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Camping in the Mid Century


During the 1940s and 1950s, organized camps underwent significant growth and development; it is estimated that 1 in 6 American children attended the 12,000 summer camps in operation in the early 1950s. In 1948, the ACA adopted standards for camp accreditation, which were widely recognized by courts of law and government agencies. Camps for special populations also emerged, taking on a more therapeutic role, while school camping and outdoor education gained recognition as an extension of the classroom. The National Park Service also partnered with camps to advocate for conservation education, and by 1950, there were 296 organized camp facilities with the capacity to host 32,457 campers annually. In the late 1950s and 60s, summer camps began to include activities that promoted physical movement and social interaction, sparking a debate between "natural camping" and "inner city camping”. One camp director suggested that successful camping must provide experiences and training that help campers meet the demands of their home and school environments. This idea of bridging the gap between the two became a key focus in order to create positive experiences for all campers. After World War II, the need for racial integration in youth camping became increasingly evident. In 1945, the ACA started to promote intercultural, interracial, interclass, and interfaith camps as a means to develop a democratic character, tolerance, and acceptance of difference. However, it wasn't until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and intentional action from camp director leadership that meaningful progress was made toward interracial camping. This progress did not come without pushback from local/regional divisions of youth organizations around the country.

The start of the Cold War, the launch of Sputnik, and the Space Race of the mid-50s caused a huge change in art education, particularly through massive investment in primary and secondary education. Additionally, service members returning from war exposed the public to classical works of art, and technological advancements like full-color publications and televisions became common household items for the first time, boosting support for the arts. This surge of government funds caused a radical transformation in teacher training for the arts. With more educational publications released than all previous decades combined and the psychology-influenced concept of art education reaching its highest level, art education became an integral part of the U.S. education system. In the 1960s, art educators sought to justify their place in U.S. public education by introducing a more expansive curriculum that included drawing, painting, sculpting, constructing, and other creative crafts. This shift in the field of art education was accompanied by a meaningful examination of social issues relevant to young people with the goal of helping to reform society.

By the 1950s, arts and crafts had cemented their place at summer camps. However, the challenge was maintaining that place and pushing for more; more time and resources, understanding from staff, and respect from directors and colleagues. A popular way to do this was to emphasize creativity, which was a widespread concept in the Atomic Age. Between 1947 and 1968,  Camping Magazine published more than a dozen articles explicitly about cultivating creativity in camps, many of which focused on arts and crafts programming as a vehicle. At this time, camp leaders and educators began to examine and define the important factors of the arts and crafts program, specifically key components to operating an efficient arts and crafts program, defining and recognizing the value of an arts and crafts program, and integrating art in all parts of camp. In the Camping Magazine article “Art in the Camp Environment" (1953) the author states,

"We teach values with things that have value. Somehow, in too many modern camps, arts and crafts have come to occupy a building in which a misunderstood concept that art is “doing projects” prevails…At a time in modern life when we see the creative person shrinking, the new craft shop can take its integral place; it can teach art values with experiences that have art value…If the camp environment is not used for creative growth in the arts and crafts program, no “round” experience is possible".

The arts and crafts staff in camps across the nation encouraged campers to explore their creativity by introducing new and exciting projects that went beyond traditional craft activities or prefabricated kits of years past. Some of these activities included creative crafts with buttons, milk cartons, and other recycled materials, molding ceramic bowls with worn-out records, etching fungus and other natural materials for printmaking, and photograms. Evidence provided through advertisements, scout handbooks, and director guides demonstrates activities promoted and encouraged in popular youth organizations at the time. By defining the value of the arts and crafts program, its activities, and its leaders, all involved gained a clearer sense of belonging, ultimately resulting in an exciting and promising experience for campers of all ages. The following excerpt from "An Approach to Creative Arts and Crafts" article from the February edition of Camping Magazine (1960) captures the strong-willed nature of arts and crafts educators at this time:


"The arts and crafts program has a vital role of its own to play in camp. It should, if properly organized and presented, result in the satisfaction of everyone’s unborn urge to create. It can contribute effectively to the formation of a well-rounded personality. It can provide the camper of every age with pleasurable activities and wholesome, meaningful recreation while he is learning specific skills. Among other things, it may also achieve incidental release from tension and introduce the camper to useful, interesting hobbies that he may profit from later on in his leisure time. Above all, however, it should aim at imparting freely exploratory attitudes towards the creative use of many media. Its overriding purpose should be the stimulation and encouragement of self-expression…In the final analysis, then, the camp program of arts and crafts should be organized to offer the widest possible variety of creative experiences within the means of camp. Materials, equipment, and facilities must be adequate for all needs of the program. It should not be a stop-gap, makeshift afterthought, designed simply to present impressive window dressing to parents. As a vital and integral part of the well-balanced camp, it should never play second-fiddle to any other camp activity".


