One of the greatest delights of children was the outdoor playhouse, which involved so many of the activities of later life including the selecting the location and building of the house and the improvised furniture. For Victorian girls, outdoor playhouses were also a training tool for the various chores of running a home -- cooking, sewing, laundry, and care of dolls. Playing house also helped in introducing the etiquette rules and manners required for receiving calls from neighbors, long dresses, ladylike manners, care of the sick, calling in of the family doctor, etc. To carry out such a series of imaginative experiences, along with the building and planning of the outdoor playhouse, required several days, and sometimes weeks. The child would return to the playhouse again and again, adding a new touch each time, tearing down here, and building up there, enriching the original conception with each change, and all the time enjoying the fairyland of their own creation. In 1859, Godey's magazine suggested this Outdoor Playhouse as the ideal Christmas present for children that year.
Elaborate Victorian outdoor playhouses have been found on the spacious grounds of grand estates, often as miniature replicas of the main home furnished with chairs, tables, curtains, carpet on the floor, pictures on the wall, dishes and kitchen utensils. A Gingerbread Playhouse from 1890 was found at a house on "Millionaire's Row" in Tennessee. You can see photos and architectural drawings for this Victorian playhouse to recreate the structure.
Outdoor Playhouse Plans
In 1859, The House: A Pocket Manual of Rural Architecture featured a plan (image left) for an authentic Victorian outdoor playhouse. The author states, “Build your children a playhouse of some sort. A very rude affair will please them; but something similar to the accompanying design will please you too, and be a highly ornamental feature in your grounds. The construction is simple, but the effect is very fine.”
Another Victorian Outdoor Playhouse from 1893 is featured including playhouse plans. Nevertheless, primitive outdoor playhouse structures have also found in rural mountain and farm properties featuring scrap building material of all kinds and furniture, including everything from old pieces of carpet to leaky tea kettles. Some were mere lean-tos against the fence and others only sheds.
Mansion Outdoor Playhouse
On the grand scale is the renowned Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse built in the East Fairmount Park in 1899 and has been serving the children of the Philadelphia area for more than a century. The mansion sized outdoor playhouse was never anyone’s home. It was built solely as a play space for Philadelphia’s children. The Victorian playhouse owes its origins to Richard Smith, a prominent business man of Philadelphia, and to his wife, Sarah A. Smith. At Mr. Smith's death—in 1894—his will directed his trustee to construct in Fairmount Park a memorial to Pennsylvanians who took park in the Civil War. It further directed that $50,000 be expended in the erection of a children's play building in the East Fairmount Park. At Mrs. Smith's death in 1895, her will provided for the disposal of her residuary estate for the maintenance, repair and improvement of the playhouse and grounds.
Originally called the Children's Playhouse and Playground, it was designed by the famous 19th century Philadelphia architect James H. Windrim. In 1899 the outdoor playhouse was seventy-six feet long and fifty-two feet in depth, surrounded by a terrace with porches sixteen feet wide. It was a two-story structure with a finished basement extending under the porches and terraces. The basement contained a heating plant, toilet rooms, stoves for making tea and coffee and ample space for lunching in case of storm. On the entrance floor were reading and reception room with books, games, piano and a Victrola. The second floor was reserved for the sick and for children under five years. Sliding boards, baby jumpers, rocking horses, were provided for these little ones. The second floor also contained private rooms and sleeping cots for emergency cases. The building was fully equipped with such conveniences as hot water, gas and electricity, and provided space for a kitchen.
There were six acres of grounds surrounding the Victorian mansion playhouse, enclosed by a hurdle fence and privet hedge, and several hundred trees and shrubs. Two sand pavilions furnished hours of fun and a junior merry-go-round was a constant source of amusement. Sliding boards, climbing poles, giant strides, coach swings, parallel bars, seesaws, traveling rings, and numerous rope swings were installed. Courts were equipped with basketball apparatus, and baseball, captain ball, tether and dodge ball were popular sources of fun for the older children. Lawn tennis was added soon after. A concrete concourse was later constructed for young motorists who guided their velocipedes, tricycles and express wagons along the course. A wading pool was one of the most popular spots on hot days.