The Dawn of the Age of Camping

Though you might not think it, camping as a recreational activity had to be invented. We campers in the New World, especially in the States and Canada, tend to assume that modern camping is sort of a cultural hand-me-down, a continuation of the traditions of the Indians, the pioneers and the cowboys on the trail. It’s something we do because people here have pretty much always done it.

That’s all true to an extent, though camping as we know it today had to be invented. The man who did so was a English tailor by the name of Thomas Hirman Holding. Holding was born in 1844 and when he was nine his family attempted, unsuccessfully, to emigrate to America. Over the year or so the family spent in the States, they traveled by horse and cart (since there were no trains) from the Mississippi River to Salt Lake City and back. Over that period Holding camped, saw buffalo and antelope and got run over by a wagon. In time he would come to romanticize those experiences (except maybe the last one) and seek to replicate some of them back home.

At that time no one in Britain camped unless they were in the military. The thought of doing it for fun was, well…odd. Still, in 1877 Holding bought a canoe and began adventuring (when he wasn’t tailoring) around the British Isles, especially Scotland and Ireland, pitching camp wherever he went. A prolific author of short books on clothes-making (Ladies’ Cutting Made Easy, Coats: How to Cut and Try Them On, Trousers, Vests, Breeches and Gaiters and Cutting for Stout Men), Holding eventually began writing travelogues.

By the turn of the 20th century Holding had become something of a trend-setter. Britain was wealthy as a result of the Industrial Revolution. A large middle class had been created, many of whom, tired of the dirt and density of cities and inspired by pastoral and transcendentalist writings, wanted to get away from it all. Camping was just the ticket.

In 1908, prompted by friends who sought Holding’s advice on sleeping successfully out-of-doors, he wrote The Camper’s Handbook, the first-ever non-military camping manual. That same year, evidently fed up with canoes, he founded the Association of Cycle Campers, a club which would eventually evolve into the British Camping and Caravanning Club, which now boasts some half a million members. Holding, by virtue of his considerable skills as a tailor, also designed tents and other gear that could fold neatly and fit on a bicycler’s back.

Holding died in 1930 at the age of 86, having spent much of his life outdoors. It clearly did him good.

13 thoughts on “The Dawn of the Age of Camping”

  1. Interesting. Camping, which I have always thought of as “the all-American past-time,” is British??! (Me, I’ll take a hotel room with electricity and running water any day.) But I am interested in how and what you’ll cook. I looked up your Graham cracker recipe yesterday. I tried a different recipe several months ago, it was good but I’ve been looking for another. I won’t make s’mores, but I’ll make those Graham crackers!

  2. Though I love camping all I can think of when I see the picture is, “What were these people thinking when they wore those jackets and ties while camping?” Dressed like that it’s a wonder camping took hold!

    1. They had style back then, didn’t they? To think…I’ve put on a tie maybe a dozen times in the last year for business!

      It was a different world!

      – Joe

  3. *Looks around*

    Isn’t this a FOOD blog? Ye gods, what strange territory we’ve wandered into…


    1. There’s always some odd rabbit hole to fall into on this blog, Roger!

      I always try to, how do you say, mix it up a little!

      – Joe

  4. Thank you for again one terrific insight in history of everyday things!

    In former Soviet Union we also have camping traditions, though very different from that ones with cars, Dutch ovens and coolers. Tourism and camping was encouraged by government in Soviet Union, and people who enjoyed outdoors were organized in tourist clubs – most popular being ones for mountaineers and paddlers. But as private transportation was not available for most of people, you had to bring all food and gear in backpack, therefore camping was not so luxurious; more efforts were put into bringing more calories with less weight. Knowledge about how to calculate amounts of food for 10 people for 3 weeks into wilderness and then cater them using only basic equipment was passed from more experienced tourists to younger ones; after expeditions club members had to submit reports about route, travel diary and another information for next ones to be used. I remember our house filled with pieces of rye bread being dried and then sauteed in skillet to infuse them with lard or butter and replace water with fat in order to get more nutritional value; also some kind of canned meat was prepared at home. So, after all this experience (my father participated in long wilderness paddling expeditions for almost 10 years in 1980ies) I still have hardship adapting myself to “car camping” and bringing kitchen equipment into outdoors. I’m looking forward to get some inspiration from you and try something fancy while camping this summer!

    1. Fascinating! I remember in the USSR, many years ago, seeing the Komsomol kids hiking out in the wilderness, especially way out there by Lake Baikal. I was surprised at how closely those uniforms resembled our Boy Scout uniforms!

      If you do take some Joe camping recipes with you this summer, have fun and watch out for the bears!

      – Joe

      1. Actually those kid organizations were very similar to Boy Scouts, there just was lots of Communist ideology stuffed in all the activities.

        Fortunately, in Latvia we have virtually no bears (sometimes few of them wander into country from Estonia or Russia), so far more bigger concern in campfire cooking is mosquitoes – how are you supposed to mix pancakes when you have to fight against hundreds of thirsty insects? 🙂

        1. That’s good about the bears! As for he mosquitoes in the pancakes, as we like to say in the States, that’s extra protein.

          Have fun!

          – Joe

  5. OK, the odwalla ad just showed up after I’d been reading/bouncing around your blog for about 20-30 minutes. Just FYI, thought I wouldn’t get it. . .ah, well.

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