How did camping come to hold such a central place in the dominant national narrative of summertime? I’m pretty sure that anyone in the town of Amherst 200 years ago would have been deeply perplexed by the idea of voluntarily sleeping in the wilderness in a canvas tent just for fun (in fact, the even concept of “leisure time” and using it for “fun” would have been quite suspect).
I pulled together a handful of books from the archives to look at the questions of “How did camping get to be a thing?” and “For whom?”
In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, with rising industrialization in the east and the slow end of the frontier era in the west, dominant American culture became obsessed with masculinity. Fears that scholars and theologians were becoming weak, anemic, book-bound push-overs gave rise to the “Muscular Christianity,” anthropometry and physical education movements
(which played central roles in the history of Amherst College). Native Americans were re-cast in the popular (white) imagination from enemy #1 to romantic, historically-distant “noble savages.” Even the popular conception of nature itself slowly shifted from a brutal force to be subdued to an idyllic, primal Eden to be communed with (and later still to a feminized Mother Nature to be protected). Popular heroes were no longer statesmen and religious leaders, but frontiersmen and cowboys in the Davy Crockett mold. Camping, along with other outdoor pastimes like hunting and fishing, became a way for elite, white men to display their masculine prowess, as the explosion of books about all three topics during this era clearly documents.
In the following decades, outdoorsiness trickled down to the middle class with the establishment of the Boy and Girl Scouts and growing access to travel and consumer products (like tents and camp stoves). Women were increasing included, but, as a leisure activity, camping remained (and remains) a very white pursuit for a variety of reasons including segregation of parks and
campgrounds and the very real risk of racial violence in secluded, largely white environments.
The Civilian Conservation Corps during the great depression greatly expanded the facilities at many National Parks and new advertising campaigns after World War II began selling camping to families as a part of the wholesome American identity.
Amherst College’s Special Collections can be used to look at a wide variety of questions around cultural interpretations of nature and people’s relationships to it. I would recommend the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection, the Frederick Lane Angling Collection, the Charles M. Adams Southern Appalachian Mountain Collection, and the many other natural history collections in our holdings.
And for those who could do without camping entirely? We’ve got you covered too: