47 dangerous old playgrounds that our great-grandparents somehow survived

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Dangerous old playgrounds our great-grandparents survived (2)
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.

Dangerous old playgrounds our great-grandparents survived (1)

LOOKING BACK AT OLD PLAYGROUNDS & PLAY EQUIPMENT: IT ALL STARTED OUT SO SIMPLE

1. A homemade slide (1918)

After sliding down the cellar door, a slide made of a plank is about as low-tech (and as low-speed) as you could get.

Old homemade slide from 1918


HOPE YOU DON’T HAVE A FEAR OF HEIGHTS

2. Rings for swings and poles to climb (1905)

On the girls’ playground, Harriet Island, St. Paul, Minnesota, the girls had to swing high. Really high. And climb up. Way up.

Girls' playground, Harriet Island, St. Paul, Minn. 1905


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.

Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx on June 1911

(Courtesy LOC)


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.

Old playground equipment and fun for kids from the 1920s (6)


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.

Children in 1900 on iron pole playground equipment at Trinity Play Park - Dallas


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.

Vintage old playground fun from 1911 (2)


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.

Hiawatha Playground, 1912. From the Seattle Municipal Archives Collection.


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.

Crazy dangerous old playground from 1912

(Photos from the Seattle Municipal Archives Collection)


9. Who designed these things?!

Seriously — this was created for kids to have nice, safe fun?

Vintage old playground fun from 1911 (3)


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.

Columbus Ave. playground. Gymnasium and boys exercising c1905 - Boston Public Library

 (Photo courtesy Boston Public Library)

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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.

Old playground equipment and fun for kids from the 1920s (5)

Old playground equipment and fun for kids from the 1920s (11)


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.)

From 1940 - old playground heavy-duty outdoor gymnasium (2)


13. Almost there! (c1910)

If that boy could go just a little higher, he might be able to go right over the top.

Public playgrounds and around Boston c1910

 (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.

Dangerous old-fashioned playgrounds from the twenties (1)


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.)

Kids doubled up on vintage playground swings


16. A sideways swing that Newton would love

When we see this swing…

Old playground from 1912 with sideways swing

… which looks like this without the kids…

Dangerous old-fashioned playgrounds from the twenties (2)

… we immediately think of the clacking balls on a Newton’s Cradle toy:

Newton's Cradle - Executive toy with clicking balls

(Top photo from the Seattle Municipal Archives Collection)

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SPINNING THINGS

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!”

Playground 1919-1920


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.

Antique playground equipment from the 1920s - Medart ocean wave ride


19. Wanna go for a spin?

Old playground equipment and fun for kids from the 1920s (14)


20. An old-school Pull-a-Way spinner (1950)

These spinny things ended up lasting for decades.

Steel playground equipment from 1950 at Click Americana (1)


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.”

Vintage playgrounds from 1924 - kids (2)


22. Girls getting some serious lift

Dangerous old-fashioned playgrounds from the twenties (4)


23. The super-tall homemade version

With chains that long, can you imagine how much lift you could get on this one?

School playground in Kansas 1909


PACKIN’ THEM IN ON THE NO-FRILLS JUNGLE GYMS

24. “Whatcha doing?” “Just hanging around.”

Old playground equipment from the 20s - Junglegym (2)


25. Here are some kids looking a little less uncomfortable/creepy than those up there

Old playground equipment and fun for kids from the 1920s (10)


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.”

Old playground equipment from the 20s - Junglegym (3)


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.

Bronx Playground with tons of kids in 1940s


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?

Vintage playgrounds from 1940 at Click Americana - General Playground Equipment Inc (1)


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.

Old playground equipment from 1929 (1)


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.

1924 - old playground

3 fun backyard additions: Mini-barn, outdoor kitchen & play castle (1965)


31. Getting a little crazy (1940)

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?)

From 1940 - old playground heavy-duty outdoor gymnasium (3)

From 1940 - old playground heavy-duty outdoor gymnasium (1)


32. Upside down

We see what the equipment is, but we’re still not sure what this one kid is doing… or why.

Vintage old playground fun from 1911 (1)


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.

Dangerous old-fashioned playgrounds from the twenties (5)

Vintage old playground fun from 1911 - Teeter ladders


34. Whirl-Over Swings

This one looks like it might be one of the smallest Ferris Wheels ever.

Antique playground equipment from the 1920s (1)

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35. Rocking out

This piece of old playground equipment was called a “Rocking Boat.” We wonder how often it capsized.

Old playground equipment and fun for kids from the 1920s (4)


36. Hang on, everyone!

Here’s a different style of old-school boat swing.

Vintage playground ship swing c1920s


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.

Dangerous playground - old-school boat swing going high


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.”

Old playground equipment from the 20s - The Louden Swing Bob


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.

Bicycle playground toy from 1940


40. Tree climb (1929)

This is basically a fancy name for three ten-foot ladders stuck together. I mean, how much fun, right?

Old playground equipment from 1929 (2)

MORE: See other discontinued vintage products here!


