Considering the Campfire Girls: Wohelo! Part 2

Pam’s Pictorama Post: For those of you not reading this in real time (or who missed yesterday’s post which can be found here) I covered the four Radio Girls novels which were subsequently served up as Campfire Girls novels, sweeping them into a decades long series of books which has its start in the early teens of the 20th century. The organization was founded in 1910, born out of camps in Maine and Vermont and in response to the Boy Scouts – realizing it seems the need for a nondenominational organization for girls.

The early volumes that I have read appear to take place in a somewhat nebulous part of upstate New York or New Hampshire. Girls schools seem to play a role in them and these must have proliferated in a way I wasn’t much aware of, boarding schools for middle and upper middle class girls which were a mix of academics and things like sewing and music.

Cross promotion with Corn Flakes. That’s some good early fundraising going on.

Wohelo is the Camp Fire Girl pledge (short for Work, Health, Love) and serves many purposes in the novels. People shouted it in the woods when lost or searching for someone (this happens a lot in these novels) or someone might use it somewhat slyly to let another girl know you too were a member. There are songs and poems attached to it and I gather an award that the group gives at the highest level as well. As far as I can tell from the books the group was heavy on all of the above as part of their ceremonies.

There are a few warnings from the start that I should probably post on these early editions. A profound but casual sort of racism exists throughout and, despite being a movement which in a sense promoted independence for women, a young women’s goals were still largely tied out to what kind of wife she would ultimately make. I can only say that these are products of their time. I am not sure I would promote them universally without caveat to young girls today.

Brown uniform pretty close to what I wore. Would have loved those socks though!

I myself made a lousy Girl Scout – which is what we had locally in New Jersey. Camp Fire Girls was an exotic other which was not an option. I entered a Brownie Troop because I was expected to, as did my friends. I fretted about memorizing the damn chants they made you repeat (why always with the chanting? seems creepy now) wore a little brown dress, always somewhat ill fitting, and beanie dutifully to school on the designated day.

By the time I graduated to Juniors, I was even less enamored. We never seemed to get to the more interesting things in the guidebook like how to build a fire. And even then I was drawn to the early uniforms which were still available although they were in the process of morphing into bad 70’s remakes, my preference for vintage clothing rearing its head early. I liked the sash and the embroidered badges fascinated. My mother, who had made it up into Cadets during her own high school career, had been talked into be a troop leader for a small group at that elevated level and she told me that I was going to be in Girl Scouts if she was and I accepted my fate.

Close enough to my Junior’s uniform – minus the bolo tie and of course all the badges on the sash!

My friends remained in it as well and my specific memories of those middling years were that we did go to camp once – no idea where in the wilds of New Jersey. I used a sleeping bag my sister had acquired for something and had become what we used for sleepovers. It was an army green-brown and the inside was a print flannel – maybe fishing scenes? It was my sole experience of a sleeping bag until I crawled into a down version in Tibet decades later – far superior. My only real memory of camping was that it was much harder to make pancakes outside over a fire than at home and I was bad with a compass. We learned about Indian sand painting and this must have made an impression because it was brought back to me in detail when watching Buddhist monks performed a sand mandala ritual which seemed remarkably similar.

Images such as this filled me with a desire to push to the upper echelons of scouts which would provide for nifty berets, high heels and outfits that resembled stewardesses of a time already gone-by. It was mostly about the clothes for me and was not to be.

Other than that clutch of memories I know we met first in an ancient wooden building in town which was called Bingham Hall. It was probably built as a church originally and must have been used for other things, but I’m not sure I was ever much in it for another purpose. It was a single room building with a small stage and no other permanent features like chairs or pews. Later we met in a church basement and that introduced me to the smell of church basements (I come from a non-religious family and this was my only early introduction to churches at all) and that smell of cleaning fluid, paper and something else, that brings those meetings to mind immediately. As you can see, the Girl Scouts didn’t contribute much to my moral fiber or overall improvement.

Bingham Hall, Rumson, New Jersey

Nonetheless, the dawn of the 20th century was a different time and the idea of encouraging young girls to learn the skills needed to camp and to survive outside were downright controversial. It is years before women get the right to vote and even the need for more than a nominal education was a matter of debate. Very wealthy families had been sending their teenage daughters to European finishing schools and those existed in this country too. Colleges like Barnard (founded in 1889) and my own alma mater Connecticut College (founded in 1911) were somewhat experimental and controversial. One of the things that appealed to me about Connecticut College was its roots as an early women’s school which appeared to be born out of the Arts and Crafts movement and where wealthy families once sent their more creative offspring for secondary education.

An original building at Connecticut College under construction, originally founded as an all girls school in 1911.

In the first few books of the Camp Fire Girls series (as far as I can figure out the order) Ethel Hollister is the protagonist whose family pretends greater wealth than they have so she can make a good marriage match. Belonging to the Camp Fire Girls shows her another path which ultimately leads her leaving her finishing school and instead enrolling at Barnard – ensuring that she can make a living on her own – or ultimately help to support her husband as she states. Her going to college is part of the controversy making up the plot of these books and it was considered odd of her which causes some of her former friends to snub her. The series of four novels ends with most of the young women engaged or married.

