Friday, July 24, 2020

Summer Camps for American Children in the 19th Century

In the years following the American Civil War, many families left the farm and moved to cities. They went to obtain employment that added to the national economy but was often in a mechanized or industrialized job. Taking up residence in the city often meant a smaller house than the family had previously, and it definitely meant the land they claimed as theirs was more constrained than before. If a family lived in an apartment building, little outdoor space was available for children to play. Parents grew concerned that their sons weren’t having the experiences deemed necessary to grow into manhood. Although misguided by today’s standards, they believed a boy or male youth who spent too much time indoors would become feminized. They also worried that exposure to only city life could lead to a corrupt or morally deficient lifestyle.
swimmers at boys' camp courtesy of

Religious and community leaders heard the parents’ pleas and the initial push was to open camps so boys could reconnect with nature, which would aid them to grow into better men. Parents believed attendance at these camps would build character and sought to enroll their sons in the few camps that were established in the 1870s-1880s. One such place was Camp Chocorua in New Hampshire established by Ernest Balch, a student of Dartmouth College. The activities—fishing, target shooting, rowing, swimming, climbing trees, sports—were geared to strengthen bodies as well as develop leadership skills. Education was also part of the activities, including lessons on moral behavior. The first camps were attended by children of the wealthy, and by the turn of the century the estimated number of camps is 100.

1897 baseball team courtesy of
Within a decade, that number swelled to 1,000 camps, opening opportunities to children of middle- and lower-class families. In 1920, the American Camp Association was founded, and the association worked to achieve certification for more regimented activities and health standards. Not until World War I did organizers have the realization that girls could benefit from summer camps. The curriculum, however, was quite different with the focus on life skills like cooking, sewing, and preparing for motherhood.

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