Playland at the Beach

So the problem with getting into matchbooks is that Ebay starts recommending them. Normally I can resist this kind of thing since my interests are way more narrow than the algorithm can handle. But there are exceptions, oh yes there are exceptions. And while I can’t explain them I absolutely know them when I see them.

For example. How could I pass this up? Playland is one of those legendary San Francisco establishments which was before my time but left such a mark on the area that I grew up hearing everyone’s stories. I think it only survives now via the Musée Mécanique,* the Cliff House, and the ruins of Sutro Baths.

*Which somehow I’ve never been to but my parents have taken my kids.

It’s a very San Francisco thing and part of my mind can’t wrap itself around the concept that a massive amusement park existed right there at the end of the Great Highway. The other part of my mind can absolutely see it since that part of the city now is* kind of empty in that way where you can feel that something used to be there.

*Or was last time I was there.

Anyway, aside from Playland being legendary and evocative, the actual design of this match book is beautiful. A fantastic graphic with so many details that I notice something new every time I look. The hint of nighttime stars. The silver border framing everything. The seller didn’t list a date but this is screaming late-1930s to 1940s to me with a bit of that streamline moderne feel in the type.

To date the matchbook I have to look on the inside. A few clues. Mentioning the Cliff House places this as post-1937 since Whitney only acquired it that year.  Similarly, no Sutro Baths means that it’s pre-1952.

There’s also the line about four streetcar lines to downtown. By 1950 there was only one line. 1948 is three. 1944 though has four. Which narrows things down to a window from 1937–1947 which is good enough for me and confirms my sense of the design as well.

When I was researching the matchbook I was starting to become amazed that I couldn’t find any postcards of Playland at the Beach. I eventually realized that searching for “Cliff House” might be interesting and it turns out that there are a decent number of postcards showing Playland from the Cliff House. So I grabbed the cheapest one.

This is a linen postcard which dates it to 1930–1945, in other words, around the same era as with the matchbook. And I can see that the matchbook graphic does indeed match the view of Playland from the beach. Yes it looks like the Great Highway basically turns into a parking lot. This does indeed seem to be exactly what happened.

More importantly for me, this really helps solidify in my mental map exactly where Playland used to be and how it fit into the city.

The back is mostly uninteresting though I can’t help noting that even though it was produced in San Francisco the text uses Coney Island as a reference point. It’s also worth pointing out the Fleishhacker Playground reference. This was another legendary San Francisco institution although one which I don’t remember any stories of (though the name sticks in my head). Unlike Playland though I know exactly where this was since I went to the zoo a lot as a kid and it remains one of my kids’ favorite refuges from the summer heat when we visit.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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