Tents and 10-year-olds, 1877

July 25, 2014

William Hoyt Coleman gives us a delightful look at a summertime activity that’s still popular.

As a teenager, William was a popular subscriber to Robert Merry’s Museum; here he honed skills he used later as a writer for various periodicals, including the Christian Union. William’s weekly columns for the Union allowed him to explore an interest in farming and today gives us a glimpse of daily life in a middle-class white family.

Entertainingly, you can take the boy out of Merry’s Museum, but apparently you can’t completely remove Merry’s Museum from the boy.  This piece begins with an allusion to the letters column in the Museum, which had a popular section reprinting letters from subscribers.  In the Museum, subscribers referred to the column as the “parlor” in which they conversed each month; now, William refers to the his colleagues as the “friends in the ‘Union’ parlor.”  And “Gail Hamilton” (Abigail Dodge) was one of the most popular American writers among subscribers to the Museum.  (Subscribers especially enjoyed Gala Days.)

A few notes:  In 1877, the Christian Union printed a few columns on “How to Spend the Summer,” including one by “Gail Hamilton” in the September 5 issue.  “The Boy” was Moss M. Coleman, age around 10 in 1877; his sister was Laura, who was about 5.

“The Tent on the Lawn.” Christian Union 16 (25 July 1877): p. 78

The friends in the “Union” parlor are having a fine talk about “How to Spend the Summer.” If there is no objection we will chat awhile under the old cherry tree in the garden upon a feature of summer life not yet mentioned, though it may be one that Gail Hamilton means to treat of in “How to Stay at Home Without Grumbling.” But Miss H. will pardon an old pupil for speaking without permission, just this once.

Whittier has sung of the “Tent on the Beach;” let us praise in prose the “Tent on the Lawn.” Lawns are not made to look at, alone. Perfect in color and in cutting they may be, but their chief charm is in forming a background or a setting for something else. A croquet party, a group of children frolicking on the sward, a cat or dog scampering about—anything that is alive—adds an element to the picture that flower beds and statues cannot impart.

Now a tent is not alive, but it suggests life, especially to the mind of an active boy. Soldier-life, hunter-life, gypsy-life, robber-life—all these flash through his mind when he sees the tent on the lawn, and if permitted he will enact each and every one. It may be wise to let him. Better some harmless savagery under your own eye than a consorting with rough fellows on the street, or fretful pinings at home after forbidden fun. “But it will spoil the grass!” cries an anxious amateur. “Oh, bother your grass!” we were about to say. “Happy boys are worth more than perfect turf.” With a little care both may be had. Adopt a few simple but rigid rules, as thus: 1st. The tent must not remain over three days in one place. 2d. The tent-pins must be light and sharp, and not be driven too deep. 3d. No hacking or chopping of the turf with hatchets, knives or spears, allowed. 4th. After lifting the tent all holes must be tamped with the mallet.

A good strong cotton tent, nine feet long and seven feet high and wide, with closed ends, pins, pin-loops, etc., can be made for $10. A few shillings will pay for the ridge-pole and two upright poles shod with iron. Such a tent, though not as strong or as tight as canvas duck, will turn the rain and be strong enough for common use. When it is taken down for the first time leave the ridge-pole in its place and roll the tent upon it. Then it can be set away in the wood-shed or barn, and quickly put up again when wanted. The pins should be counted and kept in a basket, or some will soon be missing.

After taking possession your boy will probably scorn the luxuries of a home and propose to make the tent his permanent abode. With some beloved crony he will fit up its interior with the necessary furniture, such as knives, hatchets, pistols, shot-guns (powder and shot may be prudently forbidden), one or two blankets and a box or table. After the first day or two you will be pleased to see that the favorite books and chairs are carried out, showing that civilization has not altogether lost its hold. Dinners will for a time be highly enjoyed under canvas, although involving the trouble of frequent trips to the dining-room window to receive supplies.

Enthusiastic plans will be laid for staying out all night and elaborate arrangements made looking thereto, but as the shades of evening fall it is highly probable that the camp will be deserted and the Roaring Rangers of the Rio Grande will steal quietly into the house remarking that they guess it is going to storm.

Perhaps, however, a more courageous feeling takes them and they really and truly “camp out.” Terrific preparations are made. The tent is double-pinned; hatchets and knives are placed in the belt; the family dog, or, if there is no dog, the family cat is taken in for company and protection. As you look out in the evening a dim light illumines the canvas walls. It will not be safe to approach the tent at this time with any idea of fooling. There will be a sudden rush as of angry hornets, and you will run great risk of being clubbed or tomahawked. But after the light is out and the Rangers are rolled up in their blankets, they are less valorous and more inclined to cover up their heads at any unusual sound. They have even been known to be half scared by the cook as she returned home after an evening out.

During mid-day, while the boys are at school, their sisters can take possession of the tent and convert it to a play-house. Mamma will be able to sew, read, or can her fruit unhindered through many long hours, and when she goes out to the tent the chances are that she will find a large tea-party in full progress; a tent on the lawn having a drawing power over neighboring children equal to that of a molasses barrel over flies.

Sometimes the tent leaves the lawn. A Sunday-school camping party has just borrowed ours. They have met every other week for the last two months to devise and perfect arrangements. The last meeting but one was held in our tent. Fifteen boys and the teacher who heads the party, after one or two games of ball, packed themselves into it in some mysterious way and by the dim light of a lantern held a business session of one hour. Some of the boys said it was ’most as good as camping itself. Then they came into the house and refreshed themselves with cake and strawberries.

To-day the tent is gone and pitched with other tents on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. The boys are gone. The Boy is gone, and the house is very quiet. At meal-times we wonder whether he has enough to eat, and at night whether he does not long for the cosy bed at home. Little sister does not know what to do, with brother and tent both gone, and J. would be glad to have the cooky-jar invaded and her back thumped, as of old.

The night of the second day, as we return from weekly meeting, J. greets us with, “I have just put a weary little boy to bed.” Sure enough, the bold camper has returned. Excitement and over-doing have made him sick. He is glad next day to lie in bed and take beef-tea and toast. After the camp coffee and the hot tent how good the house food tastes; how good the home bed feels; how nice to have mamma wait on him! No more camping for him!

A few days’ rest, however, revives the spirit of the Roaring Ranger and he is eager to go back to camp. Some of the boys come over to town, and back he goes with them. Perhaps experience will keep him steady but we doubt if the tent on the beach will afford him half the fun he found in the tent on the lawn.


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