Summer camps–overnight camps attended by children without their parents–were first established in the 1880s in North America, fueled by Victorian convictions about nature's moral and physical benefits, as well as newer concerns about degeneracy and falling birth rates. In the twentieth century, the summer camp idea became an international phenomenon, supported by organizations with varied social, political, religious, and pedagogical agendas. In short, summer camps have become an increasingly important means for socializing modern children.
The earliest camps were small, private camps for older boys, developed in response to growing concerns about the emasculating tendencies of what was called overcivilization. Catering to the sons of elite families, many of these camps were located in the woods of northern New England, far from the temptations of city life and the refinements of the "feminized" home. Among the earliest were Chocorua (in operation between 1881 and 1889), Asquam (founded as Camp Harvard in 1885 and renamed in 1887), and Pasquaney (established in 1895), all located on or near Squam Lake in New Hampshire. Although the physical character of these camps was highly rustic (with unhewn timbers used liberally in the construction of their permanent buildings), camp life was rougher in some camps than in others; at Chocorua, for instance, campers did all the cooking and cleaning, and ate off tin plates, while at Pasquaney, a professional cook served meals on china.
A camp building boom in the 1890s brought camping to a wider audience, including the urban poor (who attended camps organized by religious organizations, social settlements, and other social welfare agencies) and middle-class boys served by the YMCA (which established its first boys' camp, later known as Camp Dudley, in 1885). By 1901, the YMCA estimated that it served five thousand boys each summer, a number that grew to 23,300 by 1916. Unlike elite camps, these early YMCA camps tended to mimic military encampments with sleeping tents pitched around a square parade ground where campers enacted reveille, morning inspection, calisthenics, and taps. While these military trappings allowed boys to experience an all-male environment that contrasted sharply with the feminized home, they also insured that these camps sat lightly on their natural sites. Tents could be taken down at the end of each season, a particular advantage for camps held on land borrowed from supporters eager to promote the cause of camping for boys. In the early twentieth century, Native American motifs, which had appeared in some camps from the beginning, became even more popular, thanks in part to the Woodcraft Indians, a precursor to the Boy Scouts of America, another organization that encouraged summer camping for boys after 1910.
Camps for girls were established in the early twentieth century to foster a new, more self-reliant generation of young women. Among the earliest were private camps (like Camp Kehonka in New Hampshire and the Wyonegonic Camps in Bridgton, Maine, all founded in 1902), although the Camp Fire Girls (established in 1911) and Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. (established in 1912) soon started camps for middle-class girls. By 1925, there were some three hundred Girl Scout camps in the United States.
Whether serving boys or girls, camps offered a range of activities: campcraft (i.e., skills needed to survive in the wild), nature study, manual training (later called arts and crafts), calisthenics, swimming, and a range of the other sports (although early camp organizers frowned on baseball and basketball as too "urban" for camp). Popular camp games included Rover, All Come Over and Indian and White Man, in which campers designated as Indians try to capture other campers representing "white people travelling over the prairie" (Gibson, p. 217). The evening campfire was the setting for theatrical entertainments, songs, and storytelling, as well as special rituals to mark the opening and closing of camp. Calling upon a long-standing conviction that a natural setting enhances religious feeling (something already practiced at camp meetings attended by adults and family groups), many camps featured a spiritual component as well. On Sundays, the regular routine was suspended, while white-clad campers attended services in a forest chapel fitted out with rustic furniture and a wood or stone altar, framed by a lake view.
By the 1920s, this sense of nature's spiritual associations prompted many religious groups to move beyond their early charitable camping endeavors into religious-based camping for the children of middle-class and elite families. In addition to Catholic camps and Protestant Bible camps, Jewish camps enjoyed a surge of popularity between the 1920s and the 1950s, as they sought to maintain ethnic practices threatened by modernization and assimilation. The approach to Jewish identity varied widely at such summer camps, some of which (like Camp Ramah in Wisconsin) were explicitly religious in orientation, others (like Massad Hebrew Camps) were also Zionist, and still others (like Cejwin Camps at Port Jervis, New York) emphasized secular Jewish cultural practices.
In other parts of the world, turn-of-the-century experiments with charitable camps gave way to a wider range of camping endeavors in the 1920s. In New Zealand, camps
were closely associated with rebuilding the health of delicate children. Established in 1919, the first health camp used Army surplus tents provided at a nominal rate by the Defence Department. By the 1930s, nine health camp associations had instituted camps, including Canterbury's Sunlight League, which emphasized sunbathing as prescribed by the new science of heliotherapy. In the late 1930s, health camps came under government regulation, resulting in a new emphasis on permanent, year-round facilities. By the 1950s, increasingly stringent government standards forced many summer-only camps to close.
