Date of Award

Spring 2023

Document Type

Open Access Thesis



First Advisor

Jessica Elfenbein


Despite the limitations on their formal political involvement, women across the United States took control of the Progressive Era playground movement, and playground advocates nationwide argued that urban play spaces constructed motherhood into the city. While many mothers used playgrounds for child care, playground directors used the maternal authority constructed into playgrounds to promote their ideas about ideal citizenship. One playground director, Mabel E. Macomber, called this aspect of playground work the “'mother' element,” believing, as did other workers and advocates, that playgrounds were part of the apparatus of urban mothering, and in the case of many poor working women, “acting in the absent mother’s place.” 1 Throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, American women and playground planners constructed playgrounds as part of what I call the “infrastructure of public mothering.” Playground advocates saw playgrounds as the crucible of good citizenship, where directors could awaken the productive American within the child who dreamed of play. Advocates recognized both women as the earliest proponents of play and the physical space of the playground and social space of playground work as extending the boundaries of the domestic sphere. Playground directors aimed to create the ideal American citizen by physically constructing motherhood and making a surveillance landscape.

1 Mabel E. Macomber, “The New York Park Playgrounds,” in The Playground 23 vols. (New York: Playground Association of America, 1907-1910, Playground and Recreation Association of America 1910- 1929), 1908, 2:20:11; Mabel E. Macomber, “The Playground Problem: Funds Are Needed to Attract Properly Trained Supervisors,” New York Times, Oct. 14, 1926.


© 2023, Alexandra Miller

Available for download on Thursday, May 15, 2025