A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890 — 1960
Van Slyck, Abigail (2006).
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 296 pages. $27.50. ISBN 9780816648771.
A Manufactured Wilderness is an engaging and nostalgic examination of a largely unexplored element of architectural history, the North American summer camp. Through a rich investigation of camp mess halls, sleeping units and program areas, Abigail Van Slyck investigates the major trends of camp development and their impact on the construction of childhood from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. In particular, Van Slyck addresses American society’s changing attitudes toward children’s health, sanitation, play, gender relationships, and Native American culture, and investigates the role summer camps played in addressing social anxieties of the time: gender roles, class tension, race relations and particularly modern society’s impact on the lives of their children.
In Van Slyck’s words, this volume differs from conventional works in the field of architectural history in two significant ways. First, it focuses on the cultural landscape, defined as the intersection of the built environment and social life with the natural landscape. Second, it “defines architecture as a process in which institutional priorities are translated into material form” (p. xxxi) by shifting the focus not onto the architects themselves, but onto the decision makers who hired the architects.
Van Slyck investigates a range of camp operations, including private camps, religiously affiliated social service camps, and those sponsored by youth organizations in the Southeastern, Midwestern, and Northeastern U.S. and neighboring Canada.
This volume is organized into six chapters, each examining a primary area of summer camp life—camp layout, program activities, housing and sleeping areas, cooking, eating and mealtime sites, camp sanitation and hygiene, and the use of Native American motifs in the camp landscape—and how these reflected the changing views of middle- and upper-class childhood in North America.
In Chapter 1, Van Slyck describes in great detail the changes in the physical layout and design of camps as they reflected the changing priorities of early 20th-century North America and also considers the “cultural meaning of the camp landscape in two realms” (p. 2). First, she examines the role of camps in the transformation of the North American rural landscape. Second, she investigates theories of camp planning and their impact on the camp sites themselves, with special attention given to the “metaphors embedded in the camp landscape” (p. 3). Van Slyck describes how camp directors restructured their camps’ layouts to reflect changing priorities and concerns of the day, noting the transition of camp layouts from ad hoc arrangements in the late 1800s, to strict, straight militaristic lines in the 1900s, to a trend toward more naturalistic design in the 1920s.
The second chapter focuses on camp activities and programs. It offers an interesting description of the challenges faced by camp directors to make available recreational experiences that not only provided an outdoor experience (as part of the back-to-nature trend of the late 1800s) but also addressed the gender, race and social anxieties of the time.
In the third chapter, on camp housing and sleeping, Van Slyck notes that camp directors maintained a keen interest in campers’ health, and sought to provide healthy living and sleeping conditions. This chapter traces the changing form of sleeping areas as they transitioned from the attic floors of Fresh Air Camps to canvas tents and wooden platforms to cabins and bunkhouses.
Chapter 4 investigates the development of camps’ cooking and eating sites. Utilizing Elizabeth Cromley’s idea of the food axis, Van Slyck discusses the varied stages and locations for meal preparation, eating and clean up, noting how the architectural design of mess halls and dining lodges changed over time to both maximize the efficiency of the kitchen, and to minimize campers’ awareness of the adult activities associated with meal preparation. This chapter provides several photo images and floor plan drawings to illustrate the changing architectural design of these facilities.
Sanitation was of great concern from the earliest years of organized camping. Compared to schools, camps had the unique challenge of dealing with the social, sleeping, feeding and sanitation concerns of many children, very often in rural settings with limited resources. Van Slyck addresses in the fifth chapter how youth camps maintained safe living, sleeping and eating environments, noting how camp sanitation highlighted the great challenges of putting science into practice.
Van Slyck’s last topical chapter investigates the use of Native American cultural motifs at summer camp, from the earliest camps, which highlighted an association between Indians and the wild frontier, to the increasing appropriation of Native American culture as a result of the efforts of Ernest Thompson Seton and the Woodcraft Indians in 1902. Van Slyck notes “there was nothing natural about the use of Indian motifs at American summer camps” (p. 212), citing early camp leaders’ use of Indian names and visits to Indian sites that “underline[d] the conceptual distance between the camp landscape and the civilized realms of campers’ everyday lives” (p. 212). In the 1920s and 1930s, camps adopted Indian names and developed architectural elements based on indigenous cultural features such as the council ring or wigwam. The author acknowledges that participants likely had good intentions, but that the integration of these Native American motifs nonetheless reinforced white privilege.
Van Slyck concludes the book with a discussion of summer camps as “ideal venues for architects to explore architectural modernism” (p. 219), given the simple programs of camp structures and the typically natural, rustic and rural context of youth camps. The chapter concludes with the author’s statement that camps, while intending to position themselves in opposition to the ills of modern life, “implicitly worked to support and maintain modern culture” (p. 224).
A Manufactured Wilderness is an interesting and historic review of early American camps during a time of great social and cultural transformation. It is an approachable read with a wealth of photographs, drawings and paintings that would be of interest to camp directors, alumni and staff—particularly those affiliated with the camps examined in the book. Cultural historians and university faculty with teaching and research interests in architectural and landscape architectural history should find Van Slyck’s investigation of a relatively uncultivated area of study compelling.
Principal, Neppl Landscape Architecture and Planning, LLC Lecturer, Iowa State University
Tom Neppl received B.S. Agriculture, Master of Landscape Architecture and Master of Regional and Community Planning degrees from Kansas State University. He is currently the principal landscape architect of Neppl Landscape Architecture and Planning, LLC and a lecturer in the College of Design at Iowa State University. His professional practice interests include youth camps, parks and environmental education centers; his research interests are environmental education and environmental design. Personally, his enjoys time with his family, gardening and spending time outdoors.