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About borderlands VOLUME 6 NUMBER 2, 2007



Manufactured Wilderness

Abigail A. Van Slyck, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-8166-4876-X.   Xxxvii + 296pp. Illustrations, notes and index.

Christopher E. Forth
Australian National University



1. Many social and cultural histories have examined changes in American attitudes towards gender, race, class, sexuality and the body, often with attention to prescriptive writings advising parents on how to raise children who might approximate these ideals in body and mind. Yet few historians consider how such many of these ideas were put into practice through the physical manipulation of space and the material construction of social realities. Unlike many architectural histories, Abigail Van Slyck's A Manufactured Wilderness looks beyond considering buildings in isolation to consider the "cultural landscape" in which the natural world intersects with social aspirations and built life. It approaches architecture as "a process in which institutional priorities are translated into material form" (p. xxxi).

2. With well over one hundred pictures, this is a lavishly illustrated volume whose images nicely complement Van Slyck's analyses. Indeed, photography played a central promotional role in communicating the benefits and meaning of camp life to parents and others with an investment in children. Numerous aspects of this investment are analyzed across the book's six chapters. The first chapter presents an overview of how the wilderness was invested with new significance during the late nineteenth century (especially in regard to the formation of masculinity) and how camp design responded to this new set of concerns. Summer camps developed in the late nineteenth century out of a cluster of concerns about the impact of urban modernity on the formation of young men and women. By removing boys from the domestic comforts of home and the potentially corrupting influence of the city, their virility might be preserved by "inoculating" them (to use Gail Bederman's term) with doses of primitivity that might allow them to survive under the cerebral and sedentary conditions of modernity. Around 1900, then, boys' camps tended to emphasize the virtues of roughness and risk, with tents and lakeside waterfronts playing critical roles in toughening up boys. That many camps would be organized along military lines was thus entirely consonant with this desire to craft males capable of defending the nation and furthering its interests abroad. Chapter two examines how camps were imagined as structured spaces for the "play" that had become so widely prescribed in American culture around 1900, even as the relatively free play of the 1880s and '90s became subject to tighter controls in the twentieth century.

3. Particularly insightful is Chapter three, which shows how the initial aims of camps underwent considerable changes in the twentieth century. Early interest in toughening boys and girls was soon mitigated by increasing concerns about comfort, health and safety at camp. Two scientific developments in the early twentieth century contributed to the breakdown of these early approaches to the camping experience. By the 1910s and '20s microbiology had inspired a public health movement that warned of the dangers of communicable diseases in all social spaces. Within this discourse the once acceptable tent became refigured as a site where overcrowding and poor ventilation threatened campers with all manner of diseases. With parents becoming more concerned about their children's welfare at camp, sleeping cabins and tent houses were soon promoted as healthy alternatives.

4. A more profound transformation of the camp experience was underway by the 1940s as sleeping cabins began to be built in styles that had more in common with domestic architecture than traditional camp styles. Yet if the relatively elaborate wooden cabins of this period featured porches, fireplaces, and other fixtures redolent of domestic space, this was less to emulate home life than to correct what were perceived as the inadequacies of modern parenting. Earlier camps had focused on strengthening the body in order to improve mental and moral states; yet by the 1940s the psychological development of the child was given greater emphasis. Thanks to camp counselors' close relationship with child psychology, the effectiveness of the camp experience was now assessed with a device called the Behavioral Frequency Scale, where positive behaviors (friendliness, enthusiasm, cooperation, conscientiousness) were contrasted to negative behaviors (inconsiderateness, selfishness, causing a disturbance, etc.). Through application forms, letters and interviews parents were asked to reflect on the kind of behavior modifications they would like to see instilled in their children. In such ways the modern camp became like a "child-study laboratory" (p. 113).

5. Another very interesting chapter is the fourth, where the mundane activities of mealtime (food storage, preparation, eating and cleanup) are analyzed for what they can tell us about changing ideas about gender, race and class. If early camps stressed self-reliance by getting boys and girls directly involved in these activities, the gradual shift to more formalized arrangements (epitomized in the mess hall and a permanent cooking staff) signified a growing distance between campers and routine meal preparation. With the addition of rationalized kitchen layouts, high-tech appliances and a growing reliance on prepared (and even frozen) food, from the 1930s onward mealtime rituals at camp offered little respite from the routines of modern urban life. The same was the case with ideas about hygiene, as Chapter five demonstrates, where notions of cleanliness and order extended beyond concerns with good health. Being able to boast the most modern hygienic facilities, including chemical and flush toilets, septic tanks and shower houses, were critical ways for camps to assuage whatever concerns modern parents would have about the physical well-being of their children. Finally, the sixth chapter unpacks how Native American symbols and motifs in the design and practices of camp life changed through the course of the twentieth century, with special attention to tipis and council rings, whose inclusion in camps belied the actual marginalization of indigenous peoples in the twentieth century.

6. A Manufactured Wilderness shows persuasively how camp design facilitated the construction and reconfiguration of childhood, gender, race and class, both materially and spatially, throughout the twentieth century. As the author observes, the "physical changes in all parts of the camp landscape demonstrate that perceptions about the needs of children were in flux throughout the twentieth century, as was the very definition of childhood itself" (p. 123). Although the book does not present much evidence of how children might have engaged with and even resisted these attempts to monitor and shape their behavior, it nevertheless sheds light on an often neglected dimension of social history.


Christopher E. Forth is a Reader in History at the Australian National University.


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