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The Rise of the Artist


As the United States transitioned from World War I, The Great Depression impacted the progression and development of camps, just as it did many other organizations and social movements. Many summer camps aided American society at this time helping many people by supplying food, training, and other educational opportunities. Other camps, like Lloyd Burgess Sharp’s experimental summer camp, used this time to explore the modern educational possibilities for youth. In his 5 year experiment from 1924-1930, Sharp found the general welfare of the children attending the camp improved drastically combination of the educational philosophies of John Dewey and other progressive educators and the inclusion of camp standards, programming, and planning. “Arts and Crafts” programming was integral in the experimental camp's girls' and boys’ sections. Art educators in the United States also looked to progressive education and began exploring the field's core philosophies. From the early 1930s to World War II, art education focused deeply on its integral ties to “community life” and found financial and societal support through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the New Deal via a heightened interest in “the artist”. During this time, many visual artists-turned-educators, such as Augusta Savage, helped implement a new type of community art programming for youth, specifically youth of color, with opportunities to engage with professional artists and more advanced mediums and techniques. Researchers began to look at young children’s artwork as a way of understanding child development. In the 1930s, there was a substantial increase in colleges and universities teaching visual art and future visual art educators. By 1941, approximately 2/3 of all colleges and universities in the U.S. included similar programs. Drawing, painting, modeling, sewing, costume design, interior design, and art fundamentals (line, shapes, and spaces)/dark and light (tone, contrast, and color) were common in grade-school visual art curriculums.

In 1935, The Camp Directors Association (CDA) became the American Camp Association (ACA) and faced many challenges in this transition leading up to World War II. The group embarked on numerous philosophical and foundational debates, including conversations directly impacting arts and crafts programming and activities in this era. We can see evidence of this impact in Porter Sargent’s Handbook of Summer Camp (1935), which included a written section describing the significance of arts and crafts programs and their place in summer camps, something not in the previous 1926 edition. There was a dramatic increase of “art” and “crafts” terms included in camp descriptions and a greater number of states promoting these activities. There also was a strong shift to include co-ed camps and younger campers, ages 3-10, in these programs, as opposed to the 1926 edition, where girls' camps for children ages 11-14 dominated.

Ermina Winifred Brown’s graduate research report Changing Trends In Camp Programs: A Study Of Ten California Camps Of The Y.W. C. A., The Girl Scouts, And The Camp Fire Girls (1933) stated that the number of craft activities increased to provide choice for campers in the ten camps. The report also states that in 1929, one particular camp adopted a “project system” where each girl chose a “major project and two minor ones each week.” Handcraft and photography were two options for “majors”. With a more widespread integration of these activities also came the incorporation of crafts activities centered on euro-centric and stereotyped American Indian and Indigenous cultural practices. The complexities of this period illustrate the challenging conversation of appropriation and appreciation of Indigenous culture in U.S. summer camps, most commonly seen through camp-wide craft activities of creating totem poles, headdresses, and costumes, programming such as “Indian counselor training” in “traditional Indian craft,” and art educator, Dorothy Dunn’s art-making classes at the Santa Fe Indian School in the 1930s.

The New Deal and WPA programs provided many permanent residences for summer camps in the late 1930s and early 1940s through state and national parks, including designated buildings for arts and crafts, commonly referred to as “craft house(s)”. Campers at this time were still participating in similar arts and crafts activities seen in decades past but also began to expand on these activities in more creative and adventurous ways. Details about arts and crafts programs and activities, general attitudes for or against these programs, and specific perspectives from campers, counselors, and leaders at this time are abundant in the Camping Magazine. In summary, the expansion of materials and access to those materials fluctuated throughout the war. Through the creativity of leaders, educators, and counselors, foundational activities from years past tripled in size, adding new mediums, techniques, and art-making methods, including soap and candle making, paper mâché, metal and clay casting, felt embroidery and crafts, boondoggles (now known as rexlace lanyards/keychains), scrapbooking, shadowgraphs, silkscreen and linoleum printing, gourde, pinecone, and other nature crafts, and much more.


The consensus of feelings towards these activities can be articulated through a similar sentiment found in a 1941 Girl Scouts reference guide for arts and crafts that declared, "If we feel that the arts and crafts are worth doing, they are worth doing well, with sound ideals and objectives”. The Established Camp Book: A Guide for Girl Scout Camp Directors and Established Camp Committees (1946) wrote the following statement in the manual. This represents prevailing attitudes for the optimistic refinement of arts and crafts programming in U.S. youth summer camps in this era and for the years that followed: 

"A yoke around the neck of the traditional arts and crafts program in camp is the desire of girls, and often parents, for “something to take home.” It should be remembered that the most precious treasures a camper takes home with her are not the kind that can be wrapped in paper or displayed on the family whatnot. The most valuable things a camper gets out of good arts and crafts program are appreciation, enjoyment, and creative expression".

