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The Young Men's Christian Association, or the YMCA, was an initial leader in the summer camp movement. Camp Dudley, founded in 1885 by Sumner Francis Dudley, is widely recognized as the "first" YMCA camp. A few YMCA camps were in operation for decades following that, but the organization saw its true blossom in the early 1900s. In 1901 there were 167 documented YMCA camps. Only four years later, in 1905, there were over 300. One of these camps, Camp Hayo-Went-Ha at Torch Lake, Michigan (1904), was one of the first YMCA camps in the Midwest. As the organization expanded nationally, the number of young boys who went to YMCA summer camp exploded to 250,000 by 1923. The popularity and commercial success of the "blend of outdoor recreation and Bible study" focused programming inspired the creation of other popular youth programming.

Boy Scouts

Through their involvement in the YMCA camping programs, Ernest Thompson Seton and Daniel Beard ran two opposing and competing groups exploring the idea of the "American boyhood adventure." Seton's Woodcraft Indians included a "veritable smorgasbord of tribal legends, games, songs, dances, crafts, and religious rituals" nationwide. For Seton, traditional Native American culture and the "Red Man" was a perfect blend of American patriotism and traditionalism. In opposition, Beard's Sons of Daniel Boone promoted "a contrasting American iconography, that of the frontier pioneers who had skillfully supplanted Native American peoples." In this organization, young boys took on the roles of pioneers such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett to gain perspective and experience in a "natural instinct for primitive adventure" under adult supervision. Both Seton and Beard were active in summer camp circles and participated in organized camping, establishing many youth summer camps throughout the nation.

(Paris, 2008) 

In the 1910s, ideas from both Seton and Beard's organizations culminated in a new youth organization, the Boy Scouts of America, reflecting their shared interest in "primitive adventure." Within a year of the first formation of Boy Scout troops, camps for Boy Scouts popped up throughout the country, including the suburbs of the Northeast and Midwest. This regional expansion, plus the cheaper enrollment cost (compared to the YMCA camps), gave more young boys the opportunity to go camping. By 1920, almost 45% of all Boy Scouts, over 160,000 boys, spent at least a week at camp in the summertime.(Paris, 2008)


A key to the Boy Scouts phenomenon had much to do with the intergenerational appeal. Parents like the idea of "supervised rural activities" and "learning, patriotism, and daily Bible study”. The sons enjoyed the idea of outdoor adventures. A win-win situation. 

While there were lesser-known girls' camps in the 1890s, such as Camp Lehman (eventually named Camp Isabella Freedman), organized by the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society of New York City in 1893, it was not until the turn of the century that girls’ camps and female camp directors began establishing a place of their own in the organized camping field. 

Laura Mattoon,
as mentioned previously, was a prominent leader in the female youth camping movement, along with many others (a few of which are mentioned in the sections below). Despite a large number of female camp directors, due to the Camp Directors Association of America (CDAA) gender rule for admission, females were not allowed to join. In 1916, under the leadership of Harriet Gulick (Camp Fire Girls), Laura Mattoon, and others, the National Association of Directors of Girls' Private Camps (NADGPG) was formed. Later, as more camps joined, the word "Private" was dropped, making it the National Association of Directors of Girls Camps (NADGC).

Camp Fire Girls

The Camp Fire Girls began as an extension of Dr. Luther Gulick and his wife Charlotte Gulick's interest in recreation and youth. In 1910, William Chauncy Langdon (son of a Protestant Episcopal clergyman and prominent American proponent of the YMCA: William Chauncy Langdon) put together the first Camp Fire Girls group while organizing a pageant to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the town of Thetford, Vermont. A local Boy Scout group was recruited to help with some scenery. With inspiration from the pageant project and the help of Luther Gulick, he founded a similar group for local girls. Gulick then took the idea of a girl's group to friends from the youth camping field (G. Stanley Hall, Ernest Thompson Seton, and James West, executive secretary of the Boy Scouts). The Camp Fire Girls program, like similar programs for boys, was pitched primarily to middle-class children and met with enthusiastic responses across the nation. By December 1913, it had an estimated 60,000 members, thousands of whom began to attend affordable local camps.


