Camping is a long-standing American tradition! Camping became quite popular in the U.S. in the late 19th century, but of course it started much earlier. Since time immemorial people have camped by necessity as they explored new areas or traveled between established settlements. However, this was separate from the practice of camping for the pure sport of it.
The idea of camping as recreation came along in the 1800s. It was initially taken up by people who wanted to share their passion for this specific way of travel and living, and their advocacy boosted the popularity greatly. It was particularly seen as a good pastime for children, allowing them to experience adventure within the benign confines of an organized nature expedition.
The first formal camps in the U.S. – The Gunnery Camp and others
In fact the first formal camp, The Gunnery Camp, was founded in Washington, Connecticut in 1861 by Frederick and Abigail Gunn. They were a husband and wife who ran a boy’s school. This discovered their passion for camping during a two-week trip with their students. During this trip the group hiked, set up camp, and enjoyed the time fishing and walking amongst the nature. The experience was so pleasant that the Gunns continued this tradition for the next twelve years.
It did not take long for other organizations to follow the lead of The Gunnery Camp. In 1874 the first YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) camp was founded. Conceived as a “vacation project” for Philadelphia’s working class girls and women, it encouraged them to camp as a respite from their jobs. It was based at Asbury Park, New Jersey at a campsite called Sea Rest.
1885 saw the introduction of the first YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) campsite in Newburgh, New York. The camp was founded by Summer F. Dudley, from which it took its name. Camp Dudley is the oldest camp in the United States that has been in continual operation.
The early 1900s and the founding of the Girl Scouts
Another important step was taken in 1912 when the first Girl Scout troop was founded in Savannah, Georgia through the efforts of Juliette Gordon Low. It did not take long for the group to spread past Savannah. In World War I the Girl Scouts worked in hospitals, collected peach pits for gas mask filters, and sold war bonds. By the 1920s they were a truly national organization with members as far as Hawaii. From the beginning, camping and other outdoor activities were a centerpiece of Girl Scout life.
What is known today as the American Camping Association was founded by Alan S. Williams in 1910. At that time it was called the Camp Directors Association of America and was renamed in 1924 to the Camp Director Association, due to the merge with the National Association of Directors of Girls Camps. It was the first American association of camping and adopted the name that it currently uses in 1935.
Nevertheless, one of the most significant steps that brought camping closer to the form it exists in today occurred in the 1930s, when specific areas were available for lease by groups. Most of the work done to create these sites was completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal initiative that operated as part of the National Park Service. This group constructed over 800 parks for the nine years that it was in operation. In America they have generally been turned over to state agencies, predominantly as state parks.
It is probably no coincidence that camping became popular as the United States became a more industrial country. Much of the early movements towards camping seem to have arisen from the human impulse to preserve what was being lost in every day life. There was a strong moral component as well, as camping and outdoor life were seen to be conducive to physical fitness and to good character.
Camping has obviously changed immensely through the years. New inventions such as the electric light, synthetic waterproof tents, and portable grills have completely altered camping and made it a more comfortable experience. However, the idea has remained the same and camping has continued to be popular among those with a love of the outdoors.