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Campers weaving in a group at Camp Wyandot, 1930.

(Courtesy Camp Wyandot, Historic Photos)


Developments in Art Education 


The Great Depression and Experimental Summer Camps

The Great Depression impacted the progression and development of camps, just as it did many other organizations and social movements. Summer camps were converted into “simple work camps,” which cost very little. These camps helped many people by supplying food, acting as job training and hiring sites, and teaching practical crafts, skills, and other educational opportunities. 


Not all camps were converted; many remained in regular operation during this time. Some used this time to research youth development and the educational opportunities of summer camps. One of these researchers was an educator, Lloyde Burgess Sharp, who organized an experimental summer camp for youth in 1930. 

From the early 1930s to World War II, progressive art education began to reconsider where the value of education stems. The Reconstructionist Art Education Movement focused deeply on its ties to communities and community life. This era in art education found financial and societal support through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the New Deal between 1933-43, as there was a heightened interest in “the artist.” New tensions brought on by World War II resulted in a major shift in the field. The U.S. government implored many art educators to enlist in the cultural war against fascism as art was a “part of a larger movement to gain confidence in the national economy and strengthen community cooperation and financial responsibility.” For example, in a 1942 edition of Art Education Today, a renowned magazine promoted and written by Teachers College, Columbia University,  an article described the necessity to "help art teachers make the most efficient contribution at this crucial time." (Freedman, 1987)

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Two children at the Harlem Community Art Center, 1939.


(Courtesy Harlem Community Art Center, Wikiwand)

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Hazel Allen,

ACA President 1937-1938, National Camp Director of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., and trained educator from Teacher's College in Columbia. 

Herbert H. Twining,  

President during transtion period between CDAA then ACA, 1935.

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West H. Klusmann,  

ACA President 1943-1944 and National Camp Director of the Boy Scouts of America.


The New American Camp Association

At the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, leaders in the organized field began to explore the educational possibilities with youth. According to Leslie Paris, author of Children's Nature: The Rise of American Summer Camps (2008), "The educational stage in camping is typically thought to have been between 1920– 1950. This is perhaps because many camp leaders were also educators, and the growing popularity of the progressive education movement…[which] gave this philosophy widespread visibility within camping circles." (Paris, 2008)


Pre-WWII: Summer Camp Arts & Crafts 

From 1929 to 1938, arts and crafts activities in summer camps changed drastically leading up to the war. In this era, attitudes for or against this type of programming shifted, specifically as youth organizations and the ACA began to define arts and crafts' role in summer camps. 

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Boys taking part in a free summer camp organized by Los Angeles Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz, 1937.


(Courtesy University of California, Los Angeles. Library. Department of Special Collections)


Mid-WWII: Summer Camp Arts & Crafts 

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Young camper working on a crafts project, 1940.

(Courtesy Hughes, The Joy Camps. Published in Camping Magazine, "The Creative Approach to Crafts in Camp", November 1940)

From 1939-1945, arts and crafts in summer camps focused on the dollar, particularly how to save them. Articles like Without Benefit of Dollars: A Camp Handicraft Program (March 1939) and What the Average Camp Spends (April 1940) described ways to save money in the arts and crafts budget. Other topics popular at this time also explored The Creative Approach to Crafts in Camp (November 1940) and Applying Democratic Principles to the Arts and Crafts (May 1940).


“Arts and crafts should be a means by which campers can interpret their new experiences and by which they can give expression to new thoughts, feelings, and reactions stimulated by these experiences. to accomplish such ends, studios that are adequately but simply equipped are needed” (Applying Democratic Principles to the Arts and Crafts, May 1940).


Post-WWII: Summer Camp Arts & Crafts 

In the years leading up to 1946, the directors of camps around the country became increasingly aware of and concerned about the quality of the people they employed to run their camps and specific camp programs. This is illustrated in The Established Camp Book: A Guide for Girl Scout Camp Directors and Established Camp Committees (1946), which states that the "most important resource for a good arts and crafts program is a staff (not just one specialist) that actually enjoys creative effort and knows an art or a craft from a gadget." Sadly, in the summer of 1949, summer camp arts and crafts pioneer Laura Mattoon passed away. Her life and accomplishments were fondly remembered in the June issue of Camping Magazine that year.

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Girls working in the wood and clay shop, 1946.



Camp Dudley Indian Pagent, undated.

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


Indigenous Appropriation vs. Appreciation in Summer Camp Arts and Crafts

In the 1930s and 40s, camp activities often included pageants where children adopted roles of stereotyped black and "Indian" characters. Camp staff told "Indian" tales around the campfire, and many camps named cabin groups were "tribes." Boys' camps adopted qualities ascribed to indigenous cultures, while girls' camps practiced artistic skills associated with indigenous cultures. These practices and activities began their gradual decline during this time but were would not be completely phased out of camp culture until decades later (the late 1990s-2000s). (Paris, 2008)

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