Rocket Slides and Monkey Bars: Chasing the Vanishing Playgrounds of Our Youth

July 15th, 2016

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For children, playgrounds are where magic happens. And if you count yourself among Baby Boomers or Gen Xers, you probably have fond memories of high steel jungle gyms and even higher metal slides that squeaked and groaned as you slid down them. The cheerful variety of animals and vehicles on springs gave you plenty of rides to choose from, while a spiral slide, often made of striped panels, was a repeated thrill. When you dismounted from a teeter-totter, you had to be careful not to send your partner crashing to the ground or get hit in the head by your own seat. The tougher, faster kids always pushed the brightly colored merry-go-round, trying to make riders as dizzy as possible. In the same way, you’d dare your sibling or best friend to push you even higher on the swing so your toes could touch the sky. The most exciting playgrounds would take the form of a pirate ship, a giant robot, or a space rocket.

“My husband would look at these big metal things and go, ‘Oh my God, those are the Slides of Death!'”

Today, these objects of happy summers past have nearly disappeared, replaced by newer equipment that’s lower to the ground and made of plastic, painted metal, and sometimes rot-resistant woods like cedar or redwood. The transformation began in 1973, when the U.S. Congress established the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which began tracking playground injuries at hospital emergency rooms. The study led to the publication of the first Handbook for Public Playground Safety in 1981, which signaled the beginning of the end for much of the playground equipment in use. (See the latest PPS handbook here.) Then, the American Society for Testing and Materials created a subcommittee of designers and playground-equipment manufacturers to set safety standards for the whole industry. When they published their guidelines in 1993, they suggested most existing playground surfaces, which were usually asphalt, dirt, or grass, needed to be replaced with pits of wood or rubber mulch or sand, prompting many schools and parks to rip their old playgrounds out entirely.

Top: A Space Age rocket-themed playground set by Miracle Playground Equipment, introduced circa 1968, photographed in Burlington, Colorado, in 2009. Above: Two seesaws and a snail-shaped climber, circa 1970s, photographed in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, in 2007. (Photos by Brenda Biondo)

Top: A Space Age rocket-themed playground set by Miracle Playground Equipment, introduced circa 1968, photographed in Burlington, Colorado, in 2009. Above: Two seesaws and a snail-shaped climber, circa 1970s, photographed in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, in 2007. (Photos by Brenda Biondo)

That said, removing and replacing playground equipment takes money, so a certain amount of vintage playground equipment survived into the next millennium—but it’s vanishing fast. Fortunately, Brenda Biondo, a freelance journalist turned photographer, felt inspired to document these playscapes before they’ve all been melted down. Her photographs capture the sculptural beauty and creativity of the vintage apparatuses, as well as that feeling of nostalgia you get when you see a piece of your childhood. After a decade of hunting down old playgrounds, Biondo published a coffee-table book, 2014’s Once Upon a Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1920-1975, which includes both her photographs of vintage equipment and pages of old playground catalogs that sold it.

Starting this November, Biondo’s playground photos will hit the road as part of a four-year ExhibitsUSA traveling show, which will also include vintage playground postcards and catalog pages from Biondo’s collection. The show will make stops in smaller museums and history centers around the United States, passing through Temple, Texas; Lincoln, Nebraska; Kansas City, Missouri; and Greenville, South Carolina. Biondo talked to us on the phone from her home in small-town Colorado, where she lives with her husband and children.

This 1975 Miracle catalog page reads, "This famous Lifetime Whirl has delighted three generations of children and still is a safe, playground favorite. Although it has gone through many improvements many of the original models are still spinning on playgrounds from coast to coast." (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

This 1975 Miracle catalog page reads, “This famous Lifetime Whirl has delighted three generations of children and still is a safe, playground favorite. Although it has gone through many improvements many of the original models are still spinning on playgrounds from coast to coast.” (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

Collectors Weekly: What inspired you to photograph playgrounds?

Biondo: In 2004, I happened to be at my local park with my 1-year-old daughter, who was playing in the sandbox. I had just switched careers, from freelance journalism to photography, and I was looking for a starter project. I looked around the playground and thought, “Where is all the equipment that I remember growing up on?” They had new plastic contraptions, but nothing like the big metal slides I grew up with. After that, I started driving around to other playgrounds to see if any of this old equipment still existed. I found very little of it and realized it was disappearing quickly. That got to me.