HOPE YOU’RE GOOD WITH CROWDS

41. Standing room only?

Looks like they were having a busy day at the Zabriskie Playground in Jersey City, New Jersey back in 1910 or so.

Dangerous old-fashioned playgrounds from the twenties (3)


42. That’s… not how a slide works. (1920s)

Old playground equipment and fun for kids from the 1920s (13)


43. Really, it’s not. (1942)

Nursery school playground. Robstown camp, Texas 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. 

Vintage playgrounds from 1940 at Click Americana - General Playground Equipment Inc (3)


45. Three hot metal slides, all in a row (1950)

Steel playground equipment from 1950 at Click Americana (2)


46. The 35-foot ride on a spiral slide (1940)

Spiral slide from 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.”

Antique playground equipment from the 1920s - Bending the twig

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.

Colorful playground on yard in the park.
© Sarayuth Nutteepratoom | Dreamstime.com

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. ⦿


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In the past, only the lucky and the strong survived the playground - Click Americana

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22 Responses

  1. It’s interesting though when you look at all the children in the photos they are all smiling! I grew up with metal slides and steel jungle gyms and I was just fine. This article should be about the history of the playground, not your own opinion of how dangerous you “think” they were. You probably weren’t even there, so how would you know. You just took a bunch of old photos of kids playing happily and turned it into an article of “complaint”. Shame on you. As a reporter you are not supposed to be subjective, only objective.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, and I’m sorry you didn’t like this article content.

      First, though, it’s important to note that on this site, I am not a news reporter — I am a curator, editor, feature writer, and historical researcher. As such, I am entitled to an opinion.

      Yes, many of the kids are smiling, and no doubt were having a lot of fun! But that doesn’t negate the premise of the story. It’s a fact — not just what I think — that many injuries were caused by old playground equipment. How would I know? I did a lot of research, and also spent plenty of time on hot slides and huge jungle gyms. I do think, however, that there is a reason playground safety has evolved over time (although, of course, injuries still happen today).

      This article may be worth a skim: The Fallacy of the ‘I Turned Out Fine’ Argument: You didn’t use seatbelts when you were growing up and you lived to tell about it? That doesn’t make it a good parenting strategy.

      I agree that an article about the history of the playground would be a good thing to have on the site — but that is not what this story was intended to be. This piece was meant to be a lighthearted look back — with an introduction and conclusion that made my own perspectives clear.

      And while I appreciate your perspective, and hear your argument, I absolutely do not appreciate you telling me “shame on you.” I have done nothing remotely shameful, and honestly don’t understand why you’re so angry at a stranger about an article topic that may have some degree of personal meaning to you, but is not actually about you or your choices, past or present.

      – Nancy Price, founder/owner/editor/writer/creator – ClickAmericana.com

      1. To be fair, playgrounds changed because of a lawsuit in the early 70s. And there’s a lot of research to indicate that the current plastic playgrounds are actually stifling childhood creativity because they’re so “canned” (you can drive across the country and note that most of the playgrounds are the same five or so “models” made by the same few companies).

    2. Wow

      So because “YOU” played on this equipment and were ‘just fine’, EVERYONE who played on it walked away uninjured? Sorry lady, just because it didn’t happen to you, or in front of you, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen fairly regularly to others.

      Shame on YOU, miss know-it-all.

      Also, if you didn’t like the subject matter, feel free to write an article that is more pleasing to you. Don’t be surprised however, if the comments section is full of people talking about how dangerous that old equipment was.

      You might even get someone who disagrees with your subject matter and strongly thinks your article should be about all the injuries kids suffered from playing on that old equipment.

      1. The playground equipment taught us to be more thoughtful and to think at least one step ahead. A broken bone or strained muscle served as a leaning tool for the next time we were on the structure. Those jungle gyms taught us about the values and dangers of freedom.

        I’m happy to enjoy my tasty, entre of liberty, served upon a pewter platter, alongside a condiment dish of absolute treachery.

  2. Great compilation! Well done, and very interesting to read. I stumbled on this when looking into a piece of vintage playground equipment that myself and others were discussing on a Facebook group for our hometown. We had always called it “the ding dongs” but I see it is actually called a “Giant Stride.” It was there until maybe the early 1980s, along with metal baby swings that must have weighed 20lbs each! Survival of the fittest I guess…

  3. This article was great! I run a memory program for aging seniors and they LOVE to talk about the playgrounds from the old days. They often say with a smile, “I don’t know how we survived.” The heights. The burning slides. They survived and so did the boomers after. And we even drank water from the garden hose.

    Thank you!

  4. Fun set of pictures, thanks! I’d love to see the 50s-70s offerings, too. Still dangerous, but smaller, single sets, not these big communal ones.

    With 7 kids in my family growing up on the equipment we had only 2 ER injuries, my older brother falling off the monkey bars and breaking an arm at 5, and me breaking a nose at 7 by flying off a 60s swing set glider (riding it on my belly). I always wonder why we pass around the, “your grandparents didn’t need seatbelts” meme. You can survive serious burns, doesn’t mean they’re safe.

