A Short History of Summer Camp

Why is American summer camp a cultural practice worth studying? To tackle this question I did some extensive research on he history of summer camps in the US. The tradition of sending children to permanent summer camps was established at a crucial turning point in American history. Just to clarify, for the purposes of this case study the notion of “summer camp” will be limited to nature-based, sleep away camps. I was able to find a lot of pertinent information on these “traditional” summer camps in the United States in Leslie Paris’ Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp and Abigail Van Slyck’s A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth. Additionally, I garnered a lot of history from one article by Michael Smith called, “’The Ego Ideal of the Good Camper’ and the Nature of Summer Camp”and another by Jim Rasenberger titled “Happy Campers.”

The “summer camp movement” began in the late 19th century in the midst of the Progressive Era. As I understand it, the idea of camp materialized during a time when Americans started to become concerned about the effects of a rapidly urbanizing society on their children’s growth and development. Various religious leaders, educators, and doctors began experimenting with summer camps in the 1870s and 1880s, and eventually the first camp, Camp Chocorua, was founded in New Hampshire by a Dartmouth student named Ernest Balch (Smith). Similar to other summer camp leaders at the time, Balch was motivated by what he considered the healing effects of nature on children and by “the miserable condition of boys belonging to well-to-do families in the summer hotels (Smith)”. By the 1920s and 1930s “ethnic societies and radical political groups also organized camps to transmit more specialized values to children (Paris)”.

Like Balch, most of the early founders of American summer camps believed wholly in the importance of nature on childhood development. Yet it would seem that beyond the outdoors, there were many other underlying reasons why men began establishing summer camp in the United States. For one, there was the belief that young men, especially those from the upper class, should be taken away from the feminizing influence of home and be taught how to be resourceful and tough (Paris). Psychological ideals circulating a the time advocated for letting children “explore their naturally savage selves” in order to reenact earlier stages of human evolution (Rasenberger). Of course, camps started by more specialized groups – socialists, Quakers, Jews, charities – all “supplied its own mythologies, its own explanation for how nature improved children (Rasenberger)”.

Although at first I was under the impression that summer camp is a tradition unique to the United States, I found that other countries too, namely Canada, France, and Russia, also share this custom of sending their kids into the woods each summer. And of course, not all or even half of youth in the United States partake in this tradtion. Still, “it was in America that camps first took mot, and it is here they have flourished for nearly 120 summers (Rasenberger)”. Thus, while summer camping does not occur exclusively in the United States, it is still a tradition deeply entrenched in social, political, and certainly cultural trends in American history.

Researching the history of American summer camps opened my eyes to the extent that this tradition really has reflected various political movements over the years. Take war in this country, for example: after World War I we saw the emergence of more regimented, militaristic camp experiences (Smith 76). During World War II many camps served the war effort directly by providing agricultural labor or creating their own Victory Gardens (Smith). And later on, as I mentioned earlier, a few socialist and communist camps popped up to promote their own political goals.

The way we socialize and educate our youth in the United States is not escaped by children who go to summer camp. Indeed, these methods and motivations seem in most cases to be continued in American summer camps. According to Jim Rasenberger, “it is clear that camps were never really a refuge from the outside world…they reflected adult orthodoxies and anxieties from the start (Rasenberger 24)”. This, I think, is why examining American summer camps as a cultural practice is a worthwhile endeavor. The way we socialize our youth – the way we prepare our next generations – can be very telling of a national or regional culture.

Ally Friedman

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