An American Summer’s Dream

│ By Megan Bowler, Gale Ambassador at the University of Liverpool │

America – a country of tradition, devout patriotism, sport fanatics and Chick-fil-a. Like Thanksgiving, 4th July, the Superbowl or Maryland’s infamous Turkey Trot, summer camps are arguably an integral part of American culture. This summer, bright-eyed and enthusiastic, I hopped on a plane and travelled a little under four thousand miles across the Atlantic Ocean to YMCA Camp Letts to enjoy my own summer camp experience. Interested in exploring the history of this cultural phenomenon, and the way in which it has been conceived by others, I used Gale’s primary source archives and found personal narratives printed in twentieth-century newspapers in which the authors reminisce about summer camps. Camp counselling is a truly rewarding role; one that has been fulfilled and enjoyed by many likeminded young adults for decades. With these documents, I have been able to plot trends and identify similarities between my recent summer experience and the memories of those who were camp counsellors over fifty years before me, tracing the continuities and shared experiences of this uniquely-American tradition – one of which I now feel a part.

The Topic Finder tool

In order to begin my research, I turned to the Gale Primary Sources “Topic Finder” tool for some well-trusted guidance. Throughout my years of university study, I have found this tool to be of great use, especially during the preliminary stages of research projects. As the tool identifies key commonalities throughout your search results, you are able to extract the core themes and topics related to your research subject from which you can begin to develop your argument. Therefore, you can be assured that you are making optimum use of research time, rather than wasting those precious minutes before a deadline scrolling through unrelated data!

Topic Finder tool visualisation
Visualisation of search results produced using the Topic Finder tool in Gale Primary Sources, showing results of a search for: ‘American summer camp’.

A similar “camp experience”

From this more refined and manageable scope of primary source material I was able to select and thoroughly examine a few sources that drew my attention and stimulated my (already present!) sense of nostalgia. The first source I chose was Ian Bradley’s 1984 article “American’s are Just Camp Crazy” found within The Times Digital Archive, and the second was Monica Porter’s 1995 piece called “Summer camp, the all-American way”, from The Daily Mail Historical Archive. Bradley writes in the first-person continuous tense of what he was experiencing at that time at a camp in the Rocky Mountains, whilst Porter writes reminiscently of her childhood memories of camping in the Catskill Mountains. Although the two experiences would undoubtedly have differed, due to their opposing roles on camp, the two articles still suggest many similarities in the “camp experience”.

Porter, Monica.
Porter, Monica. “Summer camp, the all-American way.” Daily Mail, 14 Jan. 1995, p. 52-53. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004,

This notion is reinforced when I reflect upon my own experiences of camp life whilst reading through the archives. Although Bradley was writing in 1984, thirty-five years prior to my own American adventure, I found many continuities and shared experiences between Bradley’s camp anecdotes and my own. For example, when Bradley uses this sentence to describe the display of patriotism at the camp: “the camp day begins with the solemn raising of the stars and stripes and the state flag (just about the only time when something approaching silence reigns)”, I can very readily relate to Bradley’s underlying tone of desperation for some peace and quiet!

Summer camps – a form of refuge

The interconnection between the two articles, which strengthens the idea of a common “camp experience”, is further highlighted by the similarity between Bradley’s principal argument about camps and Porter’s reasons for attending summer camp herself. While Bradley asserts that, for many, camp acts as a “form of refuge from a broken home”, Porter explains that her mother sent her to camp to avoid the “intense heat and humidity” of her “tough Irish/Italian neighbourhood in the Bronx”. Although we cannot assume Porter to be from what Bradley considers “a broken home”, it is justified to suggest that camp allowed Porter some form of escape. I feel this common theme present in both articles about the reasons children attend summer camps highlights the importance of primary source research. Without exploring – and comparing – different sources, this argument would not have been so thoroughly substantiated.

Bradley, Ian.
Bradley, Ian. “Americans are just camp crazy.” Times, 19 Sept. 1984, p. 9. The Times Digital Archive

As evidenced within these archives, summer camp is a timeless tradition that has been relatively unchanged by the advancement and pressures of technology. Camp is still a place to make friends, to create lifelong memories and to simply enjoy outdoor life! Camp is a home and a refuge to both campers and counsellors alike. But to quote Bradley, “if I do it again, I’m bringing some earplugs”.

This photo features some of the wooden cabins in which campers at YMCA Camp Letts are accommodated throughout their time at the camp. Author’s own photo.
This photo features some of the wooden cabins in which campers at YMCA Camp Letts are accommodated throughout their time at the camp. Author’s own photo.

Blog post cover image citation: author’s own photo.

About the Author

Megan is a third-year History student at the University of Liverpool, a Gale Student Ambassador and a life-long Netflix devotee. With particular research interests in nuclear culture and the movement of people, groups and civil organisations, Megan finds Gale’s primary sources immensely valuable to her studies. In her spare time, Megan would say her main hobbies include spending time with her friends and avoiding the question, “what do you want to do after you graduate?”