I felt like somebody should be documenting this equipment, because it was such a big part—and a very good part—of so many people’s childhoods. I couldn’t find anybody else who was documenting it, and I didn’t see any evidence that the Smithsonian was collecting it. As far as I could tell, it was just getting ripped up and sent to the scrap heap. At first, I started traveling around Colorado where I live, visiting playgrounds. Eventually, I took longer trips around the Southwest, and then I started looking for playgrounds whenever I was in any other parts of the country, like around California and the East Coast. It was a long-term project—shot over the course of a decade. And every year that I was shooting, it got harder and harder to find those pieces of old equipment.

This merry-go-round, photographed in Cañon City, Colorado, in 2006, is very similar to the Lifetime Whirl above. In the background are a rideable jalopy and animals, including four attached to a teeter-totter. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

This merry-go-round, photographed in Cañon City, Colorado, in 2006, is very similar to the Lifetime Whirl above. In the background are a rideable jalopy and animals, including four attached to a teeter-totter. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

Collectors Weekly: How did you find them?

Biondo: I would just drive around. I started hunting down local elementary schools and main-street playgrounds as well as neighborhood playgrounds. If I had a weekend, I would say, “OK, I’m going to drive from my home three hours east to the Kansas border, stay overnight and drive back.” Along the way, I would stop at every little town that I’d pass. They usually had one tiny main-street playground and one elementary school. I never knew what I was going to find. In a poorer area, a town often doesn’t have much money to replace playground equipment, whereas more affluent areas usually have updated their playgrounds by now. It was a bit of a crap shoot. Sometimes, I’d drive for hours and not really find anything—or I’d find one old playground after the other, because I happened to be in an area where equipment hadn’t been replaced.

I couldn’t get to every state, so I had to shoot where I was. I think there certainly are still old playgrounds out there, especially in small towns. But there’s fewer and fewer of them every year. My book has something like 170 photographs. I would guess that half the equipment pictured is already gone. Sometimes, I’d go back to a playground with a nice piece of equipment a year later to reshoot it, maybe in different lighting or a different season, and so often it had been removed. That pressured me to get out as often as I could because if I waited a few weeks, that piece might not be there anymore.

A 1911 postcard shows girls playing on an outdoor gymnasium at Mayo Park in Rochester, Minnesota.

A 1911 postcard shows girls playing on an outdoor gymnasium at Mayo Park in Rochester, Minnesota.

Collectors Weekly: What did you learn about playground history?

Biondo: I didn’t know American playgrounds started as part of the social reform or progressive movement of the early 1900s. Reformers hoped to keep poor inner-city immigrant kids safe and out of trouble. Back then, city children were playing in the streets with nothing to do, and when cars became more popular, kids started to get hit by motorists. Child activists started building playgrounds in big cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York as a way to help and protect these kids. These reformers felt they could build model citizens by teaching cooperation and manners through playgrounds. These early main-street parks would also have playground leaders who orchestrated activities such as games and songs.

“I started driving to playgrounds to see if any old equipment still existed. I found very little of it and realized it was disappearing quickly.”

In the late 1800s, Germans developed what they called “sand gardens,” which are just piles of sand where kids can come dig and build things. There were few of those in the United States as well. But by the early 1900s, the emphasis of playgrounds was on the apparatuses, things kids could climb on or swing on.

Soon after I started researching playground history, I happened to stumble on an eBay auction for a 1926 catalog that the playground manufacturers used to send to schools. At that point, I wasn’t thinking of doing a book, but I thought I could do something with it. I won the catalog; I paid, like, $12 for it. And it was so interesting because I could see this vintage equipment when it was brand new and considered modern and advanced. The manufacturers boasted about how safe it was and how it was good for building both muscles and imaginations.

After that, I would always search on eBay for playground catalogs, and I ended up with about three dozen catalogs from different manufacturers. My oldest is 1916, and my newest is from 1975. So I would take a photograph of some type of merry-go-round, and then I might find that same merry-go-round in a 1930 catalog. Often in the book, I pair my picture with the page from the catalog showing when it was first manufactured. I discovered a couple dozen manufacturers, which tended to be located in the bigger industrial areas with steel manufacturing, like Trenton, New Jersey, and Kokomo and Litchfield, Indiana. Pueblo, Colorado, even had a playground manufacturer. Burke and GameTime were big 20th century companies, and actually are among few still in existence.