In other settings, the 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of summer camps of a political bent, including a range of left-wing camps in the United States (there were twenty-seven Communist camps in New York state by 1956), Communist camps in France, Germany, and Austria, Fascist colonie in Italy, and camps to sustain Polish culture on the contested border between Poland and Germany. Unlike radical camps in the United States, which differed little in physical form from other North American camps, French colonies de vacances established by Communist-governed municipalities (like Ivry-sur-Seine) were instituted in part to secure party loyalty and thus served large audiences. The colonie at Les Mathes opened in 1929 near Royan on nineteen hectares of pine woodlands; supplementing old farm buildings were five new dormitories (each with a capacity of one hundred children) and a refectory/kitchen serving eight hundred. Notable, too, was the practice of children's self-government; decisions about daily life at Les Mathes were taken collectively, under the guidance of a municipal council of colons elected each summer by universal childhood suffrage, with half the seats reserved for girls. Equally massive were the colonie established in Fascist Italy to aid in the cause of political indoctrination; they housed children in large, austere, modern buildings adjoining vast, unplanted terraces for mass sunbathing and calisthenics.
Just before World War II, North American camp-planning practices were transformed as professional experts lent their advice to camp directors (themselves newly professionalized since the formation of the American Camping Association in 1935). The findings of child psychologists prompted the introduction of the unit plan (which divided the camp landscape into age-based living units), and the construction of elaborate sleeping quarters (including socializing space to facilitate closer camper-counselor interaction). Water safety experts at the American Red Cross suggested improved waterfront designs with lifeguard towers, check-boards, and carefully demarcated areas for non-swimmers, beginners, and swimmers. Camp planning experts (many of whom had worked for the National Park Service under the aegis of the New Deal designing camps in thirty-four federal Recreation Demonstration Areas) advocated both master planning (to control the development of the camp landscape) and picturesque planning principles (to disguise the extent of that control).
Codified in camp planning manuals published in the 1940s by the YMCA, the Girl Scouts, and the Camp Fire Girls, this professional advice guided the postwar camp-building boom that paralleled the baby boom. Not only were there more camps to choose from in this period, but these camps served larger populations of younger campers. Camp counselors were younger, too. Even at sixteen (the median camper age in the late nineteenth century), many postwar teenagers considered themselves too old for summer camp, prompting many camp organizers to establish Counselor-in-Training (CIT) programs to keep these youngsters coming to camp.
In the postwar period, camps for children with disabilities became increasingly common, as did skill-based camps teaching foreign languages, music, and computer programming. At the end of the twentieth century, however, the traditional, rustic, character-building summer camp enjoyed renewed popularity.
Summer camps, then, are among the first institutions designed to educate the whole child, providing twenty-four-hour care that fostered physical health, social development, and spiritual development in generations of children in North America, Europe, and Australasia. Yet, if the general goals of summer camps have remained unchanged since the 1880s, the particular ways that camps achieved those goals have varied, as camp organizers grappled with changing ideas of what is best for children.
See also: Children's Spaces; Communist Youth; Fascist Youth; Organized Recreation and Youth Groups; Vacations; YWCA and YMCA.
de Martino, Stephano and Alex Wall, ed. 1988. Cities of Childhood: Italian Colonie of the 1930s. London: Architectural Association.
Downs, Laura Lee. 2002. Childhood in the Promised Land: Working-Class Movements and the Colonies de Vacances in France, 1880–1960. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Gibson, Henry W. 1911. Camping for Boys. New York: Association Press.
Joselit, Jenna Weissman, and Karen Mittelman, eds. 1993. A Worthy Use of Summer: Jewish Summer Camping in America. Philadelphia: National Museum of American Jewish History.
Maynard, W. Barksdale. 1999. "'An Ideal Life in the Woods for Boys': Architecture and Culture in the Earliest Summer Camps." Winterthur Portfolio 34: 3–29.
Mishler, Paul C. 1999. Raising Reds: The Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.
Van Slyck, Abigail A. 2002. "Housing the Happy Camper." Minnesota History 58: 68–83.
Van Slyck, Abigail A. 2002. "Kitchen Technologies and Mealtime Rituals: Interpreting the Food Axis at American Summer Camps, 1890–1950." Technology and Culture 43: 668–692.
Abigail A. Van Slyck