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Public Playgrounds and Social Order

Between 1900 and 1920, Hartford’s population jumped from just under 80,000 residents to over 138,000. A significant portion of these residents were children – a fact that did not escape George Parker, who supervised the parks and recreation systems in Hartford. Recognizing children as a distinct, and growing population in American urban centers, Parker and others throughout the nation attempted to create specialized places for children’s play. This episode will argue that building carefully cultivated spaces for play in Hartford at the turn of the century was an integral part of creating order in the city. Parker and other reformers were often ambitious: they thought that new systems for play and leisure for people across the life span were essential to creating good citizens, and stronger people and they often sought out ways to dedicate huge plots of land to this purpose. These reformers have had a huge impact – even to the present – on how we think about dividing city spaces for different age groups. We often take for granted the idea that young people should have special sites for play and that older people should have special halls for socialization – but these ideas have a history, and we can see how this manifested in Hartford through the visual records.

As you explore the documents in this episode, consider the different perceptions of people occupying these places. What did children think of these endeavors? Historians have told us that these are the places where they learned ideas about social order and in the cases of many immigrants, how to “be” an American. Keep this in mind as you look at the photographs, but try to imagine what the subjects in them might have been thinking. These shots capture moments—some staged, and some spontaneous—in which children can be seen hanging from the monkey bars, laughing on the carousel, or running across the field in a race. For many, the parks and playgrounds of Hartford were thought of as safer alternatives to street play – but this is probably more of an adult perspective on the usefulness of organized spaces for play. Let’s turn our attention to the people – young and old—who helped to make these spaces meaningful.

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