When it comes to human history, “survival of the fittest” meant more than just our prehistoric evolution. It also means our ancestors had to successfully navigate the old playgrounds at school and the parks, surviving all manner of swings, spinners, slides, jungle gyms and other old-school vintage play equipment.
Sure, there were bound to be some breaks, bumps and bruises among the survivors — but, based on the simple fact that you’re reading this right now, your ancestors clearly made it through childhood with their personal equipment intact.
Below, take a look back at the fun and games that children got up to during the 20th century — in the unsafe playground days long before plastic slides, rubber mats and safety rails (not to mention government guidelines and personal injury lawsuits) were commonplace.
LOOKING BACK AT OLD PLAYGROUNDS & PLAY EQUIPMENT: IT ALL STARTED OUT SO SIMPLE
On the girls’ playground, Harriet Island, St. Paul, Minnesota, the girls had to swing high. Really high. And climb up. Way up.
3. “You want us to do what?!”
Six years or so after the photo above, chain ladders had been added to the playground mix. Here are some girls getting fit at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, way back in June 1911.
MONSTER PLAY STRUCTURES
4. The kids used to get really high
These photo from the early 1900s — showing a bunch of kids playing on sprawling steel pole playground equipment at Pittsburgh Pennsylvania’s Mount Washington Park — pretty much epitomize the risky business of play just over a hundred years ago.
5. Strings attached
Here is what they were up — way up — to back in 1900-1910 at Trinity Play Park in Dallas, Texas. There’s a version of this photo going around the internet, tagged with the suggestion that the kid on the far left is falling… but he’s not. If you look closely enough, though, you can see ropes or chains that prove he’s just on a swing.
6. A metal maze
Here’s how one of these playgrounds looked minus the kids. It sort of looks like a minimalist Ikea version of a play structure.
7. It’s only a 20-foot drop… (1912)
Very similar to the catalog page above, this huge, sprawling metal structure is part of the Hiawatha Playground in Seattle. You see it hosting about 40 kids who were up to all kinds of crazy shenanigans… including just hanging out 20 feet above the ground.
8. Like what you’d get if you bought a ridiculously cheap playground slide on Craigslist
The first thing that caught our eye in the photos up there is this thing: parallel poles pretending to be a slide. (They were actually called “incline poles” or “sliding poles.”) We can see no danger whatsoever from this kind of contraption. Nope, not at all.
(Photos from the Seattle Municipal Archives Collection)
9. Who designed these things?!
Seriously — this was created for kids to have nice, safe fun?
10. Hope you like splinters, too
Now here’s the same kind of old-school structure as shown above, but at this old playground in Boston, it was made out of wood. That sounds less like a fun thing to play on at recess, and more like a punishment.
(Photo courtesy Boston Public Library)
THE BIG SWINGERS
11. Some of the earliest old-school swing sets
Sure, the ground was just dirt, but that was probably safer than concrete.
12. Rings, swings & trapeze
This was apparently a popular configuration for a swingset — sorry, we mean a “heavy-duty outdoor gymnasium.” (Not even gonna comment on what the “split clamp fittings” may or may not do.)
13. Almost there! (c1910)
If that boy could go just a little higher, he might be able to go right over the top.
(Courtesy Boston Public Library)
14. There is some serious swinging
That one kid swinging way back looks ready to land in the neighbor’s backyard.
15. Double the danger, double the fun?
These boys and girls aren’t just flying high — like, perilously close to the steel bars at the top of the structure — but there are three swings with two kids each. (This phenomenon is also seen above.)
17. Faster! Faster! A wooden roundabout (1919-1920)
The old people-powered spinners have been around for generations, which means people have been falling off them, crashing into other kids, and being rocket-launched off them for at least a century.
In 1975, a medical journal wrote of some of the danger: “The youngest children were at particular risk on equipment such as the wooden rocking horse or roundabout, when the speed of operation could be controlled by older children.”
Certainly, the adults of the time must have told the kids to be careful. And the kids almost certainly responded, “Faster! Spin it faster!”
18. You spin me right round (1925)
On the Medart Ocean Wave (“With an Undulating and Wavelike Motion”) you could sit facing in or out — or stand — on this spinner from the mid-’20s. It just depended on whether you wanted to throw up on bystanders, or the other people on the ride with you.