The cover of a 1926 catalog for EverWear Manufacturing Company. (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

The cover of a 1926 catalog for EverWear Manufacturing Company. (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

Collectors Weekly: I recently came across an old metal slide whose steps had the name of the manufacturer, American, forged in openwork letters.

Biondo: I love those. One of the last pages in the book shows treads from six different slides, and they each had the name of their manufacturer in them, including Porter, American, and Burke. One time when I was traveling, I did a quick side trip to a small town with an elementary school. In the parking lot was this old metal slide with the American step treads, lying on its side. You could tell it had just been ripped off out of the concrete, which was still attached to the bottom, and was waiting for the steel recyclers to come and take it away.

I thought, “Oh my gosh, just put it on eBay! Somebody is going to want that. Don’t melt it down.” But nobody thinks about this stuff getting thrown away when it should be preserved. If you go on eBay, you can find a lot of those small animals on springs that little kids ride, because they’re small enough to be shipped. Once I saw someone selling one of those huge rocket ships, which had been dismantled, on eBay, but I don’t know if anybody ever bid on it. It’s rare to see the big stuff, because it is so expensive to ship. It’s like, “What kind of truck do you need to haul this thing away?” I don’t know of anyone who’s collecting those pieces, but I hope somebody is.

A metal slide in Victor, Colorado, had step treads with the name "American" in them. Photographed in 2008. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

A metal slide in Victor, Colorado, had step treads with the name “American” in them. Photographed in 2008. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

Collectors Weekly: It seems like an opportunity for both starting a collection or repurposing the material.

Biondo: I photographed many of the apparatuses as if they were sculptures because they have really cool designs and colors. Even when they’re worn down, the exposed layers of paint can be beautiful. Hardly anybody stops to look at it that way. People drive by and think, “Oh, there’s an old, rusty, rundown playground.” But if you take the time to look closely at this stuff, it’s really interesting. Just by looking at these pieces, you can picture all the kids who played on them.

Collectors Weekly: Aren’t people nostalgic for their childhood playgrounds?

Biondo: While I was taking the pictures, I visited Boulder, Colorado, which is a very affluent community. I was sure there would be no old playground equipment there. When I was driving around, all of a sudden, I looked over and saw this huge rocket ship. It turns out that one of the original NASA astronauts, Scott Carpenter, grew up in Boulder, and this playground was built in the ’60s to honor their hometown boy. Because of that, the citizens of Boulder never wanted to take down the rocket ship. One of the first exhibitions of this photography project happened in Boulder, and at the opening, I sold four prints of that rocket ship. People would come up to me at the exhibition, and they’d go, “Oh my gosh, I grew up playing on this when I was a little kid! Now, my kids are playing on it, and I’m so excited that I can get a picture of it and hang it in their bedroom.” So people have a strong nostalgic attachment to this equipment. It’s sad that most of it’s not going to be around for much longer.

A 1968 Miracle Playground Equipment catalog features the huge rocket-ship play set seen at the top of this story. (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

A 1968 Miracle Playground Equipment catalog features the huge rocket-ship playset seen at the top of this story. (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

Collectors Weekly: Besides slides and animals on springs, what were some other pieces that were common in older playgrounds?

Biondo: I didn’t come across as many old swings as I expected. I thought they would be all over the place, but I guess they’re gone now because they were so easy to replace. I tended to find merry-go-rounds more frequently—you know, the one where you’d run around pushing them and then jump on. When my kids were younger, they’d go out playground hunting with me, and the merry-go-rounds were their favorite things. They’re just so fun. The other thing you don’t find often is the seesaw or teeter-totter, and that was my favorite.

