buried treasure: campfire girls

Julianne DeVries. (1933) The Campfire Girls Flying Around the World. Cleveland: World Syndicate Publication.

In 1972 my mother’s family sent us a box of children’s books that had belonged to her and her niece Molly, among them four or five from the 1930s Campfire Girls series. These are in the mold of the Famous Five: a gang of children who perform heroic feats and are celebrated for them, in one volume even being invited to Mrs. Roosevelt’s White House. The series is similar to New Girl books in its project of writing heroines relatively unhobbled by gender, and resembles Nancy Drew in the wholesome setting of Glendale with its malt shops and roadsters.

The Campfire Girls offered broader scope for identification than other girls’ books of the period, where diversity typically manifested as one blonde, one pale-skinned brunette, and one redhead, all with Anglo-Saxon names. Here there were five: Alice (shy spice), a police sergeant’s daughter which comes in handy when the girls are solving mysteries: Lenore (sporty spice), Anita (neutral spice), Dolores (Spanish spice, but not Latina spice, as her father was born in Barcelona), and Mabel (fat jolly prankster spice and the only one with a real personality). In loco parentis is their “pretty, young” leader Mrs. Evans (old spice).

This book sees the members of the Wa-Wan-Da Camp called by the national organization, run by Miss Hannah Rosenfeld in New York (kosher spice, we are led to infer), to take a glamorous, expenses-paid trip around the world, instructing local organizers on how to build the movement.

But what was the movement? Camp Fire Girls was a hippie alternative to Girl Scouts, founded during the Progressive era by environmentalist health experts in Maine who were enamored of Native American culture. The groups “emphasized camping, outdoor activities, and preparing women for work outside the home.”  OF COURSE exporting a girls’ scouting club built on faux American Indian symbolism and Red Pioneer neckerchiefs is going to save the world in 1933.

On their way to save the world, the fivesome set a trans-Atlantic flight record, or rather their private pilot does. The flight is rather the main event of the book; the author takes two thirds of the pages just to get them to Newfoundland, raising the suspicion that she actually didn’t know much about the world capitals to be visited and was taking facts from travel guides. Once landed the girls tour London, where an efficient Scottish woman is well on her way to establishing the franchise, then skip Brussels for reasons that are never explained. They catch a jewel thief in a highly telescoped episode in Paris. The Wa-Wan-Das recruit their hotel clerk in Rome to run the Italian Camp Fire, and manage to set up a branch in China despite civil war that has people afraid to leave their houses. That is the only mention of politics; in Germany, the biggest problem is registering and paying tax to the authorities.

The details of what Camp Fire Girls actually do remain sketchy; the French Camp Fire leader doesn’t know how to work with her recruits and has to be shown – but the book is not specific about what she is shown. Lack of content was a bit of a problem in real life too, at least for our suburban Bluebird (like Brownies) and Camp Fire groups in the 1970s. The mothers, city bred most of them, were not equipped to train us in woodcraft or mushroom identification, nor in leadership skills for work.

We wove potholders from polyester loops, sang folksongs along with a record sent from national headquarters, made bargello pincushions, held a potluck dinner for ourselves, knitted afghan squares and piled up canned goods for charity drives. We did spend one night outdoors under canvas in fourth grade, led by Mrs. C who had been with her husband in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan (an experience the organization could have made more of), and our leader Mrs. P. After that, the Ps moved to Prince Georges County in faraway Maryland, triggering the breakup of our tribe long before we could pursue any criminals or convert an indifferent world to our vaguely defined mission.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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