This post, the second of several on the Camp Fire movement as Elsie J. Oxenham experienced it, looks some of the details of participating in a Camp Fire. EJO was a Guardian of two successive Camp Fires and this colored her writing, most explicitly in some of the non-Abbey Girl books.
As with the real world of folk-dancing, EJO is a reliable and evocative reporter of the ceremonies: the lighting of the three candles and the fire, the call of “WoHeLo,” the approach of the girls, the adoption of names, etc. What she is silent on is the work and commitment involved in earning the honors themselves—she does not show us is a girl learning “standard dives” (Health honor), carving a totem pole (Camp Craft honor), or swatting “at least twenty-five flies a day for a month” (Patriotism honor).
Before I go further, please click on the picture above, which I love, to enlarge it. (Click on the back arrow—so appropriate to this topic!—to return to the post.) This image is unsigned and I don’t know what book it comes from, but it seems to be by the artist whose work I admired in my last post on Camp Fire. We see a lot of fun details: one girl is making a woven basket, another a clay bowl, a third is showing off her beaded headband, while the fourth holds a bow and has an arrow on her lap. All of the girls wear comfortable bloomers and middy blouses and we can see a neat tent with a mirror, trunk, and cots as well as what are probably bathing suits and a dressing gown drying on a line strung between two trees. They look happy and absorbed and there are no grown-ups in sight.
Suppose you had read a thrilling article about Camp Fire in a magazine, like the one by Mrs. Gulick to the right. (Notice the pose of the girl at the top left: this is the “sign” of the fire and it is used in many of the illustrations of the series books that I’ll address in the next post.) How would you get started? By purchasing a small, paper-backed book with a brown cover (EJO even mentions this book and the color in one of her non-AG books) which cost only twenty-five cents. (My copy cost more than that on ABE.) My copy is the fifth revised edition from 1914, and it is well-worn. It looks like the one below except that it is dirtier and there is no date in large letters.
The Guide immediately tells us that Camp Fire is an organization of girls and women “to develop the home spirit and make it dominate the entire community.”
It is a means of organizing a girl’s daily home life. It shows that romance, beauty and adventure are to be found on every hand and in wholesome ways; that the daily drudgery may be made to contribute to the beauty of living. It gives boys and girls wholesome interesting things to do together. It deliberately intends to promote happy social life.
The reference to boys is a little puzzling until one looks at some of the honors, several of which involve interacting in a “healthy” way with boys—teaching them folk dances, for instance. The Guide goes on to state that Camp Fire “is an army of girls rather than a mission to them.” It stresses that meetings are usually in the home or in the out-doors.
A minimum of six girls over the age of twelve plus their Guardian, who had to be over the age of eighteen, were required to form a Camp Fire. The Guide suggested that a group should not exceed twenty in number, but that ten to twelve was the best size for the girls to get to know each other and their Guardian. And Guardians were meant to be more than just activity leaders: they were counselors of their groups of girls, whom they would nurture for several years.
The fire-lighting ritual and all the symbols and ceremonies were central to the concept of Camp Fire.
[Camp Fire] uses beautiful ceremonies, has an appealing ritual and bases rank and honors upon personal attainment. There are attractive ceremonial costumes, honor beads, and decorations. It interprets daily things in terms of poetry, symbolism, color and imagination.
Each Camp Fire was encouraged to take on a name, activities, and symbols relevant to their own part of the country.
A Camp Fire in one of the Western states may be called the Alsea Camp Fire because it is in the Alsea Valley. . . . The symbol for this Camp Fire is two low brown triangles with bases touching, to suggest the mountains. . . . . The Sequoia Camp Fire may have a reddish brown, long trunked, pointed topped tree for its symbol because it tells of the giant redwoods. A group of girls in Butte, Montana, may name themselves the Copper City Camp Fire Girls, because of the principal industry of their home city, and they may use the pick and shovel in copper color as their symbol. The more simple the symbolic design the more effective it will be and the more varied may be its use.