The Karymor Stationary Jingle Ring Outfit appeared in the 1931 playground catalog put out by Pueblo, Colorado's R.F. Lamar and Co. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

The Karymor Stationary Jingle Ring Outfit appeared in the 1931 playground catalog put out by Pueblo, Colorado’s R.F. Lamar and Co. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

Before I started this project, I didn’t know there was such a variety of equipment. I figured I’d see seesaws, swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds. But I had no idea there were such things as revolving swings, which would be attached to a spinning pole via outstretched metal arms. Many mid-century pieces had themes from pop culture like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Cinderella,” “Denis the Menace,” cowboys and Indians, and Saturday-morning cartoons. During the Space Age, you started to see pieces of equipment shaped like rocket ships and satellites, because in the ’60s, Americans were so excited about space exploration. What was going on in the broader culture often got reflected in playground equipment.

Pursuing the catalogs was eye-opening. I live about an hour and a half south of Denver, so I often looked for playgrounds around the city. There, I’d find these contraptions where were shaped like umbrella skeletons, but then they had these rings hanging off the spindles. I’ve never seen them outside of Colorado. Then I bought a 1930s catalog from the manufacturer in Pueblo, Colorado, which is only 45 minutes from me, and it featured this apparatus. Later, I met people in Denver who’d say, “Oh, yeah, I remember that thing as a kid. It’s kind of like monkey bars where you had to try and get from ring to ring swinging and hanging by your arms.” There was so much variety, and even so many variations on the basics.

I have a cool catalog from 1926 from the manufacturer Mitchell, which doesn’t exist anymore. I looked at one of the contraptions they advertised and I was like, “Oh my God, this looks like a torture device!” It was their own proprietary apparatus and maybe it didn’t prove to be very popular. I had never seen something like that on a playground. There probably weren’t very many of them installed.

This strange Climbing Swing from the 1926 Mitchell Manufacturing Company catalog looks a bit like a torture device. Brenda Biondo says she's never found one in the wild. (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

This Climbing Swing from the 1926 Mitchell Manufacturing Company catalog looks a bit like a torture device. Biondo’s never found one in the wild. (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

Collectors Weekly: After a while, were you able to date pieces just by looking at them?

Biondo: From looking at the catalogs, I certainly got a better idea of when things were built. But there were a handful things I couldn’t find in the catalogs. You can guess the age by knowing the design, as well as by looking at the amount of wear and the height of the piece. Usually, the taller it was, the older it was. One of the oldest slides I photographed was probably from the ’30s. I climbed to the top to shoot it as if the viewer were going to go down the slide. Up there, the place where you’d sit before sliding had been used for so many years by so many kids that I could see an outline of all the butts worn into the metal. You can imagine all the children who must have gone down that slide to wear the metal down like that.

This 1930s-era slide, found in Sargents, Colorado, in 2007, developed a butt-shaped imprint. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

This 1930s-era slide, found in Sargents, Colorado, in 2007, developed a butt-shaped imprint. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

Collectors Weekly: How did Modernism influence playground design?

Biondo: In 1953, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a competition for playground design. Modern Art was just getting popular, and the idea of incorporating the theories of Modernist design into utilitarian objects was in the air, and was translated into playgrounds for several years. I have a 1967 catalog that features very abstract playground equipment made from sinuous blobs of poured concrete. And you’ve probably seen some of it, but there’s not too much of that around. That’s another example of how broader cultural trends were reflected in playgrounds.

When most people think of playgrounds, they say, “Oh, that’s a kiddie subject. There’s not much to it.” But when you start looking into them, you realize playgrounds are a fascinating piece of American culture—they go back a hundred years and played a part in most Americans’ lives. These playground pieces are icons of our childhood.

Collectors Weekly:What was the impact of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which launched in 1973?

Biondo: Things started to change after that, which is why I limited to book to apparatuses made before 1975. New playgrounds were starting to be build out of plastic and fiberglass. I looked up the statistics, and according to the little research I’ve done—contrary to what you’d expect—there’s not much difference in the number of injuries on older equipment versus injuries on equipment today. A “New York Times” article from 2011 called “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” explains that studies show when playground equipment was really high and just had asphalt underneath it and not seven layers of mulch, thekids knew they had to be careful because they didn’t want to fall. Nowadays, when everything is lower and there’s so much mulch, kids are just used to jumping down and falling and catching themselves. So kids learned to assess risk by playing on the older equipment. They also learned to challenge themselves because it is a little scary to go up to the top of the thing.

