Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip and swing
Sang we thus, my sisters and I, as under the glimmer of the Corn Moon we paddled along the silvery shores of Asquam near Lake Winne-pe-sau-kee in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. (Listen to a delightful clip of the song complete with loon call and sound effects here, sung by Michael Mitchell.
This is the first of three posts on the topic of the origins and early practices of the Camp Fire movement that Elsie J. Oxenham so loved and which she incorporated in many of her books, including some of the Abbey Girls books. I should have written these earlier, back when Maidlin was shown as being more active as Guardian of her Camp Fire but, life being what it is, I didn’t. In this first post I’ll give a bird’s eye view of some of the social forces in America around 1900 that contributed to the founding of the movement. In a later post I’ll look at the activities and structure of a Camp Fire. Finally, I’ll look at some of the series books for girls that feature Camp Fire—books that to some extent EJO was competing with for readers.
Before delving into the underbrush, let us recall that that the middle- and upper-classes of England and America had long had fantasies of alternative lifestyles, such as Byron’s romantic interests in Turkish odalisques or the late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth infatuation with the Romantic Scot, with even the Prince of Wales (George IV) dressing in over-blown regalia in the kilt, or the mid- to late-nineteenth century interest, especially in the American South, with Medieval Chivalry and its tournaments like the famous Eglinton Tournament of 1839 (below right, painted by James Henry Nixon) and trappings (did you know that jousting is the state sport of Maryland?). Although novels like James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) had long been popular, it was at the turn of the twentieth century that the fantasy creature known as the Red Indian took his (or her) turn in the spotlight.
And now, Dear Reader, we will jump like Pah-puk-kee’na the grasshopper from topic to topic as we paint a picture of some of the social trends of the early 1900s.
First, there were enormous strains on the infrastructure of American cities due to the influx of immigrants and of farmworkers leaving the land for jobs in the factories and mills. These were the cities of Upton Sinclair’s exposé of capitalism in the meat-packing industry, The Jungle (1906), cities with no social safety nets. There was a need for English language classes, libraries, playgrounds, health services, jobs-training and more. Second, the increased mechanization of American life seemed to threaten the arts and spirituality and weaken people’s connection with Nature. Third, the U.S. Census Bureau had declared the American frontier “closed” in 1890—there were no apparent tracts of land without settlers on it. The defeat of Indian forces in 1890 at the Battle of Wounded Knee and the subsequent sequestration of these peoples on reservations meant that the Indian “problem” was resolved. Just as the Scots had been romanticized after their defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the Indian became increasingly romanticized as a spirit of nature, the “Noble Savage.” And fourth, there was increasing social concern over what was known as the New Girl, the College Girl, or the New Woman.
—These titles were almost always capitalized to show their importance. My book May Day Festivals in America, 1830 to the Present discusses in greater detail many of these trends above, particularly the Playground movement and the New Girl. I submitted the manuscript with the appropriate capital letters and was very unhappy when the publisher removed them all, but I lacked the backbone to protest. I still regret it.—
The New Girl and especially the New Woman was an anxiety if not an outright problem. She bicycled and hiked, she might wear bloomers or, gasp! trousers, later she might bob or shingle her hair, or smoke. She was independent and forward-thinking, she attended college or worked in a settlement house, and she wanted the vote. Many felt that she was a threat to the fabric of society, and that she needed to be tied more closely to Home.
There was no single response to all of these issues (and recall that I have simplified them extensively); instead, there were a number of reform initiatives seeking to address different aspects of them. Settlement houses such as the Henry Street Settlement in New York founded in 1892 by Lillian Wald and Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago founded in 1889 offered healthcare, classes, kindergartens, and other recreation, educational, and assimilation opportunities to immigrants. The Boys Clubs of America were founded in 1906 and in 1912 Juliette Low founded the Girl Scouts, modelled after the Girl Guides. While founded in the nineteenth century, the YMCA and the YWCA expanded in the early part of the twentieth century, providing safe, cheap housing and middle-class activities for young men and women alone in the big city. Working girls’ clubs, such as those started by Grace Hoadley Dodge, a wealthy young philanthropist and reformer, stressed self-improvement and middle-class social graces, manners, and morals.
