Learning From Lakamaga: Why an Architectural Historian Cares About Summer Camps

January 2007

Whenever I tell people that my research deals with the history of summer camps, they smile. Undoubtedly some of the smiles are triggered by fond camp memories: the smell of pine, perhaps, or the taste of s’mores. But sometimes (I suspect) the smiles serve to hide a certain amount of confusion about what summer camps have to do with architectural history. If we are thinking of the most conventional definition of the field — a history of innovative works designed by architects of genius — then that confusion is warranted. This is not to say that architects have never designed summer camps. They have — they do — often producing buildings of some quality. But if we are primarily interested in documenting cutting edge experiments in aesthetic theory, Camp Lakamaga — an exemplary Girl Scout camp in eastern Minnesota — would not be our first stop.

My interest in summer camps grows from a different vision of architectural history, particularly a conviction that we can do more with the methods of architectural history than simply trace the workings of genius. On one hand, I believe that we can look seriously at a wider range of buildings, including the mundane, run-of-the-mill buildings that scholars in my field call vernacular architecture. On the other — and for me, this is the more important point — we can also elicit more from all kinds of buildings. Instead of interpreting buildings solely in light of the architect’s interests and aptitudes, we can also glean from them new insights into the cultural aspirations and institutional priorities that caused them to be built in the first place.

Commonplace social institutions are of particular interest, their numbers alone suggesting their importance to the many people who invested time and effort in seeing them built. Ultimately, my goal is to see what buildings and their larger settings—what we call the cultural landscape — can tell us about human society that we might not grasp as fully if we limited ourselves to the written record.

Camps fit well within this framework. They are commonplace institutions that sprouted up in growing numbers since camps were first established in the 1880s. The American Camp Association (ACA) currently accredits more than 2,400 camps and at least 1,700 of which are residential camps — the focus of my study — although ACA also estimates that only about 25 percent of camps seek accreditation. As a result, millions of children have some summer camp experience. Among social institutions, only public schools have touched the lives of more youth.

For the past ten years, I have been studying the cultural landscape of American summer camps, and have recently completed a book titled, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960, published in October 2006 by the University of Minnesota Press. The camps I have studied are a heterogeneous lot, including private camps, camps with religious affiliations, camps organized by social service agencies, and camps sponsored by youth organizations. In addition to archival and library research into camp records and brochures, construction documents, period photographs, and the prescriptive literature on camp planning, I have studied firsthand camps in three major camping regions: the Northeast and the neighboring sections of Canada (where many of the earliest camps were located); the Southeast and especially the Blue Ridge Mountains (whose high altitudes offered cooler summertime temperatures); and the upper Midwest, with particular emphasis on Minnesota (where many of the state’s fabled ten thousand lakes provided waterfront facilities for summer camps).

Yet the study does not pretend to offer an exhaustive coverage of all camps. For one thing, I have deliberately excluded family camps and well-baby camps, which also served adult campers, thus requiring very different living arrangements. Nor does it consider special needs camps or skill-based camps that flourished after 1960. Yet, even within these restrictions, the sheer number of residential camps in North America makes a comprehensive history impossible.

While it would have been possible to impose geographical limitations on the topic or to restrict my focus to the camp activities of a single youth organization (like the YMCA or the Girl Scouts), my research convinced me that such approaches would diminish the effectiveness of this study. From my first forays into the archives of the YMCA, it became clear that the organizational boundaries between youth organizations were extremely permeable, as camp advocates associated with one group readily shared their expertise to another. (Edgar G. Robinson, for instance, served as the YMCA’s first International Secretary of Boys’ Work between 1901 and 1922, while simultaneously fulfilling the role of executive secretary of the fledgling Boy Scouts for some months in 1910. Likewise, Luther Halsey Gulick, first secretary for physical work for the International Committee of the YMCA, also established Camp Wohelo in Maine, a private camp for girls, where he and his wife, Charlotte Vetter Gulick, worked out the program for another new youth organization, Camp Fire Girls.) Equally important, discussions of camp planning between organizations and across regional boundaries took place for decades, and especially after the reorganization of ACA in 1935. In short, theorizing about the camp landscape and its impact on camp program was widespread; a study that looked at a discrete subset of camps ran the risk of overstating their singularity.

Instead of attempting to construct a chronological narrative that would inevitably be incomplete, the book investigates major trends in camp-planning practices between 1890 and 1960 in light of their impact on the construction of childhood. Six chapters dissect the camp landscape into its major functional components, the better to identify the range of factors that affected each one.

The first chapter considers the metaphors that helped shape the camp landscape as a whole. Established in response to turn-of-the-century concerns about the emasculating impact of the feminized home, early boys’ camps often evoked army life, housing campers in tents pitched around a square parade ground that served as the setting for reveille, calisthenics, inspection, taps, and other military rituals. Although the Great War had initially heightened enthusiasm for such military trappings at camp, its carnage eventually prompted many camp organizers to look to the past for motifs that would enhance the romantic appeal of camp without also evoking the painful realities of international strife. Particularly popular were forms associated with the settling of the American frontier — Native American tipis and council rings, as well as pioneer stockades and other log buildings.

In contrast, by the 1940s, child development philosophies emphasized an extended period of childhood and helped redirect the focus of camp directors on cocooning children in a bucolic, strife-free, version of nature. Camp planners (who were just beginning to emerge as a distinct profession) provided dramatically new forms for the camp landscape. Using curving paths and lush plantings that blend into the natural surroundings, they adopted the same picturesque design principles that their professional colleagues in city planning had begun to advocate for child-centered suburbs. Natural-looking paths allowed children to roam the grounds on foot, unaware of the amount of planning expertise that guided their steps.

At the same time, summer camps offered a unique perspective from which to consider the transformation of the rural landscape in the twentieth century. At one level, camps seem to have played a passive role, occupying land deemed unnecessary to the capitalist economy, either because it was too distant from urban centers for residential development, because it was no longer cost-effective to farm, or because it had been cleared of lumber. Yet, camps could also serve as catalysts for landscape change; by attracting vacationing parents to near-by resorts, they fueled lakeside development. Even more important to twentieth-century attitudes about the wilder parts of nature, camps have served as manufactured versions of a wilderness experience that parents buy for their children, even as their own patterns of land-use (particularly urbanization and suburbanization) eradicated the real thing.

Whatever the setting, the camp experience centered on a range of recreational activities—what today we collectively call the camp program. At the very earliest camps, most program activities were carried out in natural settings where human intervention was minimal: a tramp in the woods, a dip in the lake, a campfire on the shore. Soon enough, however, camps began adding more and more activities to fill the day and providing specially designed program areas in which to carry them out. Whether at the waterfront, in nature and crafts cabins, around the campfire circle, or on the playing fields, there has been a growing tendency to control play in order to remove its physical danger, what education scholar Brian Sutton-Smith has called “the domestication of play.”

In fact, the summer camp is an ideal site to consider the complexity of this phenomenon, given that camps themselves were established to counteract the domestication of play that had started in middle-class Victorian homes. Yet, camps have not been immune from this more general cultural trend to protect children from the dangers of play. Both the professionalization of camp directing and the parallel development of camp accreditation standards have pushed camp organizers to arrange the physical environment in ways that will all but guarantee campers’ safety. Considered in this light, the continued appropriation of Native American motifs may be a means of lending an exotic flavor to games that have become remarkably tame.

Sites associated with cooking and eating were equally important to any well-run camp. Not only were wholesome meals essential for building up the physical strength of campers, but mealtime rituals were also important mechanisms for camp socialization, whether teaching the essentials of gentility through good table manners or reinforcing camp loyalty through the singing of camp songs. Meals were also moments when camp directors reinforced their ideas of appropriate gender roles for male and female campers.

