The First Public Summer Camps

July 17, 2020

Today parents, children and educators are grappling with the prospect of opening schools in the fall. For the first time in over a century most summer camps are closed and playgrounds are just opening up here in New Haven. This week we’ll take a look at the origins of public school summer camps in the Elm City.

At the beginning of the 20th century, New Haven was far more crowded, with a higher population density than today. More people were concentrated in less space. This was combined with a lack of centralized public social and educational services, which existed without the basic supportive financial and physical infrastructures. The road to public services that many take for granted today often began with philanthropic work and donations from private citizens. Their progressive social reform campaigns led the path to established organizations such as public schools, city planning, the fire and even the police departments.

In 1900, New Haven was bustling multi-cultural urban center with one foot in the old New England traditions of the 19th century, and one foot in the political and social world of modern industry. The New Haven school system was still a hodgepodge of public and private institutions. The school year ran on fall and spring sessions with extended winter and summer vacations. During these breaks children of the working class, often living in crowded tenements, had less opportunities for constructive play and attentive supervision. This along with an ingrained suspicion of the new arrival immigrant families by upper and middle class Yankees, and budgetary restraints contributed to the standardization of our modern 180-day school calendar.

With the lack of a budget to host summer schools and build playgrounds (which were the latest trend in educational development at the time) the volunteer charity Women’s School Association stepped in to assist. In 1898, they opened the first vacation schools at the Zunder and Eaton Schools. By 1905, the program had expanded and moved to three schools, the Zunder, Wallace and Wooster schools. These public schools were all located in dense immigrant neighborhoods centered on George St. and Wooster Square.

The association oversaw the construction of new playgrounds at these schools. The grounds were equipped with the newest in affordable outdoor learning fun, benches, hammocks, swings and baby carriages, with plenty of debris-free enclosed space to run in. Children from across the city were admitted with few restrictions, one of which being no boys over 12 years old were allowed. This was to avoid the bullying of younger children and to allow these older boys to find summer employment. Day care of infants and toddlers was provided much to the delight of the young girls that attended the camps, as they were usually tasked from a young age to keep watch over their younger siblings. Aside from free play outside, they were able to take part in “home science” courses, learning cooking, cleaning and sewing.

The programs were considered a success at the time. Although, they were a charity that was somewhat ignored by other members of the upper class. Summer time to them often meant leaving New Haven, and heading to their own camps located along the shoreline and further north in the hills, far from the cares of the dirty hot city.


Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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