Around the turn of the 20th century, when Americans took their first steps to preserve some of the wild and spectacular public lands at their disposal, camping in those lands became all the rage. From crowded, dirty and polluted cities, throngs of greenhorns, taking advantage of the newly invented "weekend" to escape the drudgery of office or factory work, streamed into new and vast public wilderness parks to camp, canoe, hike and ride horseback breathing fresh air under bright blue skies.
This was the Golden Age of Camping, roughly the years between 1880 and 1930, a time when some say more Americans went camping than at any other time before or since. In a time years before synthetic fabrics such as polyester and waterproof coatings such as GoreTex would make clothing and tents warmer, more waterproof and comfy than ever dreamed of, early sourdoughs did quite well battling the elements using the natural fibers available to them; cotton for tents and wool, skins and fur for clothing. The practice of woodcraft--skill and experience relating to matters in the woods--often satisfied the need for food, shelter, water and warmth, when store bought gear fell short.
First-person tales of adventure found exploring the mountains and great forests of North America, and told by experts of the time--George Washington Sears aka "Nessmuk", Daniel Carter Beard, Frank H. Cheley, Warren H. Miller and Ernest Hemingway-- inflamed imaginations of the city-bound with stories of a trackless wilderness just over the horizon. Hundreds of how-to and where-to-go guide books were published. There were columns in magazines; newspapers carried advice on the latest gear, news of newly opening public lands.
Urbanites in newly electrified cities with indoor plumbing read about the right way to cook over an open fire, to strip the lower branches of a small tree to make a mattress (bough bed) and how and where to pitch a tent. No one wanted to look like a "chump" when making camp.
Upper and middle class urbanites in the Gilded Age formed the vanguard of these woods worshipers. Taking trains (there were few roads and fewer reliable vehicles) then hiring guides, gear and pack animals at their destination the urban upper crust explored the pristine mountains and valleys of recently established national parks in Montana, New York, Vermont and California. Later the working class hit the road in their Ford Model Ts, stuffed with canvas duffle bags of wool clothing, blankets and cotton tents.
But as new technologies brought about new, lighter, stronger, warmer and drier clothing and gear, the old ways faded from use.
Bringing the old ways backThe publication of David Wescott's "Camping in the Old Style" in 2000 marked the beginning of the classic camping revival in America. Wescott is a camping in the classic style evangelical, with little use for modern day fabrics and gear. At times inferring that clothing and gear made from modern materials is "wonder-junk," Wescott proclaims that while replacing wool and cotton with synthetics is convenient, the knowledge required from working with nature rather than against it is lost.
"The pioneers knew their clothing and how to dress--they survived for hundreds of years with fur, hide. and natural fibers. We wouldn't be here now if it didn't work," he scolds.
Wescott has updated his book for 2015, expanding it, including new pictures of the gear and techniques he advocates, revising some text. It is published by Gibbs/Smith. The book is mostly a cut-and paste-collection of excerpts gleaned from Wescott's library of more than 400 books written by outdoor writers of the time. When Wescott has something to say, his contribution is set in sans serif type to separate it from the quoted passages from writers of the past.
The book is richly illustrated with black and white photographs of turn-of-the-century campers in action and drawings of techniques and gear used by them. Augmenting this historical record is contemporary color photography of modern day re-encampments with participants in full period costume. It is annoying that few of the illustrations, old or new, have cut lines (descriptions).
Excerpts from seminal guide books in Wescott's library not only detail what gear was used and how, turn of the century outdoor writers were lavish in their encouragement to city dwellers to answer the siren's call and head to the outdoors to explore it. Leaving fetid cities packed with humanity behind, to live close to nature, breathing clean, fresh air, even if only for a weekend, is described as, "the best vacation an over-civilized man can have," (1917).
Some worried this might be the last chance to even see their country's spectacular natural heritage. The 1890 census confirmed that the American frontier no longer existed. There was concern to see it now before it's gone; gobbled up by rampaging industrialization.
Some "outers" (experts) expressed surprisingly modern day concerns about what and how to pack. Cutting down on "duffle" was a constant theme. One turn of the century sage admonished city slickers "not to carry something 400 miles they were only going to use once," or "...it is well to guard against taking a lot of stuff that is likely to prove more weight than worth," (Nessmuk, 1884). Weight is the issue for another sourdough who advises: "...an article must pay in convenience or comfort for the trouble of its transportation."
Modern day "weight weenies" will be horrified to read one of the first backpacking tents weighed 23 pounds. It was used in a 1864 solo attempt to summit the Matterhorn (14,692 feet) in the Pennine Alps (Europe). Not all golden age of camping gear was heavy. A tent made with Egyptian (long staple) cotton could be half that weight.
