The Establishment of the Wilderness Camps

July 15th, 2010



My post this week was inspired by the most recent episode of This American Life. If you've ever been a camp counselor or a camper, I highly recommend you download it; I can't tell you how much I laughed. I still keep the letters from my campers in the same file as my college graduation certificate, loan documents, and some original photographs from at late-19th c World's Fair. The podcast, in turn, lead me to think about the institution of summer camps in America. Today, young adults from all over the world come to the states to work at and be part of this uniquely American summer ritual. By delving into the history a bit, I've noticed that many of the founding principles have changed very little.

The first camps were established in the 1880's and aimed to expose young boys to life in the wilderness. Some feared the constraints of the Victorian lifestyle were emasculating young men. To counteract this cultural effect, the early camps had an undomesticated connection with nature. The activities had little planning or supervision, allowing the boys to go on long hikes through the woods, go fishing, and go swimming unsupervised and without lessons, like the photo of boys jumping off a rock face into Lake Champlain. In the early 20th c, boys camps further developed this haven of masculinity by modeling them after an army base, complete with drills, calisthenics, army-like uniforms, and taps. After the romance of war had worn away with WWI, the camps sought more uplifting themes, like Wild West settlement and Native American camps. Interestingly, these themes are still quite common, despite the often politically incorrect activities associated with them. Separate camps were developed for girls with activities fitting their future domestic roles, like basket weaving. A sign of the times, Jewish children were not admitted to the camps for white Christian boys until after WWII, but had similar camps of their own, the largest near Schroon Lake, New York.

Camp Santanoni, the camp I am working to restore this summer, was a private camp, but it embodied many of these early Victorian ideas of wilderness. Robert and Anna Pruyn were an affluent and influential family in Albany, hobnobbing with other leaders of that era, such as J. P. Morgan and Teddy Roosevelt. They built Camp Santanoni in the heart of the rugged Adirondacks in 1893 to reap the benefits of a more pure and simple life in harmony with nature. Traveling two full days by horse and buggy over rough terrain that could barely be categorized as a road, they finally found the freedom that only a rustic wilderness could provide. Here, young women were allowed to let their hair down (figuratively, but most definitely not literally). Though the dress code was still quite strict (street-sweeping skirts, high-neck collars, and activity-appropriate hats), the women who visited Anna Pruyn's camp weren't just encouraged to venture into the outdoors, but were expected to try their hand at any activity in which the men were engaged. They went on hikes, went canoeing, fished, camped in the Adirondack lean-to's, rode horses and shot guns. While this was all exhilarating, from letters and journals written by Anna's niece Huybertie Pruyn, it seems the most exciting aspect of a vacation at Camp Santanoni was the freedom to talk to men without the burdensome supervision that was mandatory for young women during the late 19th c and early 20th c. They played pranks, teased, flirted, danced, and sang. I believe they lived life to the fullest and cherished its most basic joys during their time spent here.

For further reading on the socio-cultural history of American summer camps, A Manufactured Wilderness: A History of the American Summer Camp by Abigail A. Van Slyck is a wonderful resource.

A photographic sideshow from A Manufactured Wilderness.

Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics

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