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Teddy Bears Cottage

History of the playhouse - Feb 2011

It is difficult to say when the first official children’s playhouse existed yet I do know that children are incredibly inventive and as soon as they are left to play will create their own space – whether it’s a sheet over the sofa or an old door leaning up against a tree. Historically, humans have always created recreational spaces from plants and trees. The Egyptians and Assyrians grew vines over trellis structures to create shaded areas and protect them from the sun. Little is known about how and when tree shelters first became popular. The earliest record of a treehouse was around 1AD by Pliny the Elder in his book, Natural History. He wrote of the Roman Emperor Caligula entertaining in a dining room, which he called his ‘nest’ that was built in a plain tree and could seat fifteen guests.

In 1499, a Dominican monk, Francesco Colonna published a story called Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream), which described an enclosure within a garden that was surrounded by large intertwined fruit trees. The boughs of the trees were artificially twisted in such a way that you could climb up them into the tree. The book was widely translated and is believed to have inspired Renaissance Europe’s great interest in tree houses - the most famous ones being built by the Medicic family in Florence. One had two staircases winding up a large tree that lead to a platform of about eight metres diameter. Here there were seats with backs of ‘living green’, a marble table with a fountain coming through a platform supported by posts and it's branches had been clipped to create decorative clumps. Similar designs were later seen across Europe, particularly in the north.

Throughout the world treehouses are called by a variety of different names.  In America a children’s play structure is likely to be called a clubhouse and in Australia cubby houses or colloquially a Cubby – which were historically built by children from found or scrap materials made just to last the school holidays.

The most famous playhouse of all is probably the one which belonged to Wendy Darling in J. M. Barries’ play Peter Pan. Wendy was injured soon after her arrival in Neverland so Peter Pan (the boy who never grew up) and the lost boys built a small house around her where she had fell - thus creating the phrase “Wendy House”. J M Barrie himself designed the first Wendy House for the first production of the play in 1904 and is credited with popularising the name ‘Wendy’ which had previously been uncommon.  Just before Barrie’s death in 1937, he gave the rights of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital – a charitable act which continues to benefit them.

If you have any playhouse tales or have seen old examples of playhouses please do let us know.