Camping 100 Years Ago: It Was In Tents

Family Camping 1900s

As summer begins to wind down, there are only a few more weeks left to pitch a tent and sleep under the stars.  There are still those who like to ‘rough it,’ but many campgrounds today are overrun with giant RVs and mobile homes with most if not all of the luxuries of home.

Camping Inside Tent

Campers in the early 1900s did not have all of the options that we do today.  The camping movement that occurred around the turn of the century was born from the child labor movement.  It was designed to improve the lives of children who lived in poor, overcrowded cities by developing civic responsibility, intellect, and physical and social skills and to bond with nature.  And as cities became more crowded, people were looking for activities away from the hustle and bustle.  Camping was no longer a necessity for hunters, lumberjacks, and other mountain men.  It became a recreational activity for the whole family in every class.

Rockford Chautauqua, 1902

Rockford Chautauqua, 1902

Rockford’s Chautuaqua was a very popular two-week long event that offered lectures on cultural, political, and social topics as well as Buffalo Bill’s exciting Wild West Show.  Those who attended often camped in tents during those two weeks while they enjoyed the festivities.

Rockford Chautauqua, 1906

Rockford Chautauqua, 1906

Campers did not often have special equipment for camping – they brought what they already had.  Rugs and carpets from home made up the floor, and campers sat in wicker or rocking chairs from their own porches.

Ladies Camping Outfit, 1910s

Ladies Camping Outfit, 1910s

Many ladies, like those in the photographs above, wore their everyday clothing, blouses and skirts, while camping.  This outfit is an example of what ladies began wearing during the 1910s.  It’s militaristic style is similar to men’s uniforms worn during WWI.



Many of our camping traditions have remained the same in the last 100 years, such as canoeing with family and friends.  What are your camping traditions?  How are they similar or different?




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2 responses to “Camping 100 Years Ago: It Was In Tents

  1. Dan Wykes

    I recall that even into the 1960s that cotton canvas tents were still common, in colors like tan and green. Families used wall tents and the kids used “pup” tents nearby. The wall tent poles were very heavy steel sliding contraptions that pinched your fingers as you slid them into position under a floppy heavy canvas. No sewn-in floors so mosquitos fed at night. Better not touch the canvas during rain or it would leak there. Campgrounds were primitive, with stinky pit toilets and a shower building (if you were lucky) with only cold water. White gas for both lanterns and stoves, both needed pumping before use. Best parts were getting there in the back of a station wagon gaming and fighting with your siblings, stopping at a “Mystery Spot” or “Sea Shell City” to buy little birch-bark canoes or wood sling-shots. And of course Somores around the campfire were never better, even if you just had a fishing hook removed from your ear that day.

  2. This was my experience as well. It was the best!!!
    Plus, there were so many little campgrounds in the woods that had only half a dozen sites, you could pick and choose where you wanted to stay. We usually chose sites that had water either running by, or next to a lake. My family also fished, and the fish have never been better! Fried up with butter in a iron skillet over the campfire. Yummmm
    My parents liked to find “free” things to do, since there were so very many of us. We usually took up two camp sites, because it took two vehicles to fit us all in! Back in those days, there was a history museum in nearly every town. If they didn’t have one, they usually had some other attraction. Did you know the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD is still there? And everywhere we went, we saw stickers for Wall, Drug. Naturally, we also had to stop in there for our free cup of cold water.
    There was no air conditioning in the cars back in those days. We listened to the radio, and had to agree on the station, if there was one in the area we happened to be in. “The west” was a vast space with very few radio stations, and those usually played religious sermons. If you could find music, it was usually country, so you had better get used to listening to twangy guitars for the next three days. Which is why we sang in the car. And we made up road games. I even wrote a book of them and published it for a little while. “Counting Cows” was the best game ever!

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