There’s a lot of nostalgia around old playgrounds, for the burns in summer on the overheated metal slides or the nauseating spinning play on the whirl. Those brushes or hits with danger are why most of them are gone, replaced with safer, less rusty, contraptions. Photographer Brenda Biondo, however, sees these playgrounds as an essential part of cultural history, and spent nearly a decade documenting them around the United States.
Over 160 of her images have been published this month in Once Upon a Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1920-1975 from University Press of New England. They’re paired with the original advertisements, from the 1931 “Giant Stride” promising “ACTION! THRILLS!” for children clinging precariously to rope ladders swung around a pole, to the elaborate 1971 “Space Cruiser” that was “patterned after actual or planned vehicles of the U.S. space program” with “play telescopes” and slides jutting out of rockets.
Biondo found herself at the playgrounds with her children, wondering where were the jungle gyms and swing sets of her own childhood. “So many Americans grew up playing on this stuff, and it’s a part of Americana,” she told Hyperallergic over the phone. “But nobody was documenting it, nobody was collecting it.”
Many of the mid-century playgrounds are still there, but vanishing fast, with little interest in preservation. She started to investigate around her home in Colorado, and over eight years ventured to California, New Mexico, Virginia, Nebraska, and other states to seek out the fading paint on old clown faces or lattice silhouettes of climbers. Along with vintage catalogues picked up on eBay, she gradually created a timeline of the evolution of playgrounds in the United States.
“Playgrounds started getting popular in the US around the early 1900s,” she said. There was a concern for kids playing out in the urban streets and getting into trouble, so these concentrated areas could congregate the children in a safer zone. “By the early 1920s, playgrounds started getting popular in smaller towns and showing up everywhere,” she said. Then in the 1940s and 50s, they morphed from basic structures to whimsical, with cartoon characters and pop culture references to things like the Wizard of Oz. Spaceships emerged with the space race of the 1960s and 70s, as did technology-influenced designs (one “Giganta” playground equipment offering is advertised as “a robot that automatically produces fun” with his two slide arms). Each era of history and culture influenced the icons and architecture of playgrounds.
However, the heyday came to an end in 1972 with a consumer product safety campaign, where the hazards of playgrounds were studied and guidelines were issued. Out were the metal and wood set ups with the potential for splinters and scrapes, in were the gentler apparatuses less likely to result in being sued. Now what remains is disappearing quietly.
“As a whole, playgrounds are part of the cultural history of this country, but no one really thinks about it,” Biondo said. “It’s just getting hauled off to the scrap yards.” Through her photographs she hopes people may pay more attention to the remains of the creatively designed playgrounds around them, as markers of an era when play was often tinged with the potential for a bit of danger in its thrills.
Once Upon a Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1920-1975 by Brenda Biondo is available from University Press of New England.