition to classrooms, offices and student dormitories, the four-story building provided living space for staff, a bakery, coal and vegetable cellars, a piano tuning and repair room, boys’ and girls’ infirmaries, seamstresses’ room, music practice rooms and a gymnasium. The building was heated with steam, lighted by gas and boasted hot and cold running water. MSB
Besides the superintendent, principals and teachers, the school employed housemothers (see photo below) for each dormitory. Their duties included:
"Giving the pupils such care as a mother gives her children, being with them at such times as they are not in class, training them in manners and neatness of person, and giving them the detailed attention that pupils in a large institution usually fail to receive."
Such attention from staffers was especially important as students stayed at the school for months at a time, going home only for summer vacation.