Although the Camp Fire program promoted the idea that outdoor experiences benefitted young girls, it did not represent a radical shift in gender roles or equality. The program tied participation in outdoor activities to ideas of maternal devotion and domestic traditions, such as "childbearing and nurturing capabilities" and "traditional female skills," like homemaking and cooking. (Paris, 2008)


In the 2010 book Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp by Leslie Paris, she describes the Camp Fire Girls program: "The organization aimed to romanticize women's traditional labor through song, pageantry, and dance, to not supplant the domestic sphere. The fire of the Camp Fire Girls, Gulick pronounced, was not wild and untamed; it was symbolic of the domestic hearth. The program's focus on Indian ritual and costuming had a similarly gendered spin. By making their own dresses and decorating them with individualized Indian-style insignia, girls could simultaneously put on primitive personae, explore the creativity of dressmaking, and learn useful sewing skills. In other words, the Gulicks encouraged girls to use Indian cultural elements so as to become gracefully domestic in the modern world, not to explore the possibilities of "savagery." (Paris, 2008)


In the early 1870s, the Philadelphia YWCA, or Young Women's Christian Association, was organized to meet the needs of girls and young women employed in large cities and textile factories in the U.S. The YWCA was a pioneer in camping programs for women in America. The first such vacation camp, Sea Rest, opened at Asbury Park in 1874 by the Philadelphia Association. As the needs of working girls and women evolved, so did the YWCA camping program. They built conference centers in various parts of the country used by businesses and professional young women. They also established Labor Education Centers in Tennessee for industrial girls and had permanent group camps for teens and young girls beginning in the 1920s. In 1925, the YWCA reported about 90,000 girls and young women attending over 200 camps.

Girl Scouts

The Girl Scouts were founded in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low in Savannah, Georgia. Low helped establish several "Girl Guide" troops (modeled after a British group she observed while living in England) that conjoined traditional domestic skills and adventurous physical activity. The first American Girl Scout troop (1912) had 18 members. By 1920, there were about 50,000 members nationwide. Many girls joined because of their significant involvement and service contributions in the first world war. By the 1930s, the Girl Scout membership exceeded that of the Camp Fire Girls. 


The gender politics of the Girl Scouts were equivocal. On the one hand, the Girl Scouts, with their khaki uniforms and use of military drill, were seen as a threat to the Boy Scouts' leader, James West, who considered the Camp Fire Girls a "more appropriately gendered counterpart. "West famously fought against the Girl Scouts' use of the term 'scout.'" He feared that if the time became feminized, it would become unacceptable for boys' adventure. On the other hand, the Girl Scouts were not an explicitly feminist organization. Many merit badges girls could receive were earned from domestic labor activities, such as nursing and laundry. The war work Girl Scouts promoted and their adoption of military-style uniforms affirmed that girls, along with women, occupied critical public roles, but their actual work usually involved gendered skills like knitting for soldiers overseas. (Paris, 2008)

In terms of camping, “The philosophy of the Girl Scout organization has been basically the same: camping is a part of the program, not an addition to it; camping extends opportunities for girls to develop as individuals and as members of groups, providing experiences not usually or easily found in troop meetings and activities in town.” (Eells, 1986) The first permanent camp was opened in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1919. Other permanent campsites were established in the following years, along with major improvements to the camping program after the establishment of the Camp Department at the National Girl Scout Headquarters in 1922. 


In the early 20th century, there were early beginnings of another new youth organization, 4-H. The 4-H organization today acknowledges A. B. Graham and his youth program in Clark County, Ohio, in 1902 as the "birth of 4-H in the United States" (4-H History, 2023)The first club was called "The Tomato Club" or the "Corn Growing Club." T.A. Erickson of Douglas County, Minnesota, started local agricultural after-school clubs and fairs that same year. In 1910, Jessie Field Shambaugh "developed the clover pin with an H on each leaf," the symbol for the 4-H organization. By 1912, the rural youth groups were called 4-H clubs, using Jessie Field Shambaugh's clover pin design. This organization was significant as it was one of the few youth programs targeted at youth in rural areas of the U.S. and served youth of color (though most clubs were segregated until the mid-1960s).  