In 1901 the wildlife artist and author Ernest Thompson Seton founded the Woodcraft Indians organization for boys, teaching them knowledge and skills of life in the woods and basing the structure of the group on romantic and misperceived ideas about Native American cultures. (Some underprivileged city boys had been vandalizing his property in Connecticut, and rather than prosecuting, Seton invited them to camp on the property and taught them the lore of the wild.) Seton traveled to England and met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, and his writings about his society and its benefits influenced Baden-Powell’s book for Scouts. In 1910, the Woodcraft Indians were merged into the nascent Boy Scouts of America, with Seton as the Chief Scout. A few years later, Seton later left the Scouts and reformed the Woodcraft Indians, now known as the Woodcraft League. Seton’s ideas also influenced artist and author John Hargrave (aka “The White Fox”) who founded the Kibbo Kift Kindred in 1920. This outdoors-oriented, handicraft, and world peace group for both sexes, was referred to by Elsie Oxenham in A17_Queen of the Abbey Girls—the Pixie teaches country dancing to some of the young men. It is worth noting that Hargrave’s wife was a Camp Fire Guardian.
(Below, top, a dance of the Kibbo Kift Kindred; below, some Woodcraft Indians at their camp. Did you read Dear Enemy (1914) by Jean Webster? It is the sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs (1912) and has a charming sequence in which the crotchety doctor and some other men set up an Indian camp for the orphan boys, who later show their well-trained mettle when a fire breaks out at the orphanage. I bring it up not only because it is a good read but because of the pervasiveness of these images of Indians and of camping as a wholesome and improving activity for boys.)
In 1905 Daniel Carter Beard founded a group called The Sons of Daniel Boone, based on the romantic image of the frontiersman. Boys were organized into groups called forts, and officers of the group took on titles and insignia associated with popular frontiersmen: the president was known as Daniel Boone, symbolized by a powder horn; the vice president was known as David Crocket, symbolized by a coonskin cap; the treasurer was Kit Carson, symbolized by a flint arrowhead, and so on. Beard also merged his group into the Boy Scouts in 1910 and became a commissioner in that organization. The Sons were not as complex as the other groups, but they did stress the out-of-doors life.
Finally, O Pah-puk-kee’na, let us hop briefly to a mother lode of romance about the Indian—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his poem The Song of Hiawatha, published in 1855. To unpack Longfellow, his poem, and his sources, only some of which were actually Native American, is too complicated for this post. Briefly, the poem is written in trochaic tetrameter, which is the meter of the Finnish work the Kalevala, but which is not a natural meter in English. Longfellow had studied Finnish at an earlier point in his life, and apparently felt that the meter represented the stresses of a Native American language. The story tells of the doomed love between Hiawatha, an Ojibwe warrior, and Minnehaha, a Dakota woman, and it is set in Michigan on the south shore of Lake Superior. Most of the Native American words in the poem are Ojibwa, with a few from the Cree and Dakota languages, but these distinctions were not made clear to the reader–they are just “Indian.” Here is a sample of the poem, in which old Nokomis charges her grandson to kill the magician that is sickening her people—I urge you to read it aloud:
On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward,
O’er the water pointing westward,
To the purple clouds of sunset….
“Take your bow, O Hiawatha,
Take your arrows, jasper-headed,
Take your war-club, Puggawaugun,
And your mittens, Minjekahwun,
And your birch-canoe for sailing,
And the oil of Mishe-Nahma,
So to smear its sides, that swiftly
You may pass the black pitch-water;
Slay this merciless magician,
Save the people from the fever
That he breathes across the fen-lands,
And avenge my father’s murder!”
Corny, isn’t it? And yet weirdly compelling…..
Keeping these threads of social reform, healthy outdoors activities, symbolism, and romance in mind, turn us now to Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick who with his wife Charlotte founded the Camp Fire movement in 1910 in Thetford, Vermont.
Gulick’s own ill health as a young man as well as his upbringing by missionary parents had already interested him in the spiritual and physical benefits of physical education. One of his philosophies was that good bodies and good morals went hand in hand; that there was a relationship between physical discipline and moral rectitude. Gulick taught physical education at the YMCA Training School at Springfield from 1886 to 1903, where he inspired his student James Naismith to design the game of basketball as a perfect and at that time not too rough exercise suitable indoors or out and conducive to the development of team-work and all-around social development. (Right, Dr. Gulick)
Gulick was deeply influenced by the writings of psychologist G. Stanley Hall, whose approach to child development was that children of different ages required different forms of instruction and play (something we take for granted today, but that was relatively new then). Hall’s idea of development was based on now-discredited theories of embryology and were encapsulated in a marvelous phrase that rolls off the tongue—“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Hall believed that just as the human embryo passed though phases that represented evolution from fish to man, a child in its development passed through the stages of development of civilization, from the most primitive of societies through hunter-gatherers through simpler civilizations and finally to the pinnacle of Western civilization: the white Anglo-Saxon gentleman. (I don’t think that he actually referred to the white gentleman—that’s my gloss and it certainly conforms to social trends of the time. Go read Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes (1914) if you need to be refreshed on these attitudes.) Gulick would take these theories and apply them not only to Camp Fire but to the kinds of folk dances that he felt were the most suitable for different ages of children—I might address this further in a later post, although I cover this in detail in my book.
