Capturing History, Nostalgia On The Playground
By Michaele Charles • Photos by Brenda Biondo
Vintage Playground Photography
When most people hear the term “Americana,” they think of hot dogs and rock and roll music, but for Brenda Biondo of Cascade, CO, something else comes to mind: playgrounds.
Years ago, while spending an afternoon with her 10-month-old daughter at the playground, the fine arts photographer noticed a shaft of sunlight coming through a tube slide and was immediately inspired. Playgrounds, she thought, would be the perfect photography project.
“When I first started looking around for playgrounds to shoot, I realized that the old equipment was being torn down and replaced very quickly,” Brenda said. “I loved the look of the vintage equipment and felt that somebody should document it. It’s a piece of America’s past.”
Soon, Brenda began scouring nearby Colorado towns for antique equipment at schools and parks any chance she got. The older and more unique, the better. She wrote to parks and recreation departments seeking maps of where she might find old equipment in their cities. Sometimes, Brenda admits, she’ll drive for hundreds of miles toward the Kansas or New Mexico state borders, pulling off the highway at every small town on the off chance that there might be a wealth of antique equipment at the town park or elementary school.
Every piece of playground equipment is meaningful, says Brenda, who buys old equipment catalogs on eBay to learn more about the manufacturing history. “I find that a lot of the old equipment reflects the era in which it was installed,” she says. “In the 1960s, companies manufactured a lot of rocket ship climbers, for example. It’s neat to see how the design of the equipment captures what was happening at that point in history.”
Certainly, playgrounds have evolved significantly in the last century. And since 1981, when the first Handbook for Public Playground Safety was published by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, schools and parks and recreation departments all around the country have made it a priority to replace dilapidated equipment at playgrounds with modern, safer equipment. It’s easy to see why. From looming 12-foot metal slides that scorch the skin on hot summer days to rusty, heavy, spring-loaded animal figures—indeed, most of the equipment Brenda likes to photograph makes better artwork than playing equipment.
What other kinds of things has Brenda come across? A Cinderella pumpkin coach, Wizard of Oz equipment, sprawling spider-shaped climbers, a cowboy with a holstered gun, a bug-shaped seesaw, splintered wooden swings and all kinds of metal animals (ducks, whales, skunks, pelicans, chipmunks, raccoons and more).
Perhaps one of Brenda’s most eerie discoveries was equipment in the Colorado ghost town Ludlow, the site of the Ludlow Massacre in 1914. There, Brenda unearthed abandoned school houses and a playground long since overgrown with desert grass. The rusted climbers and slides—some tipped over—serve as a reminder of what was there before the bloodshed resulting from the Colorado Coal Strike.
The hunt for old playground equipment becomes more challenging by the year. “It’s definitely disappearing fast,” says Brenda. “I do feel pressure to shoot anytime I can because this equipment won’t be here forever.” To date, Brenda has photographed playground equipment in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Pennsylvania, including the brands Playworld Systems, GameTime, Trojan, American Playground, Burke Playgrounds, Delmer F. Harris, Giant, Porter and Lamar Co. Much of what she has photographed has since been removed.
Brenda’s solo exhibition, “Once Upon a Playground,” has appeared at three different art galleries in Colorado and public reaction to Brenda’s work has been extremely positive. “People are nostalgic about this stuff,” she says. Brenda's playground exhibition was published in book form in 2014.
“They have really fond memories of being kids and playing on this equipment.” How long will she keep at it? “As long as I can. I will make a concerted effort in the next 10 years to keep searching for this equipment because I think it is an important part of our country’s social and cultural history.”
More nostalgic playground equipment...
This was a favorite. This equipment spins so fast that children feel like they are flying. The last one holding on was surely the winner. To further test your courage, could stand, sit on the metal bars or assume any position that was life-threatening.
Others call them see-saws. Bet it’s been a while since you've seen one of these. They were very tall. If someone hated you, they could just get off their side while you are up in the air. It was quite dangerous but essential to help us confront our fears.
Today, metal slides are being replaced by plastic ones. With restrictions and regulations on safety piling up every single day, equipment is being designed to make everything safe and secure.
On a hot day, you wouldn’t go to the playground wearing a pair of shorts. Also, the sharp metal edges sometimes touched your tender areas. Bringing wax with you to make your sliding descent tolerable was a daily activity.
One more piece of equipment made our days lively. Kids used to gather around the exterior of the ring and grasp it. They would then run fast and after gaining momentum, their bodies would be lifted off the ground. Flying horizontally was just amazing until the momentum was lost.
Wooden or metal swings
Swing seats today must be made of rubber due to safety and protective restrictions. It’s not easy to find wooden or metal seats unless you visit a third-world country. All the danger has been taken away with vinyl-coated chains and shorter swing sets. The fun was all about flying back and forth while holding on.
This equipment is similar to the witch’s hat. The only difference is that everyone has his or her hanging piece so that the kids who are slow would be rammed from behind by the active kids or even smashed into the pole at the center.
The monkey bars made our school playground look like a military school The metal bars blistered hands due to the quick crossing and the hot sun. When we were not being supervised, everyone would do what he or she wanted. One kid would start at one end another one on the other end and they would meet in the middle and try to eliminate each other. Dangerous but fun, right?
Adventurous kids used to climb on the interior of this equipment so that they would be upside down when they reached the top. They would then continue with their heads first facing down on the other side to the bottom. You would save a lot of time jumping from the top to the ground. Only the kids who were afraid climbed down slowly while holding on.
While playing with this equipment, there was a high risk of the ball smashing your face or breaking your hands or fingers because of hitting the pole instead of the ball. Due to the number of complaints and restrictions, this equipment became extinct on most playgrounds.
These items were great because they made us tough and courageous. They made us actually enjoy our childhood. They can be eliminated due to health and safety issues but they will always remain in our hearts and minds.