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The Books that Taught American Women to Camp in the Early 20th Century

'Woodcraft for Women' by Kathrene Sutherland Gedney Pinkerton (1916)
‘Woodcraft for Women’ by Kathrene Sutherland Gedney Pinkerton (1916)

Both Girls Scouts and Camp Fire Girls started in the early 1900s, when camping was an increasingly widespread activity and girls were finally encouraged to embrace the great outdoors, which had long seemed reserved for boys. Books aimed at women on pitching tents, cooking on campfires, dressing for hikes, and surviving in the wild were published in the United States, as more and more women went out into the woods.

As a follow-up to the early 20th-century American camping guides in the Rare Book Room of the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM), here is a look at their printed materials from the early 1900s reflecting this new focus on women and the outdoors. For example, Woodcraft for Women (1916) begins with these words by author Kathrene Sutherland Gedney Pinkerton:

When a passion for hunting and uninhabited regions led Daniel Boone from his Yadkin farm to his adventurous life as hunter and trapper, he did not take his wife with him. […] Somehow, out of the neglect, arose the impression that woods’ joys were for men alone. […] Gradually a few women discovered that the lazy drifting down a pine and rock-bound stream calms feminine as well as masculine nerves and that the dimly blazed trail into an unknown country arouses the pioneering instinct in them as truly as it does a man.

Rare Book Room at the New York Academy of Medicine (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Rare Book Room at the New York Academy of Medicine (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Many of these books were printed just before or after the 19th Amendment in 1920, which empowered women with the right to vote, and they all coincide with a greater movement across the country where women were finding a place outside the home. Pinkerton adds in Woodcraft for Women that a “love for the out of doors, although dormant, lies within most women. That it is so infrequently exhibited is due, to a large extent, to the means that are taken to awaken this spirit. No woman of any force will enjoy the role of passive observer for any length of time.”

The change in women’s roles in the outdoors didn’t happen quickly, as many of these books concentrate on the woman as a housewife, simply transferring her responsibilities and interests to a more rustic place. One image in Motor Camping (1923) focuses on how the new Ford sedan can offer a mobile dressing room for applying makeup. In The Camp Fire Girls: And the New Relation of Women to the World (1912), Luther Halsey Gulick states that women were being called “not merely to make and preserve the individual home, but to give to the community those spiritual qualities which she gave the home.” He adds that the name “Camp Fire Girls” was selected “because fire has always been the center of the home.”

'Camp Counseling' by Viola Mitchell (1950)
‘Camp Counseling’ by Viola Mitchell (1950)

In 1912, moving up from the first rank of Camp Fire Girls not only required tying “a square knot five times in succession correctly and without hesitation” and sleeping “with open windows or out of doors for at least one month.” Girls were also required to learn “the chief causes of infant mortality in the summer.”

Below are some images from early 20th-century outdoors books, when women were expressing themselves outside of the previous decades of domestic life, even if the traditional ideas of homemaking still followed. As one of the songs in Campward Ho! (1920) from the Girl Scouts of the United States of America goes: “We’re coming! We’re coming! to the lakes, the hills, the sea / Old Mother Nature calls her children — you and me! Come where we learn the wisdom of the wood, / Come where we prove that simple things are good, / Come where we pledge allegiance to our land, / America! you’ve called your daughters — here we stand.”

'Wiser counselors, Better Camps, Happier Children' by Children's Welfare Federation (1929)
‘Wiser counselors, Better Camps, Happier Children’ by Children’s Welfare Federation (1929)
'Campward Ho!' by Girl Scouts of the United States of Ameirca (1920)
‘Campward Ho!’ by Girl Scouts of the United States of Ameirca (1920)
'Campward Ho!' by Girl Scouts of the United States of Ameirca (1920)
‘Campward Ho!’ by Girl Scouts of the United States of Ameirca (1920)
'Campward Ho!' by Girl Scouts of the United States of Ameirca (1920)
‘Campward Ho!’ by Girl Scouts of the United States of Ameirca (1920)
'The Sanitation of Recreation Camps and Parks' by Harvey Brown Bashore (1908)
‘The Sanitation of Recreation Camps and Parks’ by Harvey Brown Bashore (1908)
'Campward Ho!' by Girl Scouts of the United States of Ameirca (1920)
‘Campward Ho!’ by Girl Scouts of the United States of Ameirca (1920)
'The Camp Fire Girls: And the New Relation of Women to the World' by Luther Halsey Gulick (1912)
‘The Camp Fire Girls: And the New Relation of Women to the World’ by Luther Halsey Gulick (1912)
'Motor Camping' by J. C. Long and J. D. Long (1923)
‘Motor Camping’ by J. C. Long and J. D. Long (1923)

The New York Academy of Medicine Library is located at 1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, East Harlem, Manhattan. See the website for open hours for the Rare Book Room.

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