But if participation in team sports like basketball civilized the young man and made him more fit for life in a democratic and mechanized world, what about the girl? In the Hall-Gulick theory, women’s inherited racial tendencies were different from those of men. “It was not the women who could run, throw, and strike best who survived,” Gulick argued. “The women who were the best mothers, who were most true to their homes, who were the best workers, were those that survived. So athletics have never been either a test of or a large factor in the survival of women. Athletics do not test womanliness as they test manliness.” Indeed, Gulick and his followers believed that that vigorous exercise, and, especially competitive exercise was physically and morally bad for the girl and the young woman.
However, Gulick felt that some new activity was needed for women who formerly stayed only at home: “…in the new era, which is already upon us, the same demands with reference to the larger movements of the community are being made upon women as have been made upon men; yet the same opportunities are not being given to women for learning the lessons of cooperation.” Girls and women also needed to learn the moral qualities of team play.
Gulick had a number of theories about the role of women and the home in society. In a 1912 address to the Playground and Recreation Association of America, he argued that changes in society had eroded the home unit: with the advent of labor-saving devices, mothers and their daughters no longer worked together in the home, and a precious bond was lost. He felt that the ultimate role of women was to reform the City and make it a fit place for children to live in. But there was more: “The fundamental purpose of the Camp Fire Girls is to so treat the things of daily life as to brush away the dull gray coating of the apparent daily drudgery and revive the inherent romance, achievement and adventure of human life,” Gulick wrote, adding that learning how to make “ten standard soups” and identify fifteen bird calls was not “gilding lead; it [was] cleaning gold.” Gulick added that woman’s work had never been given status, because it was unmeasurable. True! There is no real way to measure darning stockings or washing dishes—the holes come back and the dishes have to be washed again at the next meal. But the Camp Fire system attempted to measure these tasks in order to give the girls satisfaction in completing milestones and earning honors which they could exhibit to their peers. While I do not know if he addressed the issue of the New Girl directly, the principles of Camp Fire certainly tied a girl closely to home life.
Gulick strongly espoused the symbolism of the Camp Fire: that each girl chose her own name and incorporated her own special symbols into her headband and robe. He felt that these symbols not only revealed character, they created character, and this is a principle that Oxenham certainly shows us in many of her Camp Fire characters: they explicitly choose names that either already exemplify them or that they aspire to. He felt it important that, by being Guardians of a Camp Fire, mothers could get in closer touch with their daughters. The ascending roles of Fire Maker and Torch Bearer ensured that girls had an opportunity to exhibit leadership, and the outdoor hikes and work improved a girl’s health. Finally, the songs, poetry, and activities were fun.
And now, at last, after our long hike through dense woods we see the welcoming glow of a Camp Fire. Health-giving activities in the out-of-doors—swimming, diving, hiking, cooking—organized groups that required teamwork, symbolism of colors, words, and names, earning of life skills, many of which were home-based, and a do-it-yourself kind of fun: that’s Camp Fire.
Wo-He-Lo…that mystic call referring to Work, Health, and Love. Let’s look at this image again. Artist C.H.L. did a marvelous job of evoking both the fun and symbolism of the movement: the embroidered and beaded gowns with the crossed sticks and flames of fire, the bracelet of the Fire Maker, the activities (the girl bringing wood, the girl doing something useful at the water’s edge, and the canoe paddle and outdoor cooking dishes on the table), the Wo-He-Lo sign and the Blue Bird flag (Blue Birds were junior girls). Importantly, there is not a boy or a man or even a matron in sight—this is a girl thing.
Next time: more on the organization of a Camp Fire, its honors and duties, and its symbolisms.
P.S. My younger sisters and I were not CFGs, but we did indeed grow up spending one glorious week each summer warbling that song (it keeps your paddle strokes synchronous) on the pristine waters of what is now known as Squam Lake. It is the lake featured in the movie On Golden Pond, and it is very, very beautiful. Dip, dip and swing!