Educator and early kindergarten and playground advocate
Mary J. Cowley was so successful that today her life’s work seems almost ridiculous: she was a champion of playgrounds.
Playgrounds are a fixture of modern life but in an era when farmlands and forests were still found within city limits, the idea of setting aside space just for recreation seemed, “the passing fad of a few fanatics” [“Is Called ‘Our Mrs. Cowley’ by Northside Children,” Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 2/11/1931]. As a graduate of the Pennsylvania Female College, young Mary Buchanan had heard of playgrounds in Chicago and New York and felt these efforts could be well replicated in Pittsburgh. By 1900, she had rallied other likeminded women to form the Playground Vacation School Association of Allegheny. The group had a rough time of it, finding resistance from school employees, politicians and a public that saw playgrounds as part of a liberal/socialist agenda.
It speaks to Mrs. Cowley’s influence that, by the time of her death in 1937, the North Side alone could attribute 40 playgrounds directly to her efforts. While the initial sell of playgrounds was tough, with each one established public sentiment seemed to realign. These early playgrounds did have definite agendas beyond preservation of green space. A 1920 report on Pittsburgh Playgrounds, prepared by The Citizen’s Committee on City Plan of Pittsburgh, explained both the need and the plan:
The Complexities of city life, the congestion of population, the opportunities and incentives for perversion of childish and youthful activities into unwholesome channels, all these make imperative the establishment of a complete recreation systems and program whereby the spare hours from childhood to maturity may be properly and profitably occupied…Much of the expense of present correction institutions can in the future be saved by a proper recreation program today.
--Pittsburgh Playgrounds;being the First Portion of a Report
Upon the Recreation System; A Part of the Pittsburgh Plan,
Prepared by The Citizen’s Committee on City Plan of
Pittsburgh, June 1920
Mrs. Cowley served on the Playground Vacation School Association of Allegheny for 34 years. She was an accomplished photographer who used her skill to photograph the children and playgrounds of the North Side, using these images to illustrate the minutes of the group, which she edited. She served on the Board of Education starting with its incorporation in 1911. She received many awards and accolades in her life for her work but is quoted most often as saying the best part about her work was being called, “Our Mrs. Cowley,” by the children who grew up playing in the safe, beautiful spaces she worked to provide.