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Early Camp

Born out of American industrialization, anti-modern anxiety, and the desire for a “life out of doors” from 1870 to 1929, the first American summer camps served a few thousand youths through various youth-centered activities, including wilderness exploration, swimming, and camp craft. Eventually, summer camps would begin to include arts and crafts, primarily girls' camps and camps for Jewish children. The first significant inclusion of this type of programming happened at Laura Mattoon’s Camp Kehonka in 1902. Campers participated in ceramics, weaving,  chair caning, bookbinding, jewelry making, and woodworking. As the years progressed, so did the creation of prominent youth organizations, including the YMCA, the Boy Scouts of America, the YWCA, the Girl Scouts of America, Camp Fire Girls, and 4-H. Because most of these organizations were segregated, summer camps for children of color, like the Harlem Summer Camps funded by the Fresh Air Funds movement, also began to emerge.

 As seen through data collected from A Summer in the Girls Camp by Anna Worthington Coale (1919) and Porter Sargent’s Handbook of Summer Camp (1926), we know that a substantial number of these camps (primarily girls camps) included arts and crafts activities on their schedules. These activities included beadwork (headbands and necklaces), basketry work (reed and raffia), ceramics and pottery, stenciling, painting, block printing, wool embroidery and needlecraft, knitting, studies in color/design, carpentry and wood carving, weaving, rug making, metal work and jewelry, fabric dyeing, leather work, photography, sewing and costume making, and bookbinding. Proper budgeting for arts and crafts programming was suggested to camp directors. Also, many camps’ advertisements at this time offered arts and crafts programming (using like-terms such as handicrafts, handcrafts, arts, crafts, etc.), many of which were taught by staff specializing in the arts and education. Many choices in activities and programming can be linked to art education in the U.S. during this time. 

Just as U.S. summer camps were in their infancy, so too was the field of art education. By 1883, the National Education Association had established the “Department of Art Education” and many public and private schools taught visual art practices. Many educators began writing and publishing for the first time, giving other educators and the general public suggestions for teaching visual art to youth. Davis Press, a prominent art education publisher of SchoolArts Magazine in the early 20th century (and today), described that applied arts, manual arts, or handicrafts were most popular among youth—something camp directors began to observe and include in their camps. Many summer camp directors suggested reading lists, including work by prominent art educators and from publishers like SchoolArts Magazine. For example, in the 1929 Girl Scout Manual, the suggested crafts activities to earn a Craftsman Symbol badge included: tie-dyeing, block printing, stenciling, crochet, cross-stitch, darning, weaving, baskets, appliqué, pottery, posters, China painting, and decorations, and the suggested reading included the SchoolArts Magazine article, “Arts Crafts for Beginners.” The inclusion of art and crafts programming in summer camps and the type of activities supported by research from the field of art education would only continue to grow and evolve in the coming years.

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Dr. Joseph Trimble Rothrock with 1876 campers at his School of Physical Culture.

(Photo originally published courtesy David S. Keiser, in Henry W. Gibson, Camp Management: A Manual on Organized Camping [New York: Greenberg, 1923, rev. 1939]; Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp, Leslie Paris, 2008)


The Industrial Age & the White Antimodern Anxiety

In order to understand how Arts and Crafts programming found its home in summer camps in the United States, it is helpful to understand the context in which summer camps were created. In the 1870s, America went through a lot of changes to its physical, cultural, social, and political landscapes. As the Industrial Age led to a boom in jobs and revenue, it also led to an influx of families leaving their rural communities in hopes of a prosperous life in larger cities. Millions of immigrants traveled to the U.S. at this time, chasing the ‘promise of a new life’. Those in positions of power (majority white, male, and wealthy) began to feel threatened, worrying that a more diverse environment would destroy their assumed natural leadership roles in society.¹ That mindset, along with a declining birth rate of white Americans, led to a general “white antimodern anxiety.” (Paris, 2008)


The Pioneers of Summer Camp

While the names of

  • Frederick William Gunn (“father of American summer camps” with Camp Gunnery in 1861)

  • Ernest Balch (leader of the “first organized summer camp” in 1881 with Camp Chocorua)

  • Dr. Joseph Rothrock (North Mountain School of Physical Culture in 1876)

  • The Gulick (family of camp directors, claimed to have pioneered the Camp Fire Girls program and the Y.M.C.A. program in the United States)

  • Reverend George Hinkley (creator of the first church-sponsored boys' camp in 1880)

  • Winthrop T. Talbot (director of the “first commercially successful summer camp” in 1884)

  • Sumner Francis Dudley (founder of one of the first American Y.M.C.A. camps in 1885), and

  • G. Stanely Hall (influential and highly controversial child development researcher)

are significant in the historical accounts of youth summer camps in the U.S., it wasn't until the summer of 1902 at Camp Kehonka, that the first major inclusion of arts and crafts activities occurred under the direction of Laura Mattoon.

