Children's nature: Summer camps in New York State, 1919–1941

TitleChildren's nature: Summer camps in New York State, 1919–1941
Publication TypeMiscellaneous
Year of Publication2000
AuthorsParis, L
ISBN Number9780599680173, 0599680172
KeywordsAmerican history, American studies, Camps, Children, New York, Recreation, SOCIAL SCIENCES, Summer camps

My dissertation tells the history of interwar summer camps in New York State, and provides insight into the lives of the New York City children who attended them. Widely disparate groups shared the belief that rural spaces offered a healthy antidote to city living, and proposed that camps were especially suited to teach children the arts of social acculturation and good citizenship. The children of recent immigrants and the native-born; union activists and socialists; Protestants, Jews and Catholics; and children of all races and classes–-to varying degrees, all of these boys and girls shared this rite of passage. They did not, however, usually share camps; as the history of summer camps suggests, communal self-segregation could be taken to new heights in rural spaces. In camping-conscious New York City, perhaps one out of seven children attended camp at some point. Camping in New York State, meanwhile, serves as an ideal example of a national industry in expansion; by the late 1920s, the Empire State surpassed all others in the quantity of camps operating within its borders. Using a wide range of sources–-settlement house and youth group records, camp brochures, industry journals, films, letters home, camp newspapers and photographs, and oral histories of ex-campers and camp directors–-I explain camps as trans-generational phenomena shaped by the mutual will of children and adults. Camps mobilized nostalgic visions of nature and primitive life alongside modern ideologies of childhood and contemporary popular culture. They were, in effect, hybrid cultural spaces, where children "played Indian" one day and dressed as film stars the next. The return to nature and the fiction of pre-modernity were only thinkable in relation to the industrializing present, with which camps were in constant dialogue. Chapter one examines the expansion of camping prior to 1919. Chapter two considers the varied urban networks, both commercial and communal, through which interwar children came to camp. Chapter three explores the demarcation of camp community through ritual and routine, and considers camper dissent. Chapter four discusses how "pioneer life" served the conjoined impulses of tradition and progress. Chapter five analyzes the centrality of racialized, nostalgic primitivism. Chapter six traces the effects of popular culture, particularly film, in camp life.