Girls were encouraged to take names from Indian legends and folklore, but I have not seen any discussion of any of the languages or the differences in Native American cultures described; they are all just generically “Indian.” The Guide tells us that “‘Pakwa’ chose the frog as her symbol, for its skill in diving; ‘Kanxi’ chose the honey-bee for its sweetness. ‘Morning Star’ likes to take walks before breakfast and hopes soon to get breakfast all alone for the other members of the family. ‘Evening Star,’ her sister, is the one who puts the two younger children to bed, and she is winning her first honors in telling folk-stories and Indian legends to them.” Girls could also make up their own names: the Guide says that one girl took her name from the words “needed” and “cheerful,” as she wished to be both those things, and formed the name, “Neachee.” If a girl had chosen a name too hastily, and felt that it no longer described either her qualities or her desire, she could, after discussion with her Guardian, change it, by burning a paper with the old name on it in the ceremonial fire and saying that that name and intent were gone.
One thing that the Guide was silent on is precisely how the Guardian was to acquire the skills to instruct the girls: how did she learn to set a broken limb or tie the trucker’s hitch? Perhaps that was part of the personal growth that the founders were envisaging—that the Guardian would find experts to cover the knowledge areas with which she was unfamiliar, thus binding the Camp Fire to others in the community. This aspect of engaging others—especially mothers—with the group comes out clearly in some of the fiction about Camp Fires.
After the fire itself, the gown was an important part of the movement. Girls were encouraged to incorporate personal symbolism in their beaded headbands and in the embroideries on their gowns. This can be seen clearly in these two examples, especially the one on the left: this girl really enjoyed embroidering as you can see the flowers, the beaver, the bunny, the music notes, etc.
Not only did the gown incorporate symbols and decorations important to the individual wearer, it had a democratic, unifying influence. As the Guide states, when the Grand Council Fire was held and many groups attended
. . . girls from every station in life came together all clad alike. [The gown] was just as becoming to the poor girl as to the rich girl. Its value in bringing about a true democratic feeling between girls of all classes cannot be estimated. They are all one in this great sisterhood.
Unlike Boy Scouts, who apparently routinely went about in the street in their uniforms, Camp Fire girls reserved the fringed gowns for ceremonies. The Guide specifically requires this so that the gown should not become “common and of little significance” by being so worn. It specifically states that a girl may not wear it at any “partisan” parade such as a women’s suffrage parade (though the Guide says that girls and Guardians were entirely free to “identify themselves” as they please) but it did permit the wearing of the gown at pageants when the girls could appear in their “ceremonial dresses without sacrificing any of the delicate personal feeling which should cling to them.”
Organized activities—hikes, camping, and acquiring honors—were also central to the movement. To achieve the rank of Fire Maker (the second rank), you had to have accomplished all 14 of the required Honors, such as sleeping with open windows for at least one month, naming the chief causes of infant mortality, tying a square knot five times in succession correctly “and without hesitation,” refrain from eating candy and sweets for at least one month, and so on. In addition to these required Honors, girls also obtained Elective Honors in the following categories:
Home Craft—Flame colored honors, as fire has been the center of the home.
Health Craft—Red honors (red blood).
Camp Craft—Brown honors (woods).
Hand Craft—Green honors (creation, growing things).
Nature Lore—Blue honors (blue sky).
Business—Yellow honors (gold).
Patriotism—Red, white and blue honors.
There were 90 possible Home Craft honors to earn, showing its importance to the movement, and 32 Health, 25 Camp Craft, 41 Hand Craft, 49 Nature Lore, 25 Business, and 48 Patriotism honors. Guardians also seem to have had some leeway in being able to bestow an honor not on the official list. In addition to regular honors, a girl could earn Big Honors, which were certain multiples of individual honors: viz., to earn a Home Craft Big Honor, you would have to have earned any fifteen Home Craft Honors.
The previous owner of my well-worn copy has placed tick marks on various of these honors. For example, she seems to have known how to identify and describe fifteen trees in Summer and Winter, to have made a baby dress, to have taken seven hours of outdoor exercise every week for three months, to have known six trail blazes, and to have known the names of the Indian tribes that inhabited her state, as well as “the tribes and number of members now living there, and their economic and religious condition.” Religious condition? Hmmm.
Unlike, for example, the YMCA or the YWCA, both dating back to the mid-1850s and both with an emphasis on Christian Bible study, Camp Fire was the first non-sectarian organization for girls. While non-sectarian, however, it was very definitely spiritual as its “Law” and the various “Desires” of the different ranks show.
