Historically Speaking: The American Invention of Summer Camp

Since 1876, children have looked forward to their long vacation as a time to build friendships and character.

July  23, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

Hello Muddah, hello Faddah,/Here I am at Camp Granada…

With more than half of the country’s 14,000 summer camps temporarily closed because of Covid-19, millions of children are missing out on experiences that have helped to shape young Americans for nearly 150 years.

I went hiking with Joe Spivey/He developed poison ivy…

Hayley Mills plays twins who meet at summer camp in ‘The Parent Trap’ (1961).
PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

The idea that a spell in the great outdoors builds character has ancient roots. The Spartans practiced a particularly rigorous form: When a warrior-in-training reached the age of 12, he was sent into the wilderness for a year. Those who gave up were barred from attaining full citizenship.

And the head coach wants no sissies/ so he reads to us from something called Ulysses…

But the modern summer camp can be traced to the Transcendentalist movement of the 1830s and ‘40s. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were ardent proselytizers for learning to live at one with nature. Their message resonated with the environmentalist Joseph T. Rothrock, who founded the country’s first sleep-away camp, the North Mountain School of Physical Culture, in 1876 near Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Rothrock believed he could take “weakly boys” from the city and rehabilitate them into healthy young men.

Ernest Balch was moved by ‘the miserable condition of boys from well-to-do families” who spent their summers living in hotels, rather than out in nature. He was still a Dartmouth College student when he founded Camp Chocorura in New Hampshire in 1881. Its emphasis on self-reliance and character-building became the blueprint for other summer camps.

You remember Jeffrey Hardy /They’re about to organize a searching party…

By 1918 there were over 1,000 in the U.S. Charles W. Eliot, a former president of Harvard, went so far as to declare in 1922 that summer camp was “the most important step in education that America has given the world.”

This would have been news to Britain, where Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement, had been running his own summer camp since 1907. But American camps were unique in their diversity, with options for every faith and political creed. The oldest camp for Black children, Camp Atwater, was founded in North Brookfleld, Mass., in 1921, at a time when summer camping was segregated; it is still going strong today.

Take me home, oh Muddah, Faddah…

Summer camp retained a wholesome image for decades. Films such as “The Parent Trap” (1961), starring Hayley Mills as separated twin sisters who are unexpectedly reunited at a summer camp, focused on innocent fun. But darker themes were coming. The “Friday the 13th” franchise, launched in 1980, has a higher body count than many war films, with much of the carnage taking place at the fictional Camp Crystal Lake.

Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing /Guys are swimming, guys are sailing…

But summer camps continued to grow. By the mid-2010s, according to the American Camp Association, they were an $18 billion industry serving 14 million campers every year. The disappointment of missing camp this summer will hopefully make it even more joyful to return next year. As Allan Sherman’s beloved satire concludes: Muddah, Faddah, kindly disregard this letter.

Historically Speaking: The Many Roads to Vegetarianism

Health, religion and animal rights have all been advanced as reasons not to eat meat.

The Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2019

ILLUSTRATION: PETER ARKLE

The claim that today’s ingeniously engineered fake meat tastes like the real thing and helps the planet is winning over consumers from the carnivore side of the food aisle. According to Barclays, the alt-meat market could be worth $140 billion a year a decade from now. But the argument over the merits of vegetarianism is nothing new; it’s been going on since ancient times.

Meat played a pivotal role in the evolution of the human brain, providing the necessary calories and protein to enable it to increase in size. Nonetheless, meat-eating remained a luxury in the diets of most early civilizations. It wasn’t much of a personal sacrifice, therefore, when the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (ca. 570-495 B.C.), author of the famous theorem, became what many consider the first vegetarian by choice. Pythogoreans believed that humans could be reincarnated as animals and vice versa, meaning that if you ate meat, Aunt Lydia could end up on your plate.

The anti-meat school of thought was joined a century later by Plato, who argued in the Republic that meat consumption encouraged decadence and warlike behavior. These views were strongly countered by Aristotelian philosophy, which taught that animals exist for human use—an opinion that the Romans heartily endorsed.

The avoidance of meat for moral and ascetic reasons also found a home in Buddhism and Hinduism. Ashoka the Great, the 3rd-century Buddhist emperor of the Maurya Dynasty of India, abolished animal sacrifice and urged his people to abstain from eating flesh.

It wasn’t until the Enlightenment, however, that Western moralists and philosophers began to argue for vegetarianism on the grounds that we have a moral duty to avoid causing animals pain. In 1641 the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed one of the earliest laws against animal cruelty. By the early 19th century, the idea that animals have rights had started to take hold: The English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley proselytized for vegetarianism, as did the American transcendentalist thinker Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in “Walden”: “I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race … to leave off eating animals.”

The word “vegetarian” first appeared in print in England in 1842. Within a decade there were vegetarian societies in Britain and America. Echoing the Platonists rather than Pythagoras, their guiding motivation was self-denial as opposed to animal welfare. Sylvester Graham, the leader of the early American vegetarian movement, also urged sexual abstinence on his followers.

Vegetarianism finally escaped its moralistic straitjacket at the end of the 19th century, when the health guru John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of corn flakes, popularized meat-free living for reasons of bodily well-being at his Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan.

There continue to be mixed motivations for vegetarianism today. Burger King’s meatless Impossible Whopper may be “green,” but it has less protein and virtually the same number of calories as the original. A healthier version will no doubt appear before long, and some people hope that when lab-grown meat hits the market in a few years, it will be as animal- and climate-friendly as plant-based food. With a lot of science and a bit of luck, vegetarians and meat-eaters may end up in the same place.

WSJ Historically Speaking: Even Poets Get Spring Fever

Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Spring is finally dispelling the cheerless gray of winter. In a few more weeks, city dwellers will begin the time-­‐honored practice of heading to the countryside in search of pristine nature, tranquility and cooler climes.

In the third century B.C., Theocritus of Syracuse became one of the earliest poets to celebrate nature for its own sake. His deceptively simple poems about shepherds and farmers inspired a new poetic form, the pastoral elegy.

Almost two centuries later, the great Roman poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.) freed the genre from its literal underpinnings to give it a certain philosophical bent. His pastoral poetry was more than just an elegant commentary on the countryside; fundamental to its purpose was the exploration of our relationship with nature. “Let me love the rivers and the woods,” Virgil declares in “The Georgics,” before going on to ponder whether he should spend his life contemplating rural delights.

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