Last August on our trip to Nashville, we stopped for me to photograph part of the Haywood Farms Project. As a child growing up in the 1950s, I spent plenty of time on “monkey bars.” I was fascinated that the equipment was like tiny little rooms in a tall house, limited only my imagination.
While for many reasons, mostly those of safety, monkey bars (also called jungle gyms and climbing frames) have largely disappeared from the playgrounds of the nation. This pair of climbing frames stand side by side on the playground of the former school for Haywood Farms, a rural Resettlement Administration community from the New Deal Administration.
The first commercial “junglegym” was patented by Sebastian Hinton in 1920. The term “monkey bars” appears in the 1927 in New York in reference to a girl scout activity, and in 1929 in reference to a playground near the South Ferry L station. The earliest news item I located was March 11, 1921 when the New Castle News, Pennsylvania reported from London about “jungle exercises” with the goal of “a nation of straight-backed, supple-limbed boys and girls” and the introduction of correctly performed “jungle-gymnastics.” The Evening News of Pennsylvania reported August 30, 1921 about the “Junglegym”–something new in playground paraphernalia” as recommended for installation in the Chicago park system. (Hinton was from Chicago.)
The Brooklyn Times Union followed up in 1922:
Junglegym To Satisfy Boys’ Monkey Instincts.
The junglegym, which is being introduced in Manhattan playgrounds in order to satisfy the “monkey instinct” in children, will probably be installed in the Flatbush playgrounds at Rogers avenue and Robinson street and at Newkirk avenue and East Thirty-second street.
The first to be installed in New York is now in operation at the Tompkins Square Playgrounds at Tenth street and Avenue A. Since its completion four days ago it has been the centre [sic] of interest of the children if the neighborhood and at least a thousand, ranging from two to three years up to the park limit of sixteen years, make use of it every day.
The junglegym is a maze of iron bars, built in two-foot squares. It is ten feet six inches high and covers an area of sixteen by eight. It is said to be the most compact of all systems of athletic exercise. No less than seventy boys and girls have been seen on the new Thompson Square junglegym at the same time.
Looks kind of dangerous,” said Jack Kalmbach, who directs the playground in the afternoon. “That’s why it’s so popular. Look out there now. It’s fairly alive with kids and they are having the time of their lives. But if they only knew it, it is very safe, the safest way of climbing I know. WE haven’t had an accident yet, and don’t expect any. You see there is a bar every two feet. If a boy falls he can’t help but get hold of one of the bars. In all there are 278 climbing bars. One is always near to help the top-heavy climber. Looks like a lot of little monkeys, climbing all over the place, don’t they?”
The junglegym was also installed at the Ontario School for the Blind for “healthful exercise.”
While Sebastian Hinton is credited with inventing and patenting the device, the first model was actually constructed by Hinton’s father, Charles Howard Hinton, a mathematician. Charles constructed the model from bamboo when Sebastian was a child, with the proposal to help children understand 3-dimensional space. He invented a game where the bars were defined as axes x, y, and z, and numbered. He called out the number and axis (e.g., y5) and the children raced to be the first to grasp the correct bar.