I've come to realize that
America was radically altered in the early
twentieth century by a particular personality --
someone whom I like to call the Savage Boy
Inventor. He was a product of the Arts and
Crafts movement, and the Arts and Crafts movement
was a reaction to the industrialization of the late
nineteenth century. It summoned us back to the
manual arts and a more basic way of life.
The Boy Scouts were an outgrowth of that. So, too,
were the many books telling young boys that it was
manly to take risks, to hunt, and to build their
own world in the forest.
It was only a short step from building a forest
lean-to to building one's own X-ray machine or
airplane. What began as an escape from modern
technology soon spawned the greatest technological
revolution the world had seen. A mentality of
reckless invention underlay our careening
development of the new airplanes, radio,
automobiles, and everything else that made the
Now historian Abigail van Slyck shows how this
process is reflected in, of all things, the
institution of camp cooking. Beginning in the
1880s, first the YMCA, then the Boy Scouts, began
creating close-to-nature camps, while theorists
clucked over the insidious feminization of boys
being raised in cities. One noted physician
imagined a disorder that he called
neurasthenia. He defined it as "a lack of
nervous force" in young men.
Summer camps were the
answer. And, once in the camp, the matter of
preparing and serving food became paramount. Van
Slyck talks about the food axis around
which camp life revolved. I camped a lot after I
finished college, and I still used the early Boy
Scout method of baking potatoes in an open fire
At first, boys cooked their own food and used their
knives to eat it off tin plates. But all that set
off alarm bells. Most of America had only recently
learned elementary table manners. People didn't
want their kids losing that hard-gained ground.
Most camps soon went to a system that involved some
table decorum in a mess hall. And they moved to a
system in which the boys rotated through all the KP
chores under the strict hand of the head cook. All
this formed a set of male-bonding rituals.
When the Girl Scouts formed, the food axis
remained; but talk of cooking over open fires
vanished. Girl Scouts cooked on regular ranges --
mimicking the work that awaited a wife and mother.
The Girl Scouts also laid heavy stress on
principles of household efficiency, just being
formulated in the new field of home economics.
In the end, the re-creation of the risk-taking
savage had paid off in invention. By the
1930s, most camps were using professional cafeteria
service with electricity and refrigerators. Today,
van Slyck observes, the very camps that arose in
resistance to technology, now teach technology. She
smiles at today's "computer camps" -- the natural
conclusion of all this, and the ultimate oxymoron.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A. A. van Slyck, Kitchen Technologies and Mealtime
Rituals: Interpreting the Food Axis at American
Summer Camps, 1890-1950. Technology and Culture, Vol.
43, No. 4, October 2002, pp. 668-692.
For more on the Savage Boy Inventor idea, see: J.
H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with
X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins, New York:
Oxford University Press, in press, expected Fall
2003, Chapters 12 and 13.
All images here were taken from the 1912 Boy Scout
Handbook for Boys.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.