This old postcard of Shawnee Park in Kansas City, Kansas, circa 1912, shows how tall slides could get.

This old postcard of Shawnee Park in Kansas City, Kansas, circa 1912, shows how tall slides could get.

At my local park where you have new equipment, the monkey bars aren’t that high and there’s mulch below it, but a child fell and broke their arm last year. When I was talking to the principal at the school where they had just torn out that old American slide, I asked her, “Why did you replace the equipment?” She said, “We felt the parents in the community were expecting to have a little bit newer and nicer equipment. And this stuff had been here for so long.” And I said, “Have you seen a difference in injury rates since you put up your newer equipment?” She replied, “I’ve been a principal here several years, and we never had a serious broken-bone injury on the playground until four months ago on the new equipment.”

There were some nasty accidents in the ‘60s and ’70s, where kids got their arms or their heads caught in the contraptions. Those issues definitely needed to be assessed. What’s interesting is the Consumer Product Safety Commission never issued requirements, just suggested guidelines. But manufacturers felt that if their equipment didn’t meet those guidelines, they’d be vulnerable to liability. Everybody went to the extreme, making everything super safe so they wouldn’t risk getting sued.

A 1970s-era climbing-bar apparatus, photographed in Rocky Ford, Colorado, in 2006. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

A 1970s-era climbing-bar apparatus, photographed in Rocky Ford, Colorado, in 2006. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

In the last decade, people have been looking at playground-equipment design and trying to make it more challenging and more encouraging of imaginative play, but without making it more likely someone’s going to get injured. And adults, I think, are realizing kids are spending more time indoors on devices so they want to do everything they can to encourage kids to still get outside, run around, and climb on things.

Collectors Weekly: You don’t need a playground to hurt yourself. When I was a kid, I fell off a farm post and broke my arm.

Biondo: Oh, yeah, kids have been falling out trees forever—they always want to climb stuff. Playground politics are always evolving. Even in the 1920s, the catalogs talked about how safe their equipment was, and they were selling these 30-foot slides. Sometimes, I’d be out with my family on a vacation, and we’d make a little side tour to look for an old playground to shoot. My husband would look at these big metal things and go, “Oh my God, those are the Slides of Death!” because they were so huge and rickety. But back then, these were very safe pieces of equipment compared to what kids had been playing on before.

A page from the 1971 GameTime catalog offering rideable Saddle Mates. (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

A page from the 1971 GameTime catalog offering rideable Saddle Mates. (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

Collectors Weekly: Growing up in the 1980s, I always hated the new fiberglass slides because I’d end up with all these tiny glass shards in my butt.

Biondo: Yeah, I remember that, too. It’s always something. It is fun to talk to people about playgrounds because it reminds them of all the fun stuff they did as kids. When people see pictures of these metal slides, they tell me, “Oh my gosh, I remember getting such a bad burn from a metal slide one summer!” The metal would get so hot in the sun, and kids would take pieces of wax paper with them to sit on so they’d go flying down the slide. I have some old postcards that show playgrounds from the early ’20s. The wood seesaws not only were huge, but they had no handles so you had hold on to the sides of the board where you sat. I’m looking at that like, “Oh my God!” It’s all relative.

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Kids ride the rocking-boat seesaw at a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, park in this postcard postmarked 1910.

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Kids ride the rocking-boat seesaw at a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, park in this postcard postmarked 1910.

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Children play on seesaws at Perkins Square Playground in Akron, Ohio, on this postcard from the 1910s. (Via AkronOhioMoms.com)

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In this 1910 postcard, children in Omaha, Nebraska, line up for the giant slides at Hanscom Park.

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Playground equipment towers over a grown man's head in this 1920s postcard depicting Overton Park in Memphis, Tennessee.

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Kids play on a ball-bearing merry-go-round circa 1919. Brenda Biondo found a page offering this apparatus in a 1925 FunFul catalog produced by General Playground Equipment Company. (Via National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress)

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Children enjoy the playground at Eola Park in Orlando, Florida, in this antique postcard.

