Then & Now: A History of Salem's Playgrounds

As this year's playground season begins, it seems to be a good time to look back at the history of Salem's playgrounds that have taught and nourished generations of children for over a hundred years.

From the beginning of Salem there was common space held for residents. This space first used for livestock, wood for building and military training, gradually changed with the needs of the town.

As Salem became larger and more settled, these common spaces eventually morphed into a series of parks. While these parks mirrored those in Europe with paths, trees and gardens, they did not focus on children. The playgrounds we know today didn't exist until the end of the 19th century. 

According to J. Frost in his book, A History of Child's Play and Play Environments...., the first outdoor gymnasium in the U.S was set up in 1821 at the Salem Latin School. Another first for Salem! At the time these gymnasiums with early gymnastic equipment spread to other schools and colleges. These outdoor gymnasiums were the products of a German healthy exercise movement. They were the predecessors to 'playgrounds' but were short lived. Early documents speak of seeing the broken equipment left exposed to the elements. 

In the early 19th century there were several attempts to provide schooling for young children whose mothers worked in factories as the Industrial Age took hold. Most notable was the kindergarten designed by Frederick Frobel in 1837 in what is now Germany. Salem's Elizabeth Peabody, after visiting this kindergarten, opened the first English speaking kindergarten in America and was a catalyst for spreading the concept throughout the country. This focus on early childhood education naturally led to consideration of play and its impact on children. Elizabeth Peabody was a pioneer in considering the importance of play in the development and education of children.

The first playgrounds appeared in Germany as educators sought to add structure to children's play. These playgrounds were slowly copied by other countries.

With the growing industrialization of America the cities became more crowded with less open space. Children, when they weren't working in factories, played wherever they could find space, which usually meant in the streets. This was a dangerous situation and caused many accidents.

In the late 19th century reform groups were mainly led by women who, in addition to advocating women's rights, also worked tirelessly to reform children's labor and education. With the Settlement House Movement spreading in the country to address the needs of the poor, urban, immigrant populations, the first playgrounds began appearing in the 1880s. Reformers, pointing out the effect urbanization was having on the population, gradually gained support. By the turn of the century, playgrounds, usually set up in abandoned lots near tenements and factories, started appearing in the urban landscape.

While Salem had a number of parks, it did not have any public playgrounds at the beginning of the 20th century. In his inaugural address Mayor Joseph Peterson, in 1905, challenged city government to take up the cause for playgrounds. He stated “I would like to see a ground for each section of the city, but if this is not possible, we should at least have one good one.” After recommending the first playground be on Bridge Street, he went on to state, “Athletics, outdoor exercise, healthful play can not be over estimated as producers of sound bodies, sound minds, clean living and thinking, and good citizenship.” The Council agreed and Salem had its first playground.

By 1907 there were 90 municipalities in the U.S. that provided playgrounds. Salem was one of these pioneering cities. With the formation of  the Playground Association of America in 1906, the national advocacy intensified. Dr. Gulick, a well known advocate for play, was elected president. He had worked with James Naismith in refining the game of basketball and was a leading authority on “democratic team games."  This high profile organization convinced then President Theodore Roosevelt to use his bully pulpit to push the agenda, as he was honorary president of the Association.

Roosevelt stated, “City streets are unsatisfactory playgrounds for children because of the danger, because most good games are against the law, because they are too hot in summer, and because in crowded sections of the city they are apt to be schools of crime. Neither do small back yards nor ornamental grass plots meet the needs of any but the very small children .....children must have places especially set aside for them; and, since play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools. This means they must be distributed over the cities in such a way as to be within walking distance of every boy and girl.”

Roosevelt's statement is often cited as the turning point in playground development. By 1910 there were 531 cities with playgrounds and that number continued to grow.

In Salem throughout these early years, playgrounds were set up across the city. In 1906 Mayor Thomas Pinnock, in his inaugural address, argued for the purchase of the Hemenway Estate in Ward 5 so that this one 'park-less' urban area of the city could have a playground and park.

Over the next decades, Salem not only installed playgrounds, but also put together committees to oversee and enrich the playground experience for Salem residents. With the consultation of the Playground Association of America, they organized athletic leagues, drama clubs and music education at the playgrounds. They also offered boat building, sailing and leather crafting, soap carving and sewing sessions throughout the summer months.

Each year a huge Field Day took place on the , with children building floats and demonstrating what they had participated in. These events and the importance of playgrounds throughout the 1920s is highlighted by the many photographs that were incorporated into the Annual City Documents throughout the 1920s. The photographs above give us a glimpse of the importance City Government placed on the playgrounds of Salem. Even as the Depression raged across the country, playgrounds and their improvements were often the focus of Federal Works Programs. In Salem a number playgrounds were laid out as well as bath houses and pools by these locally administrated federal programs.

Many of us may recall the standard play structures of the past, such as the slides, seesaws and swings that occupied our childhoods. As children we knew the unwritten rules of staying away from hot slides and carefully picking a seesaw partner who wouldn't jump off while we were up.

These common structures abounded in most playgrounds, while certain other structures such as sand pits, monkey bars and wading pools were less common. Throughout the 40s and 50s, playgrounds and their equipment blossomed across the country, with the needs of baby boomers.

In the 1960s there were the beginnings of adventure playgrounds with more complicated rope and climbing structures. while popular, they were also more dangerous.

Safety issues finally took center stage in the 1980s, when the old fixed equipment such as seesaws and merry go rounds were gradually replaced with safer structures in newly designed play areas. In recent years there has been an emphasis not only on age appropriate design, but on safe ground surfaces.  While some of the older equipment still is seen, its days appear numbered in a litigious society where lawsuits abound.  

That commitment to having safe and usable playgrounds has continued throughout Salem's last hundred years and has resulted in a vibrant play history for several generations who recall the neighborhood playground activities they participated in as children. Salem continues to offer its children play areas as well as opportunities for team sports throughout the city. The Park, Recreation & Community Services Department each year publishes a booklet of the many opportunities offered to Salem's residents from youth playground activities to adult sports & education. It can be accessed here.


Nelson Dionne June 17, 2012 at 01:11 PM
A few thoughts; Massachusetts has regulations in place defining exactly what a playground is vs a park.. Next, at one time, Salem was a national leader in playgrounds to residents ratio. Does anybody remember the annual trips to Nantasket or Salisbury Beach paid for by the various playground groups. The Pickman Park, Salem Common & Castle Hill Playground Assn. brought in the Nantasket Steamship Liner "Francis Scott Key" to Central Wharf on Aug 25th, 1949. It transported 850 children & parents to Nantasket Beach for a day of enjoyment. Many had all day fairs generating the funds. Memories, Memories !


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