The Rise of the American Summer Camp

The Rise of the American Summer Camp

Leslie Paris, Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp. New York: New York University Press, 2008. 363 pp

Ah, the thrills and trials of summer camp–learning to swim in the lake; joshing in the cabin; singing goofy songs around a campfire; playing baseball on dusty fields; shivering in leaky tents on rainy overnights; learning ersatz Indian lore. The history of these memories and many more are analyzed with style and originality in Leslie Paris’s readable book. More than sophisticated nostalgia, Children’s Nature is a book about culture, both from an adult and a children’s perspective. Covering the period from the origin of summer camps in the late nineteenth century through the important developments between the two world wars, Paris reveals much about how Americans perceived childhood, leisure, and education as society moved toward a post-industrial age. Paris does not, and could not be expected to, cover every subtopic; in focusing primarily on “mainstream” camps, she excludes, for example, Bible camps, day camps, and family-oriented summer gatherings, and she focuses primarily on the Northeast, where camping was most extensive. But these limitations are not serious. Using an impressive array of camp records, memoirs, social scientific literature, and, most entertainingly, children’s letters and diaries, Paris brings alive the experiences and motivations of the camp directors, parents, and campers.

Children’s summer camps originated and have been most successful in the United States. By the interwar years, as many as fifteen percent of American children attended these camps each summer. From their earliest days in the 1880s to the present, these camps have served as an important tool of and, according to Paris, a “particularly American solution to the question of children’s socialization,” (11) especially among the white middle and elite class families of the urban and suburban Northeast. Working-class children had some access to camps with aid from charitable and liberal political and labor organizations, as did racial minorities somewhat later; but with few exceptions, summer camps remained class and racially segregated for the period that Paris examined. For the most part, the focus is on children between ages eight and fourteen.

As they came to contemplate a new, separate, and cherished place of children in American society, camp directors adopted several goals for their operations, all of which were endorsed by the parents who paid for the endeavors. These goals revealed much about American culture and its ironies. Fearing the loss of what they believed had been a simpler, more bucolic way of life as industrialization accelerated, adults such as Ernest Berkeley Balch, founder of Camp Chocorua In New Hampshire, and child psychology pioneer G. Stanley Hall believed that children needed to be “protected” from fast-paced and threatening adult society, as well as enriched in a separate but adult-organized youth culture. The best way to achieve such ends was to remove kids from the city and give them an opportunity to grow physically and emotionally in a setting close to nature. Middle- and upper-class parents bought into this movement, not only because they shared these feelings but also because they desired some kind of enriching activity to fill the long school vacation period and, in some cases, to provide themselves with extended relief from the supervision of active, sometimes mischievous, offspring.

Though Paris’s concept of children’s nature has provocative, varying meanings, she also sheds light on the ironies of adult nature. Eager to expose children to the regenerating qualities of the wilderness, camp directors and parents simultaneously strived to shelter campers from that very nature and to cater to the demands of an increasingly commercialized culture. It did not take long for camp directors to substitute cabins for tents, install toilets and showers, offer “modern” attractions such as movies, provide up-to-date medical facilities, and sell consumer products in the “canteen.” (Paris might have said a little bit about camp food in this regard.) Still, the nostalgic quality of camp activities reveal much about how their organizers wished to remember a past and different era. Paris’s discussion of the almost universal American Indian lore that pervaded camps and the almost-as-frequent production of minstrel shows are especially revealing in this regard. She also deals with fascinating details of gender differences.

For campers themselves, these summer retreats had a different–and sometimes oppositional–meaning. Of course there were feelings and experiences of fun and adventure. The memories that children carried back home and the confidence they exhibited when they became return campers were just as important as the skills, pounds, and inches they had acquired. Significantly, Paris uses primary sources from campers themselves to show how camps provided fertile sites for children to cultivate their own alternative culture, the one that they inhabited when away from adults. Young campers learned about sex, how to cuss, how to play practical jokes, how to make friends, and how to deal with emotions such as loneliness and failure (not always successfully), all independent from the supervision of counselors and directors.

Paris makes a convincing case that camps were “the staging grounds for the development and expression of modern American childhood” (278). She does not really explain why summer camps for children seem to have initially been uniquely an American phenomenon, but cross-cultural comparison was not her objective. I do believe, however, that she might have tried to delve a little more deeply into how camps both reinforced and overcame adult-imposed biases. Certainly the Indian themes and minstrel shows, as well as late-night talk in the cabins, bolstered stereotyped images of “others.” But I would submit another option, one derived from personal experience. I was raised in a lower-middle-class, all-white neighborhood and as a child saw black people only when they were janitors and kitchen help. In 1954, I went to Boy Scout camp. One day during free time, my all-white troop went to the baseball field and began hitting and throwing a ball around. Soon, a troop of African American scouts approached, and one of them, an eleven-year-old named Don Roy Moore, asked if we wanted to play a game with them. Tentative and a bit fearful, we agreed. At one point, I got a hit and was standing on second base during a stoppage of play. Don Roy, who was playing second base, came over and started chatting with me. We exchanged comments about mutual interests in school and out, and soon became inseparable friends for the rest of the camp session. Don Roy taught me that people were just people, regardless of race, a lesson that camp facilitated in a way that no counselor could have taught me.

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Howard P. Chudacoff

Brown University

Swift Nature Camp is a traditional USA Summer Camp for boys and girls ages 6-15. Our focus is to blend traditional Overnight Summer Camps activities while increasing a child’s appreciation for nature, science and the environment. It great as a Teen Summer Camp or for beginning campers.