PETERS, MABEL PHOEBE, hotel proprietor and social reformer; b. 12 June 1861 in Saint John; d. 30 Aug. 1914 in Boston and was buried 4 September in Saint John.
Mabel Peters’s family were loyalists from New York who contributed substantially to the business and political life of New Brunswick. Her mother, Martha Hamm Lewis*, was the first woman to be admitted to the provincial Normal School. She taught for six years before marrying Alexander Nevers Peters, a Saint John newspaper manager turned retail grocer who later became a hotel proprietor. From such educated, entrepreneurial, middle-class roots came many social reformers such as Miss Peters.
Her youth and education are scantily documented. Much of her early adult life appears to have been spent helping to operate her father’s hotel, the Clifton House in Saint John. After Mrs Peters died in 1892, Mabel and her elder sister M. Evelyn gradually took it over from their ageing father, becoming proprietors in 1897; following his death in 1901 they managed it for two more years. Another elder sister, Mrs Clara Arthurs, was a leader in the development of playgrounds in Detroit, and the youngest sister, Sarah L., had moved there after their mother’s death. There were frequent visits to and from Detroit, Saint John, and Westfield, N.B., the location of the family’s summer home. This travel provided Mabel Peters with ideas which she used in the pursuit of social reforms.
Her influence at the national level began in 1901 when she prepared a paper promoting vacation schools and playgrounds for the annual meeting of the National Council of Women of Canada. It was read by Mrs Arthurs, who also seconded the resolution that the council pledge itself to promote such schools, seen as a way to “overcome the evils of enforced idleness” by providing children with opportunities for “rational activity and healthy play.” The work thus initiated gained momentum in 1902 when the council formed a standing committee on vacation schools and supervised playgrounds and made Mabel its convenor. For the next 12 years she continued in this position, reporting annually to the council on the campaign to educate public opinion about playgrounds and to enlist the support of civic authorities. During this period there were steady gains: many communities established playgrounds with the assistance of local councils of women, moved on to set up broadly based playground associations, and then saw the playgrounds become the responsibility of the civic government.
It was not until 1906, however, that the first playground was initiated in Saint John. Mabel Peters had led the way as convenor of playgrounds for the Local Council of Women. For two months before its opening she supplied two local newspapers with articles extolling the benefits of playgrounds and worked in fund-raising and in gathering contributions of goods from city merchants. On opening day she was at the site early, pressing people into service; six weeks later she presided over the closing ceremony and had Mrs Arthurs join her on the platform. She continued to work toward making Saint John’s playgrounds a civic responsibility but was not always patient in her approach, threatening in 1908 to withdraw her involvement “if the City of St. John did not think it worthwhile to support this undertaking . . . which it was the duty of the city to carry on.” She nevertheless remained involved. In 1912 a playgrounds association was formed in Saint John, with Miss Peters as president and three playgrounds operating.
Both before and after she and Evelyn sold the family hotel Mabel travelled widely promoting playgrounds. In one year alone, 1912–13, she visited Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Walkerville (Windsor), Ont., and Moncton, N.B., and attended the annual meeting of the National Council of Women in Montreal. Her travels in the United States brought her into contact with Jane Addams, a key social activist in Chicago, and with members of the Playground Association of America, of which she was an early member (1907) and a member of the national council (1907–8). In 1908 she served as an honorary vice-president of the association’s congress in New York. One of her ambitions was to form a Canadian association similar in mandate to the PAA. In 1913 she reported to the National Council of Women that there was strong support for the proposal, but the drive behind the idea died with her.
Mabel Peters promoted women’s suffrage with comparable zeal. A member of the Saint John Women’s Enfranchisement Association, founded in 1894, she travelled, gathered information for local groups, and spoke at conferences such as the Washington National Suffrage Conference in 1902. She also joined Emma Sophia Fiske [Skinner] and others in delegations to encourage politicians to vote for women’s suffrage. Most often these delegations encountered responses such as that of Premier John Douglas Hazen*, who maintained in 1908 that “the sexes have each their own functions and duties, and very many women felt they could do better work along their own line without being burdened with the public work of the country.” Miss Peters was not averse to using sharp criticism in promoting her causes. In 1908, even as she was leading the Local Council of Women’s promotion of playgrounds, she wrote to the Saint John Evening Times criticizing women’s organizations which took a conservative stance regarding suffrage, as the council itself did. Success came slowly to the Saint John suffrage advocates. It was not until 1915 that married women were granted the municipal franchise, a right that single women and widows had exercised since 1886, and not until 1919 that New Brunswick women were able to vote provincially.
Described as innovative, vocal, energetic, and powerful, Mabel Peters became seriously ill in 1913. She died a year later of breast cancer, and her funeral was conducted by Christian Scientists. Although she was the founder of the Canadian playground movement, and her legacy lives on, she is not well known. In 1920 the National Council of Women called upon all cities with two or more playgrounds to name one of them after her. No city has done so.
[The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of David Goss of the Saint John Recreation Dept. in the preparation of this biography. Mr Goss graciously provided information on Mabel Peters from his files and in an interview of 19 Oct. 1988. s.e.m.]
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