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The history of organized camping in the United States is, paradoxically, also a history of the industrialization and urbanization of the nation. For many centuries, Native Americans traveled to traditional hunting and fishing grounds on a seasonal basis, living in temporary accommodations. White settlers, as they made claims on the land and pushed progressively farther west, often camped out on their travels. But the development of camping as a recreational activity, from the nineteenth century onward, was a much more self-conscious enterprise. Camping gained momentum in the nineteenth century, when increasing numbers of better-off Americans grew concerned that both the natural world and American traditions were being eroded by modernity. Anxious about a growing and increasingly heterogeneous population, the development of cities, and the impact of new technologies, the first proponents of camping saw in it a potential antidote to these modern ills. Thus, the camping impulse was at its inception sentimental, romantic, and nostalgic. Through a temporary return to nature, camping proponents claimed, Americans would rediscover physical vigor and find spiritual contentment.

From its inception, the practice of camping attempted to balance the glories of nature with various creature comforts. Proponents of camping did not necessarily expect to "rough it." While Americans were receptive to the idea of wilderness, few were actually prepared to tough it out in the woods. In 1869, Boston clergyman William H. H. "Adirondack" Murray's portrayal of his camping trips, Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks, achieved wide popularity. A sudden rush of visitors to this upstate New York region followed, claiming to have been inspired by the book's glowing descriptions of the area's natural beauty and Murray's testament to its positive effects upon his own vigor and health. But so many tourists came, so quickly, to a region unequipped to provide them with adequate guides and hotels, that they were soon dubbed "Murray's Fools."

The Growth of a Camping Economy

Within a decade, however, the local economy had caught up to its vacationers' desires. Visitors could choose among a fair number of lodges and fancy resorts, complete with eight-course menus. Some of the wealthiest Americans purchased lavish country places, called "Great Camps," that combined luxury and privacy. For more strenuous hunting and fishing trips through the woods, urbanites could hire local guides who knew the terrain, carried the provisions, set up camp, and made dinner each night.

A new body of camping literature offered advice for those traveling into the woods without a guide: how to choose a site, pitch a tent, select provisions and equipment, start a camp fire, fish with bait, and travel by canoe. By the end of the nineteenth century, specialized magazines for sportsmen, such as Forest and Stream (1873), Outing (1885), and Outdoor Life (1897), further attested to the increasing popularity of camping trips. For those who could not afford a guide, at a cost of several dollars per day, camping literature filled the gap; as one 1911 camping guide pointed out, "many campers are emphatically 'tenderfeet.'" This literature assumed their readers' class position; only middle- and upper-class Americans could afford the time away from work, the expense of outfitting their expeditions, and the cost of travel.

The movement to create national parks and other protected spaces outside the reach of industrial and agricultural sprawl further improved American camping opportunities. George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature, published in 1864, argued that the physical environment would decline without reform. At a time when the government was transferring more and more land from Native Americans, there was support in Congress for the preservation of at least some areas of particular scenic beauty from development or private ownership. The first American national park was founded in 1872 when Yellowstone National Park, the site of many unusual geysers, was created in Wyoming for the use and enjoyment of Americans. Other early National Parks included Mackinac National Park in Michigan (1875), and Yosemite National Park and the Sequoia National Park (both 1890) in California. These areas were successful as tourist centers, drawing some who stayed in resortlike facilities and others who camped out in the woods. Campers were attracted not only by the opportunity to pitch a tent, but also by hiking, hunting, and fishing in these protected wilderness areas.

The Camping World Expands: Men, Women, and Children

A good number of the nineteenth-century Americans who first celebrated the idea of camping out saw the wilderness lifestyle of an earlier era as exactly the kind of rugged, primal experience that would enhance manhood in the modern age. For late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century proponents of muscular Christianity, who aimed to build a stronger, more virile church through manly physicality, camping was at once a celebration of God's creation and a means to express strength and vigor. However, from the late nineteenth century onward, increasing numbers of women, many of them college graduates with expanded social horizons, also ventured out in the woods. By the turn of the century, family groups were not uncommon, and camping trips were sometimes domestic affairs, with several families camping together, sharing meals and one another's company.

From the late nineteenth century onward, many thousands of children had their first camping experiences at summer camps. These child-centered leisure institutions were first organized on behalf of elite white Christian boys. For "muscular Christians," camping vacations for boys were antidotes to the seeming softness of modern life and family vacations at resort hotels. Further, as turn-of-the-century psychologist G. Stanley Hall contended, a "primitive" sojourn into savagery was particularly critical to the development of white boys, providing, amid the safety of select peers and adult supervision, a kind of inoculation against the effeminizing effects of civilized culture. By the turn of the twentieth century, adults were establishing camps for girls of similar backgrounds; later, as the industry extended and diversified its reach, they established camps for an increasingly wide spectrum of children.

In the early twentieth century, the summer camp industry expanded rapidly, propelled in part by the growth of new youth organizations of the 1910s, such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Camp Fire Girls, as well as camps founded by private owners and charitable organizations. By the 1920s, thousands of camps taught children about campfires, swimming, canoeing, and fishing, while usually providing comfortable accommodations and cafeteria-style food. Because these camps responded so directly to anxieties about urbanization, they achieved their greatest popularity near the cities of the densely settled Northeast, in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Here they served increasingly diverse populations. In the first half of the twentieth century, an era marked by exclusionary Christian-only vacation spaces, Jewish camps were particularly successful, serving both religiously observant and acculturated families. But only in the late 1930s and early 1940s would northeastern organizational camps begin to move toward racial integration of white and black campers, and only from the 1950s onward would organizational camps in southern states begin to integrate campers of both races.

Twentieth-Century Camping Vacations

Modern transportation advances have been critical to the growth of recreational camping. In the second half of the nineteenth century, as railroad lines expanded, travel to remote regions became easier and more comfortable. In the twentieth century, the development of automobiles had an even more striking effect. Camping out became a vacation option for working-class car owners because it was less expensive than hotel tourism. After World War I, Americans camped out in increasing numbers, both for pleasure and to save money on the road. Some packed their cars with tents and beds. Others converted their cars into the first trailers and campers, precursors to recreational vehicles (RVs). One national organization of car campers, the Tin Can Tourists (1919–1977), was named for the practice of soldering a tin can (from cans used in cooking) to their cars' radiator caps as a means of identification among members. Such travelers stayed at campgrounds that ranged from the primitive to the fairly luxurious; in the 1930s, when commercial RVs came onto the market, new organized campgrounds with electricity and water hookups arose to serve them. In more recent years, RV campers have battled with tent campers over their respective places at state and national parks. Many tradition-minded campers continue to praise backcountry camping, away from modern conveniences and other campers, as preferable to fixed campsites. An industry devoted to camping equipment has, over the last decades, produced tents, cookstoves, and food supplies that are lighter, smaller, and more portable than ever, to serve the needs of those who wish to camp farther in the woods.

The question of what constitutes "true" camping has been contested since the origins of recreational camping. But the movement has clearly shifted from its elite origins to become an activity enjoyed by all classes of Americans. In the early 2000s more than 8 million children and adolescents between the ages of five and seventeen attend a wide variety of camps; some focus on "traditional" camping skills, while others offer instruction in everything from music to computers. Meanwhile, camping out remains a fairly affordable means of vacationing for many more adults and families.

See also: Automobiles and Leisure, Backpacking and Hiking, "Muscular Christianity" and the YMC(W)A Movements, National Parks, Recreational Vehicles, Scouting Movements, State Parks


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Leslie Paris

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