When we were kids in our 1950’s suburban neighborhoods, there was little thought of kidnappings, sexual predators, or terrorist attacks. Homes and cars stayed unlocked, and kids were free to roam. In my neighborhood, we were outside somewhere in the five-street neighborhood and the nearby woods from breakfast till the street lights came on at dusk, excepting a brief hiatus for lunch and dinner. That gave us free reign to do what we wanted without the prying eyes of our mothers, who, if they had seen our antics, would have been chiding, like little Ralphie’s mother, “Stop that! You’ll poke your eye out!” or “Get down from there! You’ll break your neck!” and a whole litany of similar admonitions.
Or not. Just as likely, mothers would say, “Go ahead, but if you crack your head open, don’t come crying to me.” Back then, helicopter parents were few and far between. A hovering parent would lead to embarrassment or, worse, the dreaded “sissy” label. Older kids might brand you a “candy ass.”
We were on our own to take risks: Climbing trees, swinging on hanging tree branches over the creek, careening down the steep hill on bikes at full speed. There was a creek that ran under our road. One day my best friend Patty and I watched the neighborhood boys jump from the road to a pile of dirt on the side of the creek nine feet below. With our “anything you can do, we can do too” attitude, we mustered our courage and vaulted right in after them. We landed unscathed; one foot higher, and the sounds of laughter would have given way to the sounds of snapping bones.
One frosty school morning when the snow was piling up, the bus was late to our bus stop, so some of us decided to entertain ourselves. The bus stop was the parking lot of a real estate company. Next to it was what may have once been a wall of an old house or building. All I can remember was a concrete wall or ledge. We stood on top of the wall and then jumped 8 feet or so into a mound of snow that buffered the fall. What fun! Teachers wondered why we had come to school all wet. Oh, how my mother would have chirped!
Inevitably, there were accidents. One day one of the boys was swinging from a rope over the creek when he unwisely let go and fell splat on a big rock, breaking his arm.
In the backyard, many of us had swing sets. I remember contentedly swinging back and forth, higher and higher, free as an eagle, singing “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” You may recall that billboard-topping song. “A hundred bottles of beer on the wall, a hundred bottles of beer. If one of those bottles should happen to fall, ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall” . . . all the way down to zero . . . or until you lost count or got distracted by more urgent matters. I loved “skinning the cat” on the swings’ crossbars, even the time that I did a somersault and discovered a garter snake slithering beneath me.
To get you in the 50’s mood, here is an excerpt from my husband Frank’s family movies taken around 1959. While Frank and his dad were playing ball in the backyard, his little brother was playing on the swing set.
Best of all, we’d fly as high as we could muster and then catapult ourselves into the air and crash land onto the grass. And then we’d get up and do it all over again. Sometimes we’d stand and swing and then jump off. There was always some new contorted way to place your body on those swings. The older you got, the more creative you got. You’d just better not get grass stains on your pants. That would get you a one way ticket to the doghouse, where your mother would howl about wasting her precious time scrubbing the stain out with her scrub board and then washing the pants in the wringer washer.
The swing set wasn’t all fun; sometimes we cracked our heads on the swing seat or squished our fingers in the chains. I heard of kids chipping teeth, breaking legs, even suffering concussion-like symptoms.
Then, in 1972, the newly formed Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) came along and tamed some of our thrill-seeking adventures. Among others, they published a set of standards for outdoor home playground equipment. Let’s start with my backyard swing set, installed between 1947 and 1950. Could it be any simpler? The average swing sets of that era were quite simple—no attached play houses, climbing walls, or picnic tables.
In this top photo is my sister Shirley when she was most likely 3 years old in 1950. My parents had just moved into a newly built house in 1947, and they had not yet finished clearing out debris and planting grass in this back corner of our very big back yard. But the swing set was up and running, and my mother had her rock garden humming. In the bottom photo, taken in the mid-1950’s, my brother Billy and I were swinging. You can see that the yard was substantially better landscaped.
Would you like to take my challenge? It is similar to the “what is wrong with this picture” activity or “find the hidden items” activity. There are at least six parts of this swing set scene that do not meet the CPSC standards. Study the photos, and when you believe that you have found at least four violations of the standards, scroll down.
The condensed CPSC standards that our swing set, as well as most others, did not meet:
1. Create a site free of obstacles that could cause injuries, such as low overhanging tree branches, overhead wires, tree stumps and/or roots, large rocks, bricks, and concrete.
2. Provide shock-absorbing protective surfacing material underneath and at least 6 feet beyond the perimeter of the play structure. Examples are wood mulch/chips and pea gravel. Our swing set sported dirt and grass as did just about all others of the era. My mother’s rock garden behind the swing could have been a hazard, but I don’t recall any rock garden horror stories among my siblings.
3. Play equipment may need to be restrained with anchors to keep it from tipping over while in use. Be sure anchors are buried or otherwise covered with protective surfacing. Exposed anchors, hooks, bolts, etc. can create tripping hazards or lead to other injuries. My dad wedged pieces of wood into the ground to avoid tipping.
4. Use lightweight swings to minimize injuries if a child is struck. Avoid heavy seats of metal or wood.
5. Metal should be painted, galvanized, or otherwise treated to prevent rust, corrosion, and deterioration. Do not use paint containing lead!
6. Wood intended for outdoor use should be naturally rot-resistant and insect-resistant or treated to prevent such deterioration.
It appears that my dad disassembled a ladder or a slide. It had to be for safety reasons.
Below is our next generation swing set. This is the one that my husband and I placed in our back yard in the early 1980’s for our two children. Like most backyard swing sets in the 80’s, we had dirt and grass beneath, but the metal was painted and galvanized, seats were plastic, and the set was anchored in cement. In this photo, the swings and slide were removed for winter. Yes, that’s my daughter Leslie doing who knows what on the teeter totter.
Safety warnings from the CPSC (and me), however, didn’t turn my kids’ knees to jello on the aforementioned home playground equipment. Just today, my son Frank brought back thoughts of my own childhood. He reminisced, “I remember all the fun I had with Leslie and Chad on our swing set. We used to jump off to see who could go the furthest. We broke the plastic seats from overuse and used wood seats, and those eventually broke as well. I remember both types of seats breaking on me and sending me flying. I also remember the plastic seat of our tree swing breaking, cutting my leg and sending me into the pile of concrete blocks. I don’t remember any of us getting seriously hurt.” Did that stop him? No.
Now let’s look at our third generation play structure (formerly known as swing set). The top photo shows my grandson Mike and my granddaughter Katie in Mike’s back yard in Houston. The bottom photo is a close-up of Mike and me on the swings.
Notice that there are no obstacles that could cause injuries. There is shock-absorbing pea gravel beneath and around the structure although not six feet in all areas. There are no exposed anchors or bolts. Swing seats are made of lightweight but durable plastic. The metal chains are plastic-coated to prevent rust, corrosion, and deterioration. The playhouse is made of rot-resistant and insect-resistant wood. The slide is made of plastic, not metal that can produce burns in seconds.
If you would like to learn more about how to keep home playgrounds safe, see the CPSC “Home Playground Safety Handbook” here. According to the handbook, each year about 50,000 children go to U.S. hospital emergency rooms because of injuries on home playground equipment.
Okay, I have to admit that I wouldn’t have minded Mikey’s play structure in my childhood back yard, and it is certainly safer than my 1950’s version. Coming soon, in my post “1950’s Playground Equipment: Joy Rides or Death Traps? Part 2,” I’ll talk about the demise of the rough and tumble playground equipment of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.