  5. I grew up with these playgrounds and certainly survived–but looking at them now–wow! I do think kids are too wrapped up in bubble wrap today. Skinned knees and bruises only last a while.

  6. I remember the jungle gym in the first grade, at lease once a week this one girl would hang upside down about six off the ground. All girls wore skirts to school then, the teachers would freak, take her inside, give her a couple of swats and make her stay inside for the rest of the day. To me the staying inside was the worst part, but then the next week she would do it again.

  7. It is hard to believe children would get very much exercise on the “plastic” equipment pictured above let alone have much fun. When it was very hot, we sat on an old towel or rag of some sort and to keep it slick we sat on a waxy bread wrapper or some waxed paper before sliding down. Would that work on the “plastic” slide to make it slicker?
    I loved the merry-go-round, (even when I fell while pushing it), and the swings. They were flat boards, on long chains, that you could jump from at the apex of your swing. And a teeter-totter was as much fun to walk, or run, up and then down, as it was to actually use it correctly.
    When the girls hung by their knees on a bar no one could see anything but clothing. I entered school at age 5, in 1939, and most girls in the country school wore bloomers made out of flour sacks. Covered as much as shorts under dresses do now. No slacks then. At age 85 I still enjoy most of the modern day carnival rides but the swing sets on playgrounds are not comfortable because of the type of seats they have.
    I found this article because I am doing research for my memoirs encompassing 1934 through 2020. It is slow going, but interesting to be reminded of so much.

    1. Just wanted to say your comment sounds very cool. I believe my grandmother was born five years after you but I never got the chance to hear many stories about her childhood because she died of heart disease in 2014. But it’s cool to hear about these sort of things every now and then because I’m really curious of what it was like to use those playgrounds. I’m 18 as of now, but they look fun!

  8. HAHAHAHA! O dear Lord those playgrounds were killer! I remember nearly getting horizontal and using centrifugal force it’s amazing no one was killed, do recall a few injuries. We had a blast had no idea the danger we were exposed to…and yes, drinking from water hoses!! Tail end of the BOOMERS here am so glad I didnt miss the adventure! Outstanding photos! Have been trying to explain the chain ladders circling the pole ( were rope ladders in the Chicago Park District in the ’60’s) to my children they could NOT imagine anyone allowing those! (Millenniums lol)

  9. This article was so fun to read and I love the pictures! Thanks! I was trying to describe 21 and 22 to my kids and to my surprise I was spot-on with the description when I found the pictures here. I was laughing because on my birthday park outing I got hit in the forehead with the end of one of these and vividly remember the goose egg. Still my most favorite memories are from that park and especially that swing. I had 5 big brothers so I am sure I flew plenty!!

  10. Thank you for the pictures. There is some research showing that contemporary playgrounds are so “safe” that children are injured trying to eke out risk from them. Risky play is important for child development. Certainly, we don’t want to go back in time to the unsupervised barrel but neither do we want to insulate children from all risk-or fun. At “Adventure Playgrounds” the goal is: “as safe as necessary” not “as safe as possible.” This an idea that is more conducive to learning.

  11. KIds were definitely stronger and tougher back then. Eventually modern playgrounds will be little more than big piles of pillows.

  12. Do you go outside? Many of these still exist where I live (Australia), and many countries I’ve visited. The ones that I don’t see now definitely existed when I was a kid 15 years ago. Quit trying to be ultra dramatic and pretend it’s so foreign.

    1. Do I go outside? Why, yes. Yes, I do. And while the title may be slightly dramatic, many of these do NOT exist here in the US anymore, and haven’t for at least 25 years. Since this site is all about Americana, it seems fair enough to reflect the history and perspectives of Americans, does it not?

  13. Would be more interesting if the names of equipment were mentioned. For example, the Giant Stride was pretty common, but its name is only visible in the caption for one of the old photos. Also, FYI, many of the crowded photos of kids sitting astride slides and atop monkey bars are actually group photos. It was common to pose like that for class photos or group photos.

    I read a fascinating article from the Atlantic a few years ago called The Overprotected Kid that there are actually more playground injuries today than pre-1980s because kids had to learn to be more careful when playing on concrete and asphalt. But, at least the injuries on playgrounds today are minor.

  14. It’s fascinating to look at the old playgrounds and how adventurous they were. Today’s playgrounds by comparison seem sterile- safe, but boring as heck.

    Perhaps today’s children are being deprived of important lessons. Sure, we don’t want playgrounds so dangerous they regularly cause injury, but, at the same time, is not life about using your freedom and taking individual risks?

    Should others be held liable for accidents if people CHOOSE to go to the playground? Are we teaching kids that others are responsible for what they do? Even back then was anyone being forced to participate?

    Of course, if you’re a parent it’s understandable to want to keep your kids safe. At the same time, can we really protect kids from every danger or risk? In my view, it is good that playgrounds are safer now but there are drawbacks to not allowing for the freedom of individual risk-taking.

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