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Sumner Dudley and campers, 1894.

(Courtesy Camp Dudley; Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp, Leslie Paris, 2008)


Trends in Art Education

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Arts and Crafts Manual Training Movement, 1870s, The Eliot School, Boston, MA

(Courtesy The Boston Calendar)

In the decades leading up to Camp Kehonka, the U.S. education system experienced many changes, particularly with the introduction and inclusion of art in education. In May of 1870, Massachusetts legislators approved the Massachusetts Drawing Act. It was the first statewide law of its kind, declaring drawing instruction a vital part of public school education. Around this time, the Manual Training Movement, or the training of industrial drawing, “trade training,” and practical skills of woodworking and metalwork became popular in American society and integrated into general education. These changes coincided with a deeper appreciation for the arts as they spread nationwide through the release of new publications and instructional art books, and more people could view art in traveling art exhibits or art museums. 


Youth Organizations & Camping

Despite all the significant developments in American summer camp programs, by the end of the 19th century, fewer than 100 camps existed. These camps served an estimated few thousand campers. (This would later increase to 15% of all children in the interwar years.) Most camps at this time were located near major Northeastern industrial cities, including New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Vermont, and Connecticut. They were sparse through rural agricultural hubs and small towns in the rest of the United States.

As the U.S. moved into the 20th century, a few hundred private camps were in operation, 90% of which were also located in the Northeast. These camps typically served the same "type" of camper, predominantly white from upper-middle-class families. Children of color, those of lower socioeconomic status, or those living in rural regions of the U.S. had limited opportunities to experience summer camp. But, thanks to the establishment of a few notable youth organizations, summer camps became widely accessible and affordable, serving tens of thousands of boys and girls nationwide in the summertime. “According to Hanson and Carlson (1972), all of the major youth agencies which existed in the early 1970s were in operation by 1915”. (Eells, 1986)

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Girls Camp: Camp Wyonegonic, ME, 1908


(Courtesy Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp, Leslie Paris, 2008)


Art Appreciation in Girls' Camps

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Girls Camp: Aloha Camp, VT, 1910s

(Courtesy Eleanor Eells' History of Organized Camping: The First 100 Years, Eleanor Eells, 1986)

While the origins of arts and crafts programming in summer camps can be traced back to various camps, girls' camps were significant in the first major inclusion of the arts in these spaces. The emphasis on self-expression and the creative arts was strong because the directors were "cultured, feminine (as well as feminine) women who cared about and shared their love for literature, music and dance and the Arts" (Eells, 1986).

In a conversation described in Eleanor Eells' History of Organized Camping: The First 100 Years, Helen Rosenthal, a later owner/director of Camp Pinecliffe, was asked why there was such an emphasis on the Arts in the early girls' camps. "In a poetic and sensitive way, she [Rosenthal] commented that the artistic expression comes naturally and spontaneously in the solitude and beauty of the woods. The changing clouds, the waving branches, the waves on the lake, and the rhythm of nature invite expression. A leader has only to foster and nourish it."


Camp Directors Association (CDA) & the Promotion of Camp

The Camp Directors Association of America (CDAA) and the National Association of Directors of Girls Camps (NADGC) continued to meet separately to develop and promote camps in the early 20th century. As society became more open to women's potential for work outside of the home, representatives of both organizations began exploring mutual interests and a possible merger with each other. In 1924, after much discussion, the CDAA and the NADGC merged forces to create the Camp Directors Association (CDA). By joining together in this new structure, camp directors and leaders believed that they could become a "major" power to make the American public aware of the educational contributions of the camp experience to our children and country.


George L. Meylan (1903).

First Preseident of CDA, 1924.

Alan S. Williams, CDAA Foudner, 1910.



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Camp Kehonka camper, 1920s 

(Courtesy Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp, Leslie Paris, 2008)

Educational Possibilities of Summer Camp

At the National Association of Directors of Girls’ Camps annual meeting in 1922, Dr. Charles Eliot (a well-known educator and leading member of the Committee of Ten for school reformation) gave a speech titled “The Value of Camping.” Laura Mattoon (acting secretary of the NADGC) noted that Eliot stated, “camps provide experience in the use of hand tools in Arts and Crafts shop” and that “the organized summer camp is the greatest contribution America has made to education." Though this speech serves as an immediate recognition of the power of arts programs in summer camps, many other notable documents provide insight into the integration of these programs (Yerkes, 2010)

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