Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp

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Leslie Paris
New York University Press
364 pages. $39.

America’s summer camp movement started in the late 1800s, when private and religious camps for boys reclaimed the pioneer ideals in reaction to industrialization. Rugged outdoor experiences were meant to build manliness and moral fiber. By 1910, Boy Scout camps combined wilderness skills with patriotic values. Girls’ camps flourished with the advent of the Camp Fire Girls (1911) and the Girl Scouts (1912), adding feminine activities, such as sewing, to nature and sports.

This dense social history shows how camps in the early 1900s reflected the spreading idea of childhood as a protected time of freedom and innocence, coinciding with the first child-care professionals and the first book about adolescent development. Youth voices include 15-year-old camper Augie Meier, who wrote an official 16-page history of the Pioneer Youth Camp in New Jersey in 1938 – along with a 700-page underground account featuring “spicy” tales of boys visiting girls’ tents.

This study ends in the early 1940s. The author devotes just a few pages to post-war camps. By the 1990s, nearly one-fifth of them the nation’s camps had closed. Today, 7 million young people attend camps, where old traditions persist along with new specialties such as weight loss and computers. (212) 992-9991,