Camping in the Old Style or "Glamping?"While the urge to explore America's newly accessible wilderness areas was strong, the urge to do it comfortably and with style was apparently stronger. Excerpts from books written over a century ago, emphasize the genteel nature of camp life in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. For his part, Wescott includes many contemporary color photographs of camp scenes showing spotless tan tents furnished with polished wood bureaus, folding director chairs and tables, all sporting shiny brass corners. Heat for the drafty open tents came from iron stoves. Many campers from that era would be quite at home with a group of contemporary "glampers," those who combine the glamor and comforts of a hotel with camping. Much of the appeal of camping in the old style appears not to come from camping but from spending the time learning how to recreate the gear used a century ago and keeping it clean and polished.
Fashion was every bit a part of the camping scene, just as it is today. Bandanas, men and women wore some really big bandanas, were ironed after they were washed. Ladies tending to the cooking over an open fire wore starched white aprons over ankle-length skirts topped with billowy blouses with mutton sleeves, at least in the color photographs. Men and women both wore broad-brimmed Smokey the Bear hats or straw boaters. Some of the men are wearing ties.
Wescott is passionate about old style camping and wants you to be too. Taking a page from a 1910 guide to youth camping, Wescott challenges today's tenderfoots (of any age) to become "Master Woodsmen." There are four grades beginning with the least experienced, Apprentice Camper. Learning additional woodcraft skills will move a camper through the rankings of Journeyman Camper, Journeyman Woodsman then Master Woodsman. Those serious about it are encouraged to have a mentor. The subjects are Firecraft, Cookcraft, Toolcraft, Ropecraft, Campcraft (Shelter and Bedding is separate from Campsite Campcraft and Gear and Clothing Campcraft) and three Fieldcrafts: Health and Safety, Navigation and Travel and Nature and Conservation.
There are numerous inspirational quotes about how important a camping vacation, no matter how brief, is to restoring the soul. "Camping has two purposes," writes Frank H. Cheley in "Camping Out: A Handbook for Boys," 1933. "To make us acquainted with our own souls: and to renew our acquaintance with each other. To camp badly is to frustrate both."
Then there is the snarky comment by George Washington Sears, "Nessmuk" in 1884: "Nearly all busy, hard-worked Americans have an intuitive sense of the need that exists for at least one period of rest and relaxation during each year, and all--or nearly all--are willing to pay liberally, too liberally in fact, for anything that conduces to rest, recreation and sport."
Answering the call of the wild a century ago was not easy. There were few trails and even fewer marked trails even at popular outdoor destinations. Maps were poor and roads were often unsigned gravel or dirt tracts. Anything you did not bring with you, you went without as there were no stores for miles. This meant that even first-timers had to know what they were doing to avoid an unpleasant experience.
The book is crammed with the outdoor lore of that age, a time when, for the first time in North America, camping became a recreation and not what you had to do because there was nowhere else to stay. Today's camping dudes will be both entertained and enlightened by solutions early campers found to many camp situations faced by modern day "Nessmuks". Advice on campsite selection, building a campfire, why to chose an ax over a hatchet (the longer handle of the ax makes it more safe) and how to whittle will ad enjoyment to any outdoor camping trip.
Natural fibers, such as cotton in the construction of tent walls, floors and flys and wool used to make warm, water and wind resistant clothing, are carefully considered. There are more tent designs than you can shake a tent stake at, once again proving there is nothing new under the sun.
This is not an academic history of turn of the century camping practices in America. There is a lot of "how-to" here. But the emphasis is uneven. Cotton tents receive a great amount of attention. Coleman products, lanterns and stoves were developed during this time, but are hardly mentioned. Canoe camping, in canvas covered wooden hulls toting woven pack baskets, gets a lengthy treatment. I don't remember seeing LL Bean mentioned in the text. The focus is on style and recreating the period in intricate detail. There is little social context in the book.
There is a primer on natural fibers and fabrics and a list of slang names for beginners: tyros, cheechakos, sagebrushers, dudes, duffers, crusters or sports. Nimrods are hunters. To finance cross-country hikes, "road tramping gypsies" would carry and sell postcards of themselves to curious fans they met on the road and in towns.
The book falls short of being politically correct measured by today's standards. Most of the contemporary women pictured are either shown cooking or modeling camping costumes. Excerpts from women writers are few though a few of the historic black and white photographs show women hunting or fishing.
This book is available from the Jefferson Parish Library, though expect it to show up on the remainder rack at Barnes and Noble before too long if you are willing to wait.