21. Run, jump and hang on! What could go wrong? (1924)
The ad for this spinner said, “There is plenty of action, bringing into play every muscle in the child’s body.”
22. Girls getting some serious lift
23. The super-tall homemade version
With chains that long, can you imagine how much lift you could get on this one?
PACKIN’ THEM IN ON THE NO-FRILLS JUNGLE GYMS
24. “Whatcha doing?” “Just hanging around.”
25. Here are some kids looking a little less uncomfortable/creepy than those up there
26. A vintage Junglegum could hold 100 kids at once. Really?
We count about 25 kids on this gym, and it looks pretty full. It’s kind of hard to imagine four times as many packed in there.
“The Junglegym No. 2 – a whole playground in itself. The model pictured [below] is capable of handling 100 children at a time — the only thing being necessary is space to set it up.”
27. Oh. Like that.
Fast forward to the Bronx in the ’40s, and we see what it looks like to get about 100 kids on a jungle gym.
28. Fire chief on the old playground (1940)
What this pyramid-style jungle gym and a fire chief had in common is anyone’s guess. Maybe because someone had to call emergency services when little Timmy fell from the top, and hit all the tiers on the way down?
DANGEROUS PLAYGROUNDS FOR THE DAREDEVILS
29. The Barrel of Fun: Another piece of old-school playground equipment that Darwined itself out of existence (1929)
Barrel of fun? More like barrel leading to breaks and bumps and bruises.
30. Ring swings on old-fashioned playgrounds (1924)
We love the kid hanging upside down, and hope recovery went well after one foot inevitably got stuck in a ring.
You don’t often see these pieces of old-fashioned playground equipment much today — at least not used as shown here, bare feet and all. (And how did the kid in the flying rings get into that position?! Or back out of it?)
32. Upside down
We see what the equipment is, but we’re still not sure what this one kid is doing… or why.
DISCONTINUED FUN, aka THINGS YOU DON’T SEE ANYMORE
33. Teeter Ladders
This old piece — which looks kind of like giant knitting needles — functioned like a teeter-totter, except you hung on from below instead of sitting on it. The Spalding catalog called it a Teeter Ladder.
34. Whirl-Over Swings
This one looks like it might be one of the smallest Ferris Wheels ever.
Here’s a different style of old-school boat swing.
37. Ready to launch into the stratosphere?
Was the above photo too tame? Then check out these people in the 1920s taking it to the next level.
38. The Louden Swing-Bob
“A delightful device for the smaller children, particularly, and one that is thoroughly safe. It swings backward and forward with a sweeping and slightly rising and dipping motion that the children like — set in motion by the riders themselves, by pulling and pushing against the supporting arms.”
39. It’s like a bicycle built for eight (1940)
This one was new to us… which means it was either incredibly unpopular, or created so many injuries that it was made to disappear. The concept was like other spinners with kid-powered motion, except this required the boys and girls to make it move by using the pedals.
40. Tree climb (1929)
This is basically a fancy name for three ten-foot ladders stuck together. I mean, how much fun, right?
Looks like they were having a busy day at the Zabriskie Playground in Jersey City, New Jersey back in 1910 or so.
42. That’s… not how a slide works. (1920s)
43. Really, it’s not. (1942)
SPEAKING OF SLIDES
44. Oh, look – it’s an instant burn device! (1940)
For real: On sunny days, and without shade, temperatures on these metal slides could get up past 160 degrees.
45. Three hot metal slides, all in a row (1950)
46. The 35-foot ride on a spiral slide (1940)
AND THAT’S WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT
47. Really? This old-school playground equipment will do all that by tomorrow?
“Take average children, brimful of the primal instinct to develop through play, provide for them proper playgrounds fitted with modern playground equipment; and tomorrow, they will step forth vigorous, healthy, clear-thinking men and women — to make the world a better place to live in.”
Indeed — in part, they made it a better place by replacing some of this scary old playground equipment — like the slideless slides and the spinning barrels — with what has evolved into the brightly-colored plastic playgrounds of today.
Some may not call that progress… but anyone who does probably can’t say so without some degree of bias. After all, we are the lucky ones. Whether by luck or by logic, our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents made it through childhood. The thousands of people who didn’t survive the playgrounds of yesteryear, though, aren’t here to remind us how good we really do have it here in the 21st century. ⦿