With equipment that made a mockery of the universal conditions of gravity and physics, the schoolyards of the early 20th century were a treacherous labyrinth of concussion and contusion. Grandpa always said he was tough—but even if you don’t believe that he walked eight miles uphill in the snow to school every day, these vintage playground devices were truly perilous.
“A mechanical greased pig” is how Hill Standard’s Barrel-of-Fun was described in 1922. The barrel was built to be anchored in a slab of concrete, and kids were encouraged to dive over the top of the 140-pound steel cask or attempt to hug its smooth surface and spin themselves silly. Some adventurous youngsters would even step up on top, logrolling style—but unlike that famous woodsman’s sport, the inevitable spill was farther and the landing was neither soft nor splashy. Though somewhat rare, playground balance barrels still exist today, but they are nearly always situated above a bed of soft wood chips, built lower to the ground, and equipped with helpful handles to keep the user from taking a header.
2. Log Swing
This playground contraption, built by Everwear Manufacturing Company, looked reminiscent of a teeter totter—except it had the unique ability to leap forward (or backward) and whack its unsuspecting victims. Images of the log swing in action show children overloading the beam up to 14 kids deep, while others reveal that some youngsters rode the oscillating piling of doom surfboard-style. Variations of this type of log swing survived into the early 1970s, but today multi-person swings are frowned upon because of their great mass and the risk of catastrophic impact injuries [PDF].
3. Giant Strides
Everwear puzzlingly touted this gem as the “Seven League Boot” of the 1930s playground. Kids were meant to latch onto one of the lines of rope attached to the spinning wheel-like contraption atop the pole. They'd then run around the pole, leaping and swinging through the air. If the swingers managed to all work together, it was probably a lot of fun—but there's no doubt a fair amount of collisions were happening, whether on purpose or from lack of coordination. Due to the danger presented by Giant Strides, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission put them on the “equipment not recommended” list [PDF].
4. Teeter Ladder
Monkey bars and seesaws are both on their way out of most American playgrounds because they're seen as too perilous by concerned doctors and traumatized parents. But back in the day, playground proprietors combined both into one. “All sorts of stunts, too numerous to mention, may be performed on this apparatus,” says the 1929 catalog. Like the traditional teeter totter, kids had to have a lot of trust in their partner to not send them thudding to the dirt. Playing alone meant enduring a radical and jarring shift as the climber moved over the ladder’s center of gravity.
5. Racer Slides
Today, playgrounds have lumpy, plastic, short-barreled slides—but it wasn't always this way. As late as the 1990s, kids could climb a 30-foot metal slide and really get some speed, not to mention some burns as they sped along that sun-roasted metal [PDF]. But burns weren't the issue; the real problem with slides was the dizzying climb up. In 1978, a young boy in Chicago was severely injured in a fall after slipping through the railing atop a 12-foot slide. His family sued the park district and the slide manufacturer, prompting the city's park district to get rid of such slides. Lawsuits like this, along with evolving safety rules and regulations, marked the beginning of the end for most tall metal slide.
Narragansett Machine Company’s 1922 Gymnasium Outfit encouraged youngsters to climb to an apex of over 14 feet, according to the catalog. If Isaac Newton had been around to do some quick gravitational calculations, he would have discovered kids falling from the top would be doing about 20 mph by the time they hit the pavement below. An article in the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention noted that kids were twice as likely to sustain injuries if the drop is over 5 feet. Today’s medical personnel would categorize a plunge from the top of this piece of equipment as a “major fall.”
Before metal merry-go-rounds was Everwear's wooden model, a “portable,” 1500-pound oak monster that all but guaranteed wicked splinters. It was rated to hold up to 40 kids or five tons. With a tall deck, low-slung platform, and slots that could trap little fingers, this vintage version of ride was decidedly unsafe [PDF]. While the splinters would disappear thanks to a shift from wood to metal and plastic, in 1995, McDonald’s was forced to finance a $5 million dollar child-safety campaign after the Consumer Products Safety Commission deemed the rides responsible for 104 children’s injuries in the ‘80s. Merry-go-rounds were scrapped by the dozen.
8. Jungle Gym
Lawyers and regulators have all but killed the traditional Jungle Gym, a piece of playground equipment that was tall and unforgiving of mistakes. The real purge started in 1988, when a boy in Washington, D.C., fell from a climbing apparatus and was badly injured. His family was awarded $15 million. General Playground Equipment’s “Fire Chief” Pyramid-Type Climbing Structure was from the pre-lawsuit heyday and considered a top-of-the-line attraction in 1940. The name came from the fire pole mounted down the center of the structure, allowing tykes to drop around 15 feet to an unpadded concrete slab underneath. Giving “maximum play area per dollar,” the General Playground catalog offered the tallest version of the Fire Chief at the price of $178.
9. Ocean Wave
The “undulating and wavelike motion” of this playground attraction gleefully brought seasickness ashore. The Ocean Wave was an old favorite by the time General Playground offered this version for $195 in 1940. Early iterations were often called the Witches Hat. Up to 40 children could ride while this structure simultaneously rotated and oscillated. Sitting was the safe way to ride, but standing was often the norm when no adults were looking. When the ride really got going, swirling and zipping from side to side, kids frequently fell off or smashed their legs on the center pole. Examples of these rides could be found up through the 1980s.
10. Poised Safety Swing
Everwear’s jaw-dropping contraption avoids all the anguish of smashing to earth by being set up in a pool, lakefront, or at the beach. Even with a soft landing in four feet of water, calling this monument to mirth a “safety swing” might be a bit of a stretch. According to the 1930 catalog, the bather released the swing with a foot pedal and swooped along the waves, pausing at the top of the arc before being hurdled forward. Less adventurous riders “may stay on until the old cat dies,” according to the ad copy. The seat was retrieved by the next hearty soul with the help of a rope.