Girls in Tents

Now that Memorial Day has passed, many American children will be participating in a time-honored activity: summer camp. As we have become more urbanized, the lure of the outdoors has become stronger. For many of us, memories of the smell of the campfire, sleeping under the stars, sack races and swimming contests are some of the happiest of our childhoods. And in great part, we have women of the late-Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries to thank for the concept, implementation and endurance of the American summer camp.

The Industrial Revolution of the Nineteenth century spawned the Fresh Air Movement in response to the growth of cities and the hazards of factory work. Begun largely by church groups, these activities were aimed at the welfare of children and adolescents. The concept was that even short exposure to the natural environment coupled with exercise and “wholesome” activities were essential to strengthen moral and physical fiber of America. It was out of this movement that summer camps were created.

In 1874, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) started a camp for “ladies” in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Sea Rest, as it was called, was created specifically for “tired young women wearing out their lives in an almost endless drudgery for wages that admit no thought of rest or recreation.” This was marketed as a low-cost summer “resort” for a new class of women who worked outside the home. This camp predated the first Young Men’s Christian Associate (YMCA) camp by eleven years.

In 1902, teacher Laura Mattoon started Camp Kehonka in rural New Hampshire (it is now the longest-running girls’ camp in the United States). Mattoon was head of Science at New York City’s Veltin School for girls who wanted to provide her students with an education which only the outdoors could offer.  The girls “slept in tents, built their own furniture, and swam and hiked in New Hampshire’s pristine lakes and mountains.” Mattoon also provided her students with bifurcated skirts, similar to today’s “skort,” so that the girls could move more freely in communion with nature. It’s important to remember how revolutionary this was in view of the mixed success of the “Turkish” pants designed by Amelia Bloomer to help liberate women a mere fifty years earlier.

In 1910, Charlotte and Luther Gulick established a non-sectarian girls’ camp, Camp Wohelo, in Maine. It was Charlotte Gulick who coined the term “Wohelo,” an anagram for “Work, Health, Love” and it was she who developed the detailed curriculum for camp activities. This effort would eventually lead to the formation of the Camp Fire Girls, now known as Camp Fire USA.

And no women-in-camping piece would be complete without mentioning the Girl Scouts, who celebrate their 100th anniversary this year. Juliette Gordon Lowe made it her life’s work to enrich the lives of American girls, part of which was to instill in them a love of the outdoors. The first Girl Scout camp was held by Lowe herself in Atlanta, Georgia in 1912.

While camps for boys and young men were also developed during the Fresh Air Movement, camps for young women and girls seem to have predated many of them in the United States.  This reflects a shift in values away from the Victorian-era belief that women belonged only in the domestic sphere. Summer camps developed as holistic, character-building venues for girls and young women to balance their new roles in a wider world.

(Special thanks to the Camp Kehonka blog for information about Laura Mattoon)

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