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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.)