The Evolving Look of Camp

An Interview with Abigail Van Slyck

Award-winning author and architectural historian Abigail Van Slyck researches institutional buildings in order to find out what was on the minds of the people who built them. In her book A Manufactured Wilderness, Van Slyck illuminates the history of children's camp experiences through camps' buildings. Van Slyck spoke with ACA describing how the look of camp has changed through the years, while emphasizing that the nature component of camp life has always been important.

Why did the camp movement become popular in the early years?

Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian, gave what became a very famous speech at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. He argued that the frontier had closed, that the process of westward migration was complete. He also argued that this was a problem because the frontier experience was what had made Americans particularly strong. On the frontier, they had wrested territory from Native Americans, broken the wilderness for agriculture, built their farms and towns from scratch, and generally worked really hard. From Turner's perspective, the process was responsible for strengthening the American character, for tempering it in the same way that steel gets tempered.

Turner's frontier thesis (as it is called) ignited a bit of a panic. Many people wondered what was going to happen to the American character without that tempering experience. Really important issues like national identity were at stake and some began to ask, "How are we going to replace the frontier? How can we supply future generations with the wilderness experience?" One answer was the summer camp.

At the same time, there was not much wilderness land available. In fact, a lot of the land used for camps had already been used for production. There had been some sort of productive life — farming, logging, etc. — on the sites that many camps inhabited. You can see it sometimes in early camp maps: There will be vestiges of old stone farm walls, or a building that is just called "The Old Barn," indicating it was a farm before. Camp Pasquaney, an early boys' camp in New Hampshire, was started in the hay field of the director's father. I argue that the use of Native American names for summer camps was initially a way to highlight the earlier, pre-industrial use of the camp sites and thus make them seem more natural.

What did camp look like early on?

In many areas, camps were part of the shift from industrial production to recreation. We could say land that was once industrially or agriculturally productive became productive in a different way. It became recreational land that produced money for camp directors and others involved, and it did something good that people wanted it to do: create strong character in youth.

Yet, many early camps wouldn't have looked particularly "camp-y" to our eyes. In upper Minnesota, they were very close to logging, and a lot of land that had just been logged out became available for camp purposes because it had already had its wood processed — it took a couple decades for trees to grow back up around. Especially in early YMCA camps for middle-class boys, the land was rented. The camp would rent a farmer's field for the summer season. They would come in just with tents. They sat very lightly in that natural landscape and could adjust as they wanted to from season to season.

The early camps for wealthier boys had permanent camps sites and built more permanent buildings. To make their sites look more natural, they used picturesque planning — weaving buildings into the landscape and using irregular paths. They also aligned buildings in relation to a natural feature — often a lake.

From the very beginning, a lake was considered an important component of the camp landscape. Water was a really important thing, and lakes were safer than rivers. Part of the reason water was so important is because it gave camps a sense of isolation from their surroundings. There's also something calming about water. A lot of open-air chapels were oriented so that the congregation, when facing the altar, could also look at the lake. There was a spiritual component to the lake, and it was considered very important to get close to nature.

How did camp professionalism impact the camp landscape?

Several things are the result of the "professionalization" of camp: First, there was a real sense of importance to protect child safety. There are pictures from early twentieth century activities that today just seem dangerous. For example, there's one in my book of campers diving from a rocky shore directly into a lake. To us today, it seems like an irresponsible thing to let campers do. But there was openness to that kind of risk-taking at that time.

By the 1930s, however, there's not any openness to that kind of risk-taking. So, instead, you have the kind of waterfront organization that I knew as a camper in the 1960s. Essentially, there was an "H" shaped dock. Campers were no longer encouraged to climb up and dive from great heights. The camper's experience was pretty horizontal. Beginner swimmers were located in the part of the "H" configuration closest to shore. They were penned in and weren't allowed to swim where they might get into trouble. The only person who had any elevation whatsoever was the lifeguard, who was there to look over the whole scene and be sure everyone was safe. Another thing that happened in the 1930s was the application of new child development theories to the camp landscape. In the early twentieth century, campers were older adolescents and the entire camp functioned as a single entity. Everybody in camp did everything together — there were boys who were fourteen and boys who were nineteen in the same big group.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the age of campers dropped dramatically. As younger and younger kids came to camp, the older kids made the shift into counselors-in-training and staff. By the 1930s, it also became important for children to live in smaller units with activities tailored for their age group. It had a big impact on the landscape, because they were trying to plan the camp so that each little unit felt independent and a little bit isolated and in its natural setting. That's when they went into the picturesque planning in a big way.

When did a shift from tents and temporary housing to permanent buildings occur?

By the end of the 1930s and certainly the postwar period, the buildings became more permanent in many camps. There were obviously still camps that held true to a real wilderness experience. But a lot of camps started to introduce the comforts of home.

Also, camp environments became more like the suburbs in some ways. The idea for suburban plans was that kids should be able to walk out of their house and wander down a path, and without encountering any cars, find their way to school. They used similar language to talk about the landscape at camp. It was as though each age unit was a suburb, and the city center they went to was the dining hall and the lodge — the places that the entire camp shared. They were similar to suburban layouts, allowing campers just to wander and find themselves where they needed to be.

How consciously have camps promoted nature study in the past?

There's always been some sort of a nature study component. But I think in a lot of ways, early on, the sense was that nature was always there. It would renew itself. Campers were just there to enjoy it, rather than to study it or even to care for it.

Early on, camp was pretty unstructured. In the 1890s, kids went out into nature and did what they wanted to do, with remarkably little adult oversight. Campers were allowed to use their time freely. Of course, we also have to keep in mind that at many camps, just the act of getting food on the table three times a day was the program, because they were roughing it. So early on, mealtime was a bigger part of the programming.

By the 1920s and the interwar period, camp directors began directing play and all kinds of activities. And nature study became part of that. It's interesting to see the rise of the nature cabin, a place where everybody collected specimens and put them on display.

The notion that you actually had to become a steward of the land came in part with the professionalization of camp. There was an emphasis on master planning that happened with professional planning, and part of the goal in the master plan was to acknowledge that the campsite wouldn't just naturally renew itself. And so in some ways, the idea of being a steward for nature arose. But also, thinking about their particular campsite, directors and campers became aware that if they used it too roughly, they'd lose it. The very characteristics that they loved about their campsite would be lost.

Throughout history, in nature study and otherwise, camps have given kids an opportunity to figure out who they are and then to apply things that they have learned in situ. It's a constant learning experience that is prompted primarily by the individual's curiosity. In that sense, it seems to me to be the best kind of education experience.

Originally published in the 2011 September/October Camping Magazine.

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