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If you’re going camping this summer, will you rough it on a wilderness hike, or relax in a yurt at a four-star resort? In the late nineteenth century, the tension between savoring the wilderness and recreating civilized life outdoors was very much on the minds of the first recreational campers, as Phoebe Kropp explains.

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After the Civil War, camping went from a necessity for soldiers and transient people to recreation for the upper-middle-class. Kropp argues that Victorian-era campers were playing around with the concept of comfort. For the upper-middle-class, keeping a comfortable home—rather than an impoverished or luxurious one—was a sign of respectability. But being “too comfortable,” or over-dependent on civilized society, was a danger.

Camping wasn’t so much a way to experience nature as a chance for people to provide for their own necessities and modest comforts far from the advantages of civilization. Early twentieth-century camping advocate Horace Kephart urged over-civilized men to “go where he can hunt, capture, and cook his own meat, erect his own shelter, do his chores.”

In a journal published in Outing magazine in 1893, writer Charlotte Conover described arriving in the Rockies with eight family members: “The magnitude of our undertaking dawned on us… Nothing to sit on, sleep on, eat on, or cook on; no place to lay a thing down or hang it up; two miles from an egg and six miles from a safety-pin.”

But Conover and her fellow campers quickly found pleasure in recreating a home in the wilderness.

Fishing Victorians
From New York Commissioners of Fisheries, Game and Forests report () (via Wikimedia Commons)

Camping brought the domestic work typically done by women into full view. One woman described her husband’s enjoyment of washing dishes in a creek, scouring them with mud and moss. “This recognition prompted the question of who exactly produced the comforts of civilization in an era where the definition of home came to center upon the purported absence of productive labor,” Kropp writes.

For many well-to-do campers, of course, the people who actually did much of the domestic labor at home were servants. That raised the question of whether to bring hired help along on a camping trip. Some families saw camping as a vacation from managing servants, while others appreciated not having to cook or wash the dishes themselves.

In other cases, campers hired “guides” who might explain the local landscape, handle unpleasant chores, and contribute to the campers’ spirit of adventure by embodying entertaining stereotypes. “The ‘Canuck guide,’ the ‘Chinaman cook,’ and the ‘Indians’ became stock characters in some campers’ stories, who contributed equal parts expertise and ethnic flavor,” Kropp writes.

On the whole, though, the appeal of camping was a simplified vision of “natural life” that offered potential real-world lessons.

“Camping became a reassuringly traditional platform on which to audition modern family arrangements, like the servantless household, the corsetless woman, the suburban backyard,” Kropp writes. “Camping made these developments appear to belong more to the familiar figure of the pioneer than an unknown future society.”


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Journal of Social History, Vol. 43, No. 1 (fall 2009), pp. 5-30
Oxford University Press