America’s First Public Playground: A Park for Everyone?

Most of the earliest playgrounds that were set up here and in Europe were attached to schools. They were part of schoolyards for the benefit of the students of those schools. But by the late 1880’s public playgrounds began to emerge. The sand gardens in Boston which I wrote about last week (The Playground: Whose Idea Was This?) can lay claim to being among the first. San Franciscans will tell you that America’s first public playground was the one that opened in 1888 in Golden Gate Park.

Golden Gate Park

The San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 23 of that year covered the opening: “The buildings and grounds in the Golden Gate Park, known as Sharon Children’s Quarters, was formally opened yesterday and dedicated for use. Despite the threatening appearance of the weather, at noon there must have been at least 2,000 persons, mostly ladies and children, on the grounds. The sun shone out at noon.”

Park Commissioner William Hammond Hall addressed the crowd at a dedication ceremony during which he commented “all children are invited to this playground, be they rich or poor, each one having equal rights and privileges.”

Golden Gate Park, 1902
Golden Gate Park, 1902

The playground featured gondola swings, slides, see-saws, a maypole, a boys baseball field, and a girls croquet court. There were also rides, either on carts pulled along by goats, or atop donkeys.

Los Angeles Times writer Eliza A. Otis was effusive in her praise of the park in the April 7, 1889 paper. “What a crowd of happy little folks I found there! What an army of donkeys for them to ride! What a lot of Billy goats harnessed to pretty little carts. And what lots and lots of tricycles were being propelled over the wide sandy space set aside for their riders.

“Well, there was not a boy or girl among them all but looked glad to be alive, glad that they had that beautiful playground, where they could come and enjoy all these pleasures, with the trees, the flowers, the twinkling fountains and all the lovely things about them there.”

The non-bylined writer of a different account in the Sacramento Record-Union of Sept. 13, 1889, however, questioned whether this was really a park for everyone. “But the one feature at Golden Gate Park that takes the life and spirit and temper out of its beautiful play-ground, is the fact that a charge is made for nearly every exercise in which the children most delight. This at once constitutes a barrier to a large class and shears the play-ground scheme of its greatest benefit. All such places should be absolutely free; any money consideration attaching robs them of their merit in a large degree.”

The Union had another gripe to air: “But the mistake was made of putting most of the money into a stone building, for which the children really have no use, and that, in fact, in no respect is inviting to the child. On the contrary, it has impressed us on two visits, as anything but cheerful, and that in fact there is in it no place for the child.”

The building was called the Sharon Building and was originally intended as a sort of shelter for children and their parents in the event of inclement weather. It survives to this day and is currently being used as an art studio.

The children's playground.
The children’s playground. The Sharon Building is on the left.

The name Sharon comes from William Sharon, a businessman, philanthropist and former state senator. It was the Sharon Estate that donated $50,000 to build the playground and building. In an SF Gate article titled “How notorious tycoon William Sharon left SF children a still-popular landmark,” author Greg Keraghosian has some unflattering things to say about Sharon.

“Sharon, a ruthless Gilded Age businessman who was notorious for being an absentee senator, accumulated far more wealth than goodwill during his life. However, days after Sharon died and while he was still embroiled in one of the city’s most scandalous divorce cases ever, his trustees dedicated $50,000 for Golden Gate Park to build what is now Koret Children’s Quarter and the adjacent Sharon Building in 1888. It’s the oldest public playground in U.S. history.

“There’s little in Sharon’s biography that suggests a predisposition to philanthropy for children. He dedicated his life to acquiring wealth and power in mining, banking, politics and real estate.”

Sharon’s name is gone from the park, but the playground lives on. It was restored after being damaged by the 1906 earthquake and again after fires in 1974 and 1980. A carousel was added and it lives on for the children of San Francisco.

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2 Responses to America’s First Public Playground: A Park for Everyone?

  1. We’re watching the Yellowstone spin-off 1883. It takes place in a very wild west, Texas and Kansas I think. It’s odd to think that a few years later and a few states over they were already so civilized that they were building playgrounds. It was the same up here in Canada, but the contast sticks out in my head today. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

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