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The children playing here probably include girls from the Washington Irving High School in New York City, who were attending a Midsummer Day Festival held at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx on June 23, 1911. (Via George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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This 1910 postcard shows how insanely high the monkey bars used to be at Sherman Park in Chicago. (Via ChuckmanChicagoNostalgia.wordpress.com)

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The scene at a girls' playground, circa 1905, at Harriet Island, St. Paul, Minnesota. (Via Detroit Publishing Co. Collection, Library of Congress)

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This merry-go-round, photographed in Hoehne, Colorado, in 2006, appears in the 1931 Karymor Playground Appartus catalog by R.F. Lamar and Co., Pueblo, Colorado. The catalog asserts, "Karymor is so constructed that there is no place about the device for a child to get caught in a pinch or jam." (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

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"ACTION! THRILLS! Boys and girls have great fun on the Giant Stride. It is safe and gives them healthful exercise. The running and whirling movement develops the arm and leg muscles. ... One to eight children can play at the same time." From the 1931 Giant Manufacturing Company catalog. (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

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This five-sided merry-go-round, photographed in Sargents, Colorado, in 2007, was very similar to one produced by Mitchell Manufacturing Company in Milwaukee in the 1920s. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

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A 1926 catalog page for Mitchell Merry-go-Round No. 850 reads, "In its construction, you will observe that ... the elements of safety and durability prevail. The device revolves freely without the use of dangerous mechanical levers, gears or pedals, thereby eliminating the hazard of injury." (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

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A group of African American children pose on a sliding board ladder on Kennard Field at Terrace Village housing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circa 1949. (From Carnegie Museum of Art, BlackHistoryAlbum.tumblr.com)

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A mid-century climbing apparatus, photographed in 2007 in Pueblo, Colorado. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

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Old monkey rings shared a playground with a metal slide and new plastic equipment in Wickenburg, Arizona, in 2006. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

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According to the 1948 catalog for the J.E. Porter Corporation, "The 'Junglegym' Climbing Structure develops courage, initiative, will-power, self-reliance, sociability, and imagination." Also, the vertical pipes were designed to be embedded in 14 inches of concrete. (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

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This structure was shot in Pueblo, Colorado, in 2006 and is described in a 1956 American Playground Device Catalog: "Developed by American Engineers to fill the need for a larger climbing structure that would intrigue the interest of and provide greater climbing-play-exercise opportunities for older, larger children, the American Commando Castle Tower rapidly is achieving nation-wide popularity among leading Educators and Recreation Directors." (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

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After R. Buckminster Fuller popularized the geodesic-dome design in 1954, it became incorporated into playground climbing structures, like this one, photographed in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2007. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

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A 1973 Recreation Equipment Company catalog asserts its Super Spiral Slide "provides an exciting, spiralling ride. This 'unitized' all metal galvanized bedway, unlike most conventional spiral slides, has a strong 'bucket-shaped' sliding surface with high sides holding its riders safely in the center of the bedway even at accelerated speeds." (Courtesy of Brenda Biondo)

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One of several spiral slides that appear in Brenda Biondo's photography book, Once Upon a Playground. Photographed in Blanca, Colorado, in 2007. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

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A set of 1970s Miracle all-steel seesaws had been installed near a mill in Hudson, Colorado, photographed in 2011. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

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In Penrose, Colorado, little children had their choice of rides—dolphin, horse, motorcycle, or bee. Photographed in 2009. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

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Step treads for a Mexico Forge metal slide, photographed in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, in 2007. (Photo by Brenda Biondo)

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A 1975 Miracle catalog describes its Giganta robot this way: "A 19 1/2-foot, triple-decker robot gives children the thrill of their lives. Two tube slides give youngsters fast, safe and thrilling rides. Scooped ends slow down sliders and give them a lift thrill as they swoop off the end. Two-tiered robot 'body' and lookout 'head' have die-formed deck and steel bar walls for safety. Feet are designed with seat indentations so children can rest. The Giganta stands head and shoulders above most other playground equipment in size and popularity ... Shipping Weight: 4400 pounds."

(To see more of Brenda Biondo’s playground photos and vintage catalog pages, pick up a copy of her book, “Once Upon a Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playground, 1920-1975.” To find an exhibition of Biondo’s playground project, or to bring it to your town, visit the ExhibitsUSA page. To learn more about creative mid-century playgrounds around the globe, also pick up, “The Playground Project” by Xavier Salle and Vincent Romagny.)

