The Ladies' Tea Guild

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Summer camp, camping, and stuff made with twigs.

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I haven't gone anywhere this summer, and while I don't really mind, it just doesn't seem like summer if I haven't been to the beach or to camp. I spent a week at camp almost every summer, while growing up. Not the ritzy kind of camp in the Adirondacks or on a private island in Maine, but an everyman’s family camp in the Santa Cruz mountains. We may not have had horseback riding and canoeing, but I distinctly remember creek walking, rowboats on the river, hiking in the woods and arts and crafts. I still have a basket I wove, and a leaf and flower collection that I gathered, pressed, and mounted at camp when I was 12! I just found them the other day. Those kinds of craft projects seem like they were made for camp life, and they almost were; they are a cultural remnant of the Romantic and Arts & Crafts Movements in England and the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Romantic Period began around 1830, and was a reaction against the Age of Reason and Age of Enlightenment, which had begun to seem cold, sterile, and empty of meaning and emotion. The natural world, instead of being feared or dissected and categorized as in previous decades, was idealized and even worshiped. The fashion changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, but the beauty of nature was back in style in the late 1880s, when the Arts & Crafts Movement expressed the art world's tiredness with artificiality and over-blown, self-conscious ornamentation. It was this later, “back-to-nature” fad that launched the pastime of “camping” for fun, and brought elements of the natural world into the domestic world like never before.

The task of decorating the home, choosing and arranging its ornaments, was one of the main jobs of the middle and upper-class woman in the 19th and early 20th centuries. No domestic object was too humble for artistic improvement! Young and older children participated in this pursuit of art in nature through nature walks, the study of live animals, and the creation of art projects using natural elements, both in school and in the newly popular summer camps. Some of these art projects were promptly thrown away a week after they were brought home, but some evidenced real artistic ability and natural beauty, and many families passed down objects of feather work, shell-work, dried flowers, and even insects, as family heirlooms. My family still has a case of beetles and butterflies that my uncle made in school back in the 1950s! (The bugs are all organized and pinned down and labeled, and it’s all very educational and creepy) These kinds of projects were so popular and well-regarded that instructions for them were printed in the women’s and children’s magazines of the day.

While the fashion for hand-made home decor featuring natural materials has weakened considerably, camps have remained the place where such activities are not only welcomed, but expected. Who goes to summer camp without expecting to bring home something made out of twigs, or at least a pine-cone or leaf collection? Since the value and beauty of nature is now firmly integrated into our culture, there is no reason why we can’t re-discover some of those old nature-walk arts and crafts! Plus, we have craft supply stores where we can get plain picture frames, papier-mache boxes, plain glass vases, and the dried flowers, moss, and seashells to cover them with. It can be deceptively easy to make a Victorian-style ornament or two for your home or someone else's ...

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)