Americans, at heart, are outdoors people. We don’t do well cooped up inside for too long. Not long after we settled the new nation, in fact, we were looking for ways get back to nature.
Long before it was one of America’s most beloved pastimes, camping was a way of life—literally, a way to continue existing amid harsh elements—for various people groups across millennia.
It’s even an activity recounted in some of earliest historical, literary and religious texts we possess: The Old Testament, for example, mentions Jabal, the “ancestor of all who live in tents.”
But in the 1800s and 1900s—and dramatically in post-World War II America—camping in tents became less a way of life and more recreational. From the antebellum bell tent to more modern, 10-sleeper tents, here is a brief history of camping, and its signature icon: the tent.
1855—Henry Hopkins Sibley, a Confederate Army officer, designs the bell tent, based on the Native American teepee. A pole in the center of the tent hoists a piece of fabric—typically canvas—upward. The Federal Army used 44,000 such tents in the Civil War.
1906—The British camping enthusiast T.H. Holding writes “The Camper’s Handbook,” which sparks an interest in recreational camping across the globe. He tells of his first camping experience on the Mississippi, and extols camping’s benefits: “Camping, I contend, is the oldest subject, for it interested even primeval man,” he writes. “It teaches him no small measure of self-reliance. … It adds to his physical activity, and therefore tends to the lengthening of his life. … It revives his taste and love of the country.”
In his book, Holding offers readers some interesting perspective on the role of the tent:
“The tent is the piece de resistance for Camping, but it is far from everything. It is something like the man who gets a camera and then finds that he needs various lenses, printing frames, toning and developing solutions, lamps, dark-room, and all the rest of it."
Find tent accessories here.
1911—The first official Boy Scout Handbook is published, addressing the finer points of camping. The handbook carried an essay on tentmaking, reprinted from “Recreation,” which outlines no fewer than 10 types of tents campers can pitch, from a simple lean-to to the more complicated canoe tent.
1945—The post-war economic boom sends Americans in droves to camping retailers, as they purchase tents and campers en masse to enjoy the great outdoors.
1990—Napier Enterprises releases the first “truck tent,” conveniently designed to be pitched in the bed of a pickup.
2009—Some 3.2 million Americans camp while staying in a tent, despite technological innovations that offer them a more glamorous camping experience, according to a report compiled by the Outdoor Industry Association.
2011—The tenacious tent still captures the American imagination, as the number of U.S. residents embarking on tent-based camping expeditions holds steady from 2009, with 3.2. million Americans making a recreational tent camp trip, more than R.V. (2.2 million) or backcountry (1.7 million) excursions, according to a camping report compiled by the Outdoor Industry Association.