Elsie Oxenham’s father, John Oxenham (their real surname was Dunkerley, but both of them used Oxenham as a pen-name), contributed verses to Camp Fire, but I do not believe that we know which ones. I suspect him of writing the Fire Maker’s Desire since EJO quotes it, but we may never know.
The Fire Maker’s Desire
As fuel is brought to the fire
So I purpose to bring
My heart’s desire
And my sorrow
To the fire
For I will tend
As my fathers have tended
And my father’s fathers
Since time began
The fire that is called
The love of man for man
The love of man for God.
Symbolism was another key component of the Camp Fire movement, and Charlotte Gulick created many of the symbols, visible in the Law to the left. Note the two little dancing girls at the bottom of the page: this pictogram of one triangle on top of a larger one is the “primitive” (to quote the Guide) symbol for woman. EJO refers obliquely to these pictographs: when Elspeth Abbott sends her letter of invitation to Rosamund, Maidlin thinks that her cute drawings of girls and squirrels are very similar to what her Camp Fire girls use. I have no idea what Charlotte based her symbols upon, but in addition to using these symbols on a gown or a headband, one could sign with them, in a fashion of hand signals that real Native Americans may have used to communicate—although if they really used hand signals, I am doubtful that the Camp Fire signals matched with them.
For example, Seek Beauty, the first of the Laws, could be signed as “Seek” and “Good,” with Seek shown as the index and middle fingers of the right hand touching the eyes, then those two fingers pointed towards the front and Good shown as “Right hand, palm down, held against left breast. Move hand several times with quick motion front and right on horizontal plane.” These “air-pictures” were also developed by Charlotte Gulick, and you can read a book of her symbols and their explanations here.
While Camp Fire was originally founded as a sister organization to the Boy Scouts of America, it never officially became so. However, many of the same people were interested in or involved in the organizations at various times. My Guide lists John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Mrs. Russell Sage, S.R. Guggenheim and Grace Dodge among the financial supporters and Ernest Thompson Seton, Kate Douglas Wiggin (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm), and Jane Addams among the Electors and Directors. These were all important people of the time and their involvement certainly gave an imprimatur of respectability to the movement.
By December 1913, membership in Camp Fire Girls was estimated at 60,000, which is an enormous number for this pre-internet era. Interest was fueled by word-of-mouth, by magazine articles, and by books for girls with the words Camp Fire in the title—I’ll be discussing some of these in a later post.
For Folk Dancers
While EJO’s Maidlin makes singing and dancing one of the principal activities of her Camp Fire, the former at least was a relatively small part of the official honors. (Singing was more stressed, especially “action” songs which incorporated mimetic movements.) However, dear folk-dance reader, you could earn an honor (a red, white and blue bead) in Patriotism thus:
An honor in patriotism may be given to: each member that participates in giving a party or dance in which the girls and boys are about equal in number and in which at least two of the following dances are learned and danced by all: Virginia Reel, Portland Fancy, Lady of the Lake, Howe’s (or Hull’s) Victory, Pop Goes the Weasel, Chorus Jig, Lancers, Boston Fancy, French Reel, German Hopping Dance, Varsouvienne, Furetur, Gottland’s Quadrille. This honor may be repeated four times in any one year, provided new dances are used each time.
The Virginia Reel is the old Sir Roger de Coverley and there are many variants in the U.S. The next five dances as well as Boston Fancy and French Reel are contra dances from New England—these are basically the old country dance, still in triple minor formation, set to New England fiddle tunes. The Lancers is an abbreviated version of one of the figures of the five-part Lancers Quadrille, popular in England at and after the Battle of Waterloo. The Varsouvienne is a turning couple dance from the ballroom, and I don’t have information currently on Furetur or Gottland’s Quadrille which I take from the names to be Danish dances. In 1914 there were a number of folk dance manuals from which girls could learn these dances, but Elizabeth Burchenal, the great collector, had not yet begun publishing. More on her at another time.
You could also earn a Home Craft (flame-colored) honor if you taught a boy to dance any four of those dances, and a Health Craft (red) honor if you demonstrated knowledge of any five “standard” (undefined) folk dances. Since some honors could be repeated, some of us could have earned quite impressive strings of honors!