Early twentieth-century camps often served meals in mess halls, which adopted both the military’s nomenclature and its use of long tables to pre-sort diners into chow lines. Despite its masculine associations, the mess hall was popular at early girls’ camps, which were eager to demonstrate that camping could help create a new kind of self-reliant girl who was as disciplined, patriotic, and as useful as her brother — albeit in her own way. Thus, while campers of both sexes were deeply involved in food preparation in the early twentieth century, girls’ camps often positioned themselves as training grounds for future domesticity and often rejected practices (like the dishwashing line) favored at boys’ camps. By mid-century, the mess hall gave way to the dining lodge, a new building type that was less highly charged in terms of gender. There, campers ate family-style at round tables in a dining room that was insulated from kitchen activities. While campers of both sexes had some alimentary chores, they were increasingly isolated from the adult world of labor.

Within this camp landscape, the sites associated with sleeping were considered particularly important in maintaining campers’ good health. Although tents had been widely used to enhance the military flavor of early camps, they fell out of favor in the 1920s when camp directors bolstered their own drive for professional status by consulting the new field of public health for a scientific assessment of this common sleeping accommodation. Alternatives abounded for the next twenty years, as did theories on disease prevention. For those who saw sufficient ventilation as the key to camper health, the answer was the large, tent-cabin with canvas walls. For others, the issue was the spacing between beds, which could be accommodated in the smaller “wooden tents,” built throughout the 1930s under the auspices of the New Deal. Even by this time some camp professionals were becoming increasingly interested in the role camp could play in enhancing campers’ psychological well being. For them, the answer lay in elaborate cabins that included both sleeping and socializing areas, allowing counselors a space in which to assess campers’ emotional health. Featured in the camp planning manuals published by the YMCA, Camp Fire Girls, and Girl Scouts in the late 1940s, such cabins became common features of the camp landscape in the postwar camp-building boom.

The issue of camp sanitation provides an opportunity to delve deeper into the gendered practices of summer camp. Thanks to the germ theory of disease, the need for good camp sanitation was a scientific fact, but the methods for achieving camp cleanliness were highly gendered. At boys’ camps, organizers disdained too great a fastidiousness as a sign of insufficient manliness. In contrast, girls’ camps highlighted housekeeping activities as a major component of camp program, specifying the various steps of each task in such detail that cleaning took on a ritual character extending beyond its requirements for maintaining good health.

By mid-century, ideas about camp cleanliness shifted from the camp environment to campers’ bodies, but they remained highly gendered; boys’ camps emphasized gang sinks, while showers became the norm at girls’ camps, encouraging female campers to wash their entire bodies. To the extent that girls’ camps favored individual showers, they also encouraged female modesty — this despite the fact that the age of campers had dropped steadily throughout the century. Thus, twentieth-century girls carried a double-burden at American summer camps. They may have been encouraged to take on new, more self-sufficient roles at camp, but they were simultaneously expected to maintain high standards of cleanliness — both for their surroundings and for themselves.

Particularly noteworthy is the introduction of Native American motifs into the camp landscape, especially the Native American council rings that became a widespread feature of camp life in the interwar period. Popularized by naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton as the material expression of the orderliness and community orientation of Native American life, the council ring fostered a new appreciation for Native American culture, even as it supported the idea of Indians as a dying race, denying contemporary realities of Native American life and reinforcing white dominance. At the same time, its rituals allowed children from different European ethnicities to assume — at least temporarily — a common racial identity; once campers removed their feather headdresses and war paint, their shared whiteness may have also seemed more evident.

The architecture of summer camps is more complex than we might first imagine. Rudimentary though their forms may be, camp buildings were carefully arranged to enhance the camp’s larger goal, whether fostering physical health, social development, or spiritual well-being of campers. As a result, the buildings themselves highlight attitudes about children and their needs that are only hinted at in written record. Considered in a certain light, there is a great deal to learn from Lakamaga.

Abigail A. Van Slyck, Ph.D., holds the Dayton chair in Art History at Connecticut College, where she also directs the Architectural Studies program. A graduate of Smith College and the University of California at Berkeley (where she earned a Ph.D. in architecture), she is the author of two books: A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960 and Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920.

Originally published in the 2007 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.