Slide show: Early American summer camps.

Notes from the wilderness.
July 20 2006 7:39 PM

A Manufactured Wilderness

The history of the American summer camp.

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Click to view a slideshow.

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Today, American children can choose from a dizzying array of summer camp options—everything from horseback riding camp and gymnastics camp to computer camp and band camp. The first overnight camps were not nearly as specialized, consisting mostly of outposts in the woods adjoining a lake, where boys (and later girls) could get a taste of adventure and nature, as Abigail A. Van Slyck's forthcoming book, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth 1890-1960, explains. (Published by University of Minnesota Press, A Manufactured Wilderness will be available in October.)In this excerpt from the book's introduction, Van Slyck traces the origins of the American overnight camp. In the accompanying slide show, which is adapted from Van Slyck's book, images of these early camps show the lengths to which adults went in creating an idyllic rustic experience for their campers.

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First introduced to the North American landscape in the 1880s, camps were part of a back-to-nature trend that had been developing on both sides of the Atlantic since the middle of the 19th century. In this respect, they are like urban parks, residential suburbs, resort hotels, and national parks, all institutions aimed at providing respite from what were regarded as the moral and physical degradations of urban life, evils to which women and children were understood to be particularly prone.

The search for pastoral relaxation and rejuvenation often involved the wholesale commodification of the countryside to meet the needs and desires of tourists who consumed the very idea of country life, as well as goods and services offered there. Typically, this process was aimed at giving urban dwellers a supposedly authentic encounter with folk life—itself a cultural construction of the late 19th century.

At each of these sites, the middle-class professionals in charge—Scout leaders, teachers, play directors, librarians, doctors, undertakers, city planners—arranged the building and its environs to meet the needs of children. In articulating their understanding of children's needs, they helped invent modern childhood.

Protective labor legislation and compulsory school-attendance laws were, of course, aimed at safeguarding children from workplace hazards and providing them with a basic education. But they also ensured that boys and girls (especially those whose parents did not need them to be wage-earners) were spending more time than ever before in the regimented atmosphere of the schoolroom, without the opportunity to apply their book knowledge to the real world. For the middle- and upper-class youngsters who most concerned camp organizers, the long summer vacation offered an escape from this regimentation, but a school break unconnected to farm chores was still a relatively new—and worrisome—phenomenon in the 1890s. Camp director Henry W. Gibson characterized it as "a period of moral deterioration with most boys … who have heretofore wasted the glorious summer time loafing on the city streets, or as disastrously at summer hotels or amusements places." Click here  to see a slide show that explains how early American summer camps sought to save boys (and later, girls) from such fates.

Abigail A. Van Slyck is Dayton associate professor of art history at Connecticut College. In addition to her forthcoming book, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960, Van Slyck is the author of Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920.

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