Organized Camping Movement

Organized Camping Movement

The organized camping movement was a distinctively American solution in the larger child-saving movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century. As the cities swelled with displaced families, undesirable child labor and crowded living conditions fueled several movements to save the children and raise a moral generation of citizens. The play and playground movement, the children's museum movement, and the organized camping movement were three of these movements designed to “improve the lives of children suffering from debilitating living conditions in cities, develop civic responsibility, sharpen physical and social skills, bond with nature, and enhance the intellect.”1

One reason the organized camping movement was distinctly American was due to their agrarian dictated school schedule.2 While Britain and Europe had nearly year round school calendars, America's schools ended in early spring to allow children to help on the family farm. When the population shifted to cities, this pattern was retained even though there was no longer a need for the time off from their studies. Naturally it was into these idle months that the social reformers organized outdoor activities to replace the previous generation's farm lessons.

Influences on the Organized Camping Movement

Henry David Thoreau, George W. Sears, and Rev. W.H.H. Murray wrote of the joys of nature and outdoor adventures during the 1840s and the 1850s. These romanticized ideals were furthered by boys' imitation of the outdoor life and training of the soldiers of the Mexican and the Civil Wars. One early organized camping experience came in 1861 during the Civil War when Mr. and Mrs. Frederick William Gunn satisfied the Gunnery schoolboys' desire for “marching and outdoor life” with a 40 mile trip and two weeks of camping near New Haven, Connecticut.3 This outdoor experience was repeated in 1863 and 1865, and between 1872 and 1884 a two week camp experience became part of the school's curriculum.

Other early camp experiences included a YWCA Camp Sea Rest established in 1874 for young women factory workers,4 a School of Physical Culture tent camp started by Dr. Joseph Trimble Rothrock in 1876 for “weakly” boys, and a boys' religious gathering, the Good Will Encampments, founded by Rev. G. W. Hinckley in 1880.5 However, some researchers indicate that the organized camping movement began with Ernest Balch's Camp Chocorna in 1881, due to its influence on other camps at the time and thereafter.6

Early Camps for Boys

Camp Chocorna was a democratic, primitive camp where the counselors and boys lived by the same standard: that all camp work must be done by them, including all the cooking and camp maintenance. The boys were also to “master” the lake by learning to swim, dive, sail, and canoe. During the second year, the camp lessons for the largely rich children in Ernest's private camp extended to an in-camp monetary system that allowed only a 25 cent weekly allowance and money earned at camp work rates. The boys were very motivated to contract extra jobs to earn the materials, costing from $3-$6, to make their own canoe.7 The camp newspaper, the Golden Rod, captured the details of camp life for the boys and all other interested social reformers.

Nearby Camp Harvard, later known as Camp Asquam, was started in 1882 with similar conditions except that they had a cook for their meals. In 1885 the YMCA Camp Dudley was established by Mr. Sumner F. Dudley at Orange Lake and the following year Camp Algonquin was founded by Edwin DeMeriette. Both of these camps lasted for decades though their inspiration, Camp Chocorna, closed after just 9 years. The YMCA network of associations and their publications, The Watchman and Association Boys, assisted in spreading the organized camping movement throughout the United States. By 1900 this movement, driven by “a powerful sympathy and understanding of the needs of boyhood” involved three kinds of summer camps: the “natural science” educational camps, the religious toned camps, and the private camps for well-to-do families.8

Early Camps for Girls

Within this movement was a similar movement on behalf of the needs of girls. Dr. and Mrs. Luther Gulick established their own family type camp in 1888 at which girls were included from the beginning. Camp Arey, a New York private camp, began including sessions for girls in 1892 and a decade later in 1902, Miss Laura Mattoon launched Camp Kehonka just for girls in Woliboro, New Hampshire.9 Many more girls' camps followed during this expansion period of the organized camping movement resulting in 125 camps for girls by 1925.10

In 1905, Calvin Lewis, a Brooklyn educator, captured the expansion period thusly: “Summer camps for boys constitute a new but rapidly growing feature of American Education. A generation ago they were rare. …. During the past decade camps have sprung up all over the country, and aside from being a mere convenience they are coming to be regarded as a valuable part of a city boy's education.”11

The Camp Directors Association of America (CDAA) was organized in 1910 to support the organized camping movement for boys. Since membership was restricted to men, the women leading the movement for girls, such as Harriet Gulick and Laura Mattoon, formed the National Association of Directors of Girls' Private Camps (NADGPC) in 1916. They soon broadened their membership beyond private camps and became known as the National Association of Directors of Girls' Camps (NADGC).

Both the CDAA and the NADGC held separate conferences to develop, promote, and establish camps as an educational necessity. It was at the NADGC 1922 yearly conference that Charles Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard, made the bold statement, “The organized summer camp is the greatest contribution America has made to education.”12 His statement was later echoed in William G. Vinal's statement that “camping is the missing link in education to-day.”13

4-H, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts

During this time period, the structure of the Woodcraft Indian program, the Boy Scout movement, the Camp Fire Girls founded by the Gulicks, and the 4-H camps shaped and spread the movement. By the 1930s the categories of camps had broadened to include public school camps, city camps organized by recreational departments, 4-H camps, settlement house camps, camps for malnourished and tubercular children, and organization-based camps such as for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Camp Fire Girls.14 World War I added a militaristic influence with the Citizens' Military Training Camps of the 1920s.

The two camp director organizations joined forces in 1924 and became the Camp Directors Association (CDA). As they struggled to serve the diverse needs of the young camping movement, the CDA evolved again in 1935 to become the American Camping Association. Seventy years later, in 2005, they would become the American Camp Association.15

The organized camping movement has similarly evolved from scattered beginnings through diversely focused organizations and challenging economic times to become in the 1950s an accepted American tradition. Since then, the movement has continued to evolve with the needs of society by specializing, adapting to new technology, and contributing to the reintroduction of nature into children's lives.16 In these ways the organized camping movement continues to be a solution to societal threats to child development and optimal growth.

  • 1. Frost, Joe L. A History of Children's Play and Play Environments. New York: NY: Routledge. 2010. p. 247.
  • 2. Ward, Carlos Edgar. Organized Camping and Progressive Education. Galax, VA: C.E. Ward. 1935. p. 7.
  • 3. Op.cit., Ward. pp. 4-5.
  • 4. Yerkes, Rita. “His Story, Her Story, Our Story: 100 Years of the American Camp Association.” American Camp Association. < > 3 Aug. 2012.
  • 5. Op.cit., Ward. pp. 5-6.
  • 6. Op.cit., Ward. p. 8.
  • 7. Op.cit., Ward. pp. 8-12.
  • 8. Op.cit., Ward. pp. 19-20.
  • 9. Op.cit., Ward. p. 21.
  • 10. Op.cit., Yerkes.
  • 11. Op.cit., Ward. p. 22.
  • 12. Op.cit., Yerkes.
  • 13. Ready, Marie M. “The Organized Summer Camp.” Physical Education Series No. 7: Department of the Interior Bureau of Education. 1926. < > 2 Aug. 2012.
  • 14. Op.cit., Ward, p. 28-30 and Ready.
  • 15. Op.cit., Yerkes.
  • 16. Ozier, Lance. “Camp: At the Crossroads of America's Past and Future.” American Camp Association. < > 2 Aug. 2012.