ACA Standards Consultation, January 1969.

(Courtesy Timeline of ACA and Summer Camp)


The Standardization of Camp and Other Developments

During the 1940s and 1950s, organized camps continued to evolve and grow. In the immediate postwar era, more young married couples chose to have larger families, and the economy was strong, which led to an increase in children attending summer camps. It is estimated that 1 in 6 American children attended camp at the industry’s peak. According to an American Camp Association (ACA) survey in the early 1950s, over 12,000 camps were in operation, serving an estimated 4,000,000 children per year. (Eells, 1986)


Segregated and Integrated Youth Camping

The need for racial integration became more apparent after World War II. According to Leslie Paris (2008)," in 1945, the ACA promoted intercultural, interracial, interclass, and interfaith camps as a means to build democratic character, tolerance, and acceptance of difference." However, it would take many more years, the civil unrest of the 1960s, and intentional camp director leadership before meaningful interracial camping progress was made. 

Despite the increasing push for racial inclusivity in the 1920s by a small number of “self-consciously radical camps,” it remained a challenge to create an integrated camp environment. This was further complicated by the targeted racism and hostility to Jewish and black campers and their families from local communities, such as the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses at Surprise Lake Camp and vandalism at Camp Lehman in the 1910s and 1920s. For many minority parents, their biggest concern was finding a camp where their children would be welcomed rather than the goal of having an integrated camp. Thus, although there was progress in making camping more inclusive, there were still significant barriers to overcome.

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Campers reading comic papers at Camp Nathan Hale, Southfields, NY, 1943.

(Courtesy Library of Congress, Gordon Parks)

Campers at Camp Gaylord White during a rest period, Arden, NY, 1943.

(Courtesy Library of Congress, Gordon Parks)



A school group tours the Dayton Art Institute, 1950s. 

(Courtesy Dayton Art Institute, Flickr)

Trends in Art Education

The 1940s and 1950s saw a profound shift in the way art education was approached in the United States. The Cold War, the launch of Sputnik, and The Space Race of the mid-1950s spurred an eleven-billion dollar increase in primary and secondary public education. This influx of funds allowed for a shift in national attitudes and support of the arts, with service members returning from war exposing the public to great works of art from the past.  In addition, technological advancements led to economically produced full-color publications, and televisions became a fixture in everyday households. With this new support, teacher training for the arts changed drastically, with more publications being released concerning art education than all previous decades combined.


Cultivating Creativity through Summer Camp Arts & Crafts 

By the mid-century, arts and crafts had all but secured its place as a permanent fixture in the majority of summer camps. Building off of the previous decades' success in establishing a place in the camp schedule, the new challenge of the arts and crafts program was to maintain this place and push for more, whether that be [more] understanding by camping personnel, [more] recognition and respect from camp directors, and colleagues, [more] time for dedicated their activities, or [more] money in the budget. One of the most prominent ways this was accomplished was through the idea of creativity, which educators, politicians, and the like were pushing heavily in the atomic age. “Creativity” was a buzzword, particularly in Camping Magazine. Between 1947 and 1968, more than a dozen articles were written explicitly about cultivating creativity in camps and through arts and crafts programming, including titles such as Develop Their Creative Ideas (Part I and II) (May and June 1947), A Creative Approach to the Arts (April 1954), Encourage Creativity (February 1959), An Approach to Creative Arts and Crafts (February 1960), The Role of Camping in Developing Creativeness (April 1964), Enhancing Creativity in Camp (1967), and Crafts Programs Can Be Creative (1968).

Three Crescenta Valley Camp Fire Girls constructing chairs out of tree limbs in Glendale, CA, 1964


(Courtesy UCLA Library Digital Collections)

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Children painting on wall at Camp Tiyatah, a six-week summer home camp at Jewish Community Center, San Francisco, CA, 1957.


(Courtesy San Francisco Public Library)

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Camping Magazine cover, June 1959 edition.

(Courtesy The Internet Archive)


Popular Arts and Crafts at Summer Camp

The arts and crafts staff in camps across the nation encouraged campers to explore their creativity by introducing new and exciting projects that went beyond traditional craft activities or prefabricated kits of years past. Many examples of these activities were found in the Camp Director’s Handbook and Buying Guide, introduced in 1950 by Camping Magazine, scout advertisements, handbooks, and director guides, and Camping Magazine articles. The value of the arts and crafts program, its activities, and its leaders were clearly defined, giving campers of all ages a sense of belonging and creating an exciting and promising experience.

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