13 comments so far

  1. Loretta Martin Says:

    Great article. One of the photos brought back a memory of a little girl I pushed on a merry-go-round. After a few attempts, she used her sign language, “push me” for the first time. What a smile that I will always remember.

  2. Andy Says:

    I dropped my drink once riding on a swing. Not sure where I left my keys. Only in Alaska do you get acid like that

  3. Bob Says:

    We had the rocket ship growing up. It was 5 stories of unadulterated fun. Sad to not see more childhood memories of large wooden castles with steel swirly slides, two story fortress mazes, and dangerously tall ladder frameworks of everything from busses to submarines. Damn, we were lucky as kids. Today’s sanitized playgrounds are fit for toddlers.

  4. FQ2 Says:

    At least half the baby boomers have had head injuries as a youth and I myself am happy to be one of them!

  5. steve Says:

    Great look back at how we grew up. I remeber falling straight through the middle of a climbing apparatus. I was told you can lose a head doing that :) . My daughter loves playgrounds so much, she reviews them now. There aren’t that many great ones, but we seek out the best where ever we go. you can find her on youtube at Malvina Reviews.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajC9nwOpBWU&list=PLk4w8KlO4QYphleVpCSzVPtG4FX1m7AWY

  6. Kathy Reel Says:

    What a wonderful article and pictures! Born in 1954, I fondly remember the tall metal slides and using wax paper, the teeter-totters, the merry-go-rounds, the monkey bars. The pole apparatus with the chains and rings attached was what we called the witch’s hat, and mostly we would just swing around it using one ring instead of trying to go from ring to ring. Thanks for a great trip down memory lane!

  7. Kathy Reel Says:

    Oh, and I just bought the book!

  8. Jennifer Says:

    Having grown up in Los Angeles in the 1960s, then Orange County in the 70s, I remember the old playground equipment very well. There was a rocket ship playground at Eisenhower Park, on Lincoln Ave., in Orange, Ca. Also, I remember playing on the “Mitchell Climbing Swing” !! Fun memories! Thank you for the article, I’ll look for the book!

  9. Donna Says:

    This came at a perfect time for me! My family and I just went to a retreat site in the mountains with an old metal merry-g0-round. All the parents were talking about all the “dangerous” equipment we had so much fun on. Of course, we were all sad they won’t experience a real teeter totter. It’s a really weird feeling to see my kids having fun in the exact same way I did. I’m getting old!

  10. alguien Says:

    i remember the old metal slides as a child in the 60s and rubbing them with wax paper to make them more slippery.

  11. CrankyBeach Says:

    Wow, this sure strikes a chord for us baby boomers.

    In Monterey, California, there is a playground/park called Dennis the Menace, where all the local kids loved playing. One of the most popular features was an old steam locomotive. We climbed all over that thing. It is still there, but fenced off. You can guess why. (I expect it’s been left in place because it would cost a small fortune to remove it.) All the rest of the old equipment has been removed and replaced with more “modern” (boring) play structures. There used to be this thing you could climb all the way to the top of, with no railings, and then just jump off into the sand. I don’t think I ever had the courage to do it. To my childhood vision, it seemed like it must have been 20 feet high, but I suspect it was a good bit lower. A Google image search does return some older photos.

  12. pat yarian Says:

    I run an RV park in corsicana texas I have 3 pieces of vintage Mc donalds playground equipment two big mac play sets and a captian crook slide all are in great condition I need to find someone to take them away they are to dangerous if anyone knows a collector that would want the set please email me or call thank you Pat Yarian 478-334-1778

  13. Carrie Thompson Says:

    I went to Lawton OK last month to visit my Son at Fort Sill. There’s a playground next to the Holiday Inn Express that will have you questioning the date of your last tetanus shot. It’s equipped with the classics including a nauseating merry go round which could easily spin out of control, a swing set that squeaks and lifts from its foundation, a giant half dome shaped climbing sphere speckled in leftover flakes of yellow lead paint and finally a rusty metal slide that will drop you 3 feet above cold hard dirt layered with cigarette butts.
    They sure don’t make em’ like they used to! However, my three year old Grandson who is accustomed to today’s state of the art community parks, didn’t seem to notice the difference and enjoyed every minute of it!


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