Records show that the earliest 4-H camp designed to teach new farming methods to boys was held in 1907. While several other states began conducting 4-H camps at this time, the first county 4-H Camp, Camp Goodluck, was held in West Virginia in 1915. The co-ed camp offered opportunities for (white) "young people to develop their leadership abilities," placing education at the forefront of their camping standards (Meadows, 1995). Early 4-H camping for black 4-H members was not conducted at the individual county level. Instead, multiple counties would combine to hold events that resembled 4-H camping events. The Tri-County 4-H Short Course in 1921 in Powhatan County, Virginia, was one of the first events for 4-H members of color. It was reported that 71 children participated in this event. West Virginia also initiated "camp-outs" in the 1920s for African American youth and had the first African American State 4-H Camp (Camp Washington-Carver).


By 1924, 1,774 4-H club camps were held, with an attendance of 52,697 club boys and 61,273 club girls. Nearly 100,000 additional boys and girls not in club work also attended the camps. 


National 4-H Camp

A large part of 4-H camping was also held at the National level at the National 4-H Camp in Washington DC. Beginning in 1927, National 4-H Camp selected delegates from most U.S. states as a way to “reward and develop outstanding junior leaders in club work, acquaint club members with their government, and to acquaint Washington with club work, and provide a convenient time and place for a meeting of all state leaders, both north and south.” National 4-H Camp was held 26 times between 1927 - 1956 and continues its legacy through the 4-H National Conference (which replaced National 4-H Camp in 1957), 4-H Congress, and Citizenship Washington Focus events held annually today. Learn more about the history here. 

While summer camps at this time were centered on middle-class white children, other organizations offered camping for children of color. The Digital Harlem Blog, an extension of the Digital Harlem website, provides information about the 1910s Fresh Air Camps for Black youth site and the shift to Black-owned summer camps in the 1920s.

The following information comes directly from the 2018 blog post, Summer Camps for 1920s Harlem, by Stephen Robertson:

“Until the mid-1920s, Harlem’s children went to summer camps organized by the city’s Fresh Air Fund (FAF) and other groups inspired by its model. Established in 1877, FAF focused initially on rural home stays, but in the early twentieth century this organization began to run summer camps, initially for groups that “it is not wise to place with private hosts.” Black children were one such group; in the 1910s FAF organized camps with black organizations, including the Urban League. Some black children were placed with other groups, such as the Christian Herald, which had been operating Mont Lawn Camp at Nyack since 1894. The YWCA also established a camp for girls in 1920, in Palisades Interstate Park. Frustration with the difficulty in placing black children in these camps, which had limited the number of campers from Harlem to 1100 or less than 5% of the estimated population of 5-14 year olds in 1926, led to the formation of a Harlem Committee of the Fresh Air Fund in 1927 to expand opportunities for black children.

Black groups in Harlem began to establish their own summer camps. In 1927, St. Phillips P.E. Church opened Camp Guilford Bower outside New Paltz In 1927, followed in 1928 by the North Harlem Community Council, who purchased a camp at Livingston Manor, in 1929 by the Harlem Fresh Air Fund, who purchased Camp James Farely near Poughkeepsie, New York and by the New York City Mission Society who opened Camp Minisink near Port Jervis, New York in 1930. Access to these sites, and annual fundraising drives to send children to camps, promoted by the Amsterdam News in particular, saw more than 3000 children attending summer camps by the early 1930s.

Like vacation playgrounds, summer camps provided a place for children when school was closed and Harlem offered little other than the streets. But their proponents argued camps offered the additional benefit of getting children out of the city entirely. The Fresh Air Fund made the case that summer camps kept children “away from city streets; from the torrid heat of New York summers; from ill-health”...Historian Brian McCammack has recently pointed out the additional dimensions of the temporary, restorative escape from the city for black children; that black summer camps served as “potent racial idylls: their remote locations, separate from whites, laid the foundations for race pride and dignity in ways that were difficult if not impossible in the city [due to] environmental inequalities, segregation and racist treatment.


Boating, swimming and hiking had the most prominent place in reports of camp activity. Although accounts of camps never failed to mention the beauty of their natural environment, campers spent much of their time around the camp buildings rather than in nature. Sports was central; most camps had a gymnasium and facilities for basketball , tennis and baseball. As with vacation playgrounds, camps competed against each other in sports, including swimming. Girls' camps also had handicrafts and other hobbies. Music and dances also featured among the activities.”

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