"‘An Ideal Life in the Woods for Boys’": Architecture and Culture in the Earliest Summer Camps," by W. Barksdale Maynard, in Winterthur Portfolio (Spring 1999), Univ. of Chicago Press, Journals Division, P.O. Box 37005, Chicago, Ill. 60637.
With the approach of Labor Day each year, some four million children return home from more than 7,000 summer camps throughout the United States. Now often a way for working parents to keep their vacationing offspring occupied, summer camp once was intended to serve a more overtly character-building purpose: giving boys from affluent families an antidote, in the form of nature, to the corrupting influences of urban life. Maynard, an art historian at the Delaware College of Art and Design, explains how summer camp became a treasured American institution.
Springing from a long tradition of rural boarding schools, the summer camp was established on an entirely separate basis for the first time in 1881. Ernest Balch, a Dartmouth College student, founded Chocorua on a small wooded island in Squam Lake, New Hampshire. This "utopian experiment in the physical and moral education of boys," says Maynard, began with a single house and six boys, and grew to serve more than 30 boys. "Camp architecture . . . toed the line between nature and culture, wildness and civility." In shanties that a visitor described as "pretty much all roof and piazza," the boys had a protected view of nature, Maynard notes, while "a blazing fire in the hearth" inside "offered a reassuring, homelike ambience." The camp operated for nine summers. In the end, however, Chocorua proved a financial disaster, ultimately costing Balch $8,000.
But the venture inspired imitation. In 1885, John F. Nichols, a Massachusetts divinity student, founded Camp Harvard at Rindge in southern New Hampshire. Two years later, the camp—renamed Asquam—moved to a forested hilltop overlooking Squam Lake. Asquam became "the flagship of the early camping movement, a high-profile institution catering to the sons of rich and influential families," Maynard says. At Asquam, the now-familiar title "counselor" came into use. But in 1899, the camp made the mistake of setting up a winter session to complement the summer one. "The result was financial ruin and the demise of both versions of Asquam in 1909," says Maynard.
Fortunately, the Asquam system had spread, leading to an "explosive growth in camping, from about 20 programs in 1890 to some 500 by 1905." The "most successful and influential" camp modeled on Asquam, Maynard says, was Pasquaney, also located in New Hampshire. Founded by Yale University alumnus Edward S. Wilson in 1895, the camp served the "scions of prominent Eastern families" and itself inspired at least a dozen other institutions, including the "first girls’ camp of importance," Redcroft, in 1900. Pasquaney continues to thrive today. In 1997, a total of 101 boys from seven countries attended.
Summer camps came into existence as part of the "back to the country" movement that grew out of anxieties about idleness and soft urban life around the turn of the century. It also produced the YMCA camps, the Boy Scouts (imported from England in 1910), and the Camp Fire Girls. For youths who spent their summers in the rustic settings, the experience was often memorable. Diplomat William C. Bullitt, a former Pasquaney boy who attended Yale and Harvard Law School, later said that Pasquaney stood alone as "the best educational institution in the United States."