There is an air of this around the early Campfire Girls and the Arts and Crafts movement seems to define its aesthetic as well as its roots in promoting the individual. In a volume from 1912 when a “camp home” is described it is in full blown Arts and Crafts style. It is therefore a bit frustrating when these independent young women drive home the point that these skills will ultimately make them better wives. This seems absurd today but is probably an important link in how women did gain their independence. These books are full of the fire of the converted however and in that sense it was a real movement.

The book series is odd in that, unlike the Stratemeyer Syndicate series I am familiar with main characters come and go. You get a few volumes devoted to a group of characters and then a new writer and new characters are introduced for the next few volumes. (Thus far all have been available on Google Play Books or other e-book sources and so far I do not own any of the actual volumes. They appear to be fairly available at low prices online from what I have seen however.) The underlying concept is very similar however and these volumes hew closely to laying out the tenants and driving home the concepts of the organization. These books are very much tools to bring new recruits to the ranks.

Silver ring for new entrants to the Campfire Girls. Man, who wouldn’t have gone for that?

Now let me just say, the Camp Fire Girls had really cool stuff. It is described so lovingly in the volumes that I began looking it up immediately and they would have sold me on the splendid outfits and jewelry alone. What young girl wouldn’t be enamored of the silver ring symbolizing their entry point as wood gatherers? Shown above in its Arts and Crafts design glory, these are available in abundance online, showing how many women had them and kept them over time. A silver bracelet was to follow shortly as they became fire makers. I am saving that, the rather extraordinary outfits and some period photos for my next post devoted to this subject.

The Radio Girls and the Campfire Girls: Part One

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I stumbled on the four Radio Girl novels advertised in the back of a Ruth Fielding novel which must have been a reprint as these were published in the 1920’s and that volume dated from 1915. (You will find my brief survey of Ruth Fielding in a post here.) Just a note that all four books are available on ebooks – I believe I read them all on Google Play rather than Project Gutenberg.

Although this clutch of novels was later repackaged with the Campfire Girls novels, they are more of the breed of The Automobile Girls or The Moving Picture Girls, (my prior post on those can be found here) than what turn out to be rather distinct novels devoted to the Campfire Girls and that real world movement which was picking up speed at the beginning of the twentieth century. (It should be noted that it is spelled both as one word Campfire and two, Camp Fire, at various times. Without really being able to lock it down I would hazard to say that the one word spelling is the earlier spelling. The contemporary organization uses two words.) While all belong to what I think of as the plucky young girl genre, the idea of exploiting the new inventions of the times – the new world opening up with the advent of the automobile, films and also radio – is the jumping off point for each of these.

As I have written about previously, the thrill of a changing (modernizing one if you will) world is at the center of each of these – and the evolving role of young women, emerging from their teen years pretty much at the same time as the century itself. It reminds us that society evolved slowly and these novels go to some pains to show that these are nice and average girls, in this series they are fairly affluent. (Unlike Ruth Fielding and some other plucky young dames who are of the poor and/or orphaned variety.)

It is boys not girls climbing onto the roof on the cover of this magazine from the same period.

I deeply regret that the Radio Girls series is only the four volumes because I liked the characters and the writing, as well as finding the topic endearing. These novels were published in the early 1920’s although the dates when penned are hard to figure out since the first three volumes all have publication dates of 1922, the last volume 1924 – I deeply suspect that at least the first three volumes, or even all four – were produced all at once like a long book. These were written under the pen name of Margaret Penrose, a Stratemeyer Syndicate nom de plume for a number of authors writing under a single name. I cannot find further information about who actually wrote them although they do seem to have all been written by the same unidentified person.

While it may sound surprising to say, these are chocked full of the thrill and excitement of radio as it was dawning. It amazes me how much mileage the author gets out of it. Most charming for me is where Jessie and Amy (our protagonists) speculate on what the future might look like – a world with radios and telephones you carry around with you – television! (I could not help but wonder what they would have made of the iPad I was reading the book on in bed that evening.) They reflect on the radio’s place in a world that was still reeling from the establishment of the telegraph and telephone not all that long before. Telephones and radios were just being adopted by middle class American families and were still indeed novel.

At the heart of the plot of each is a mystery of sorts – kidnapped girls, raising needed funds for a worthy cause, or perhaps alternatively being stranded on the water, an island or on a sinking boat and the radio helps save the day! It is worth noting that the author goes to great pains to make Jessie and Amy, but especially Jessie, the master of all things radio, where she outshines both her college aged brother and his friends.

Jessie’s mother, Momsey, tends to fret a bit about the radio – however it does seems that there was the very real possibility of the set-ups attracting lightening strikes so she wasn’t exactly foolish in her fears. (It comes to pass in one of the volumes where a fire is started in a house via lightening strike and an open circuit on a radio set-up.) Meanwhile, Jessie eschews purchasing a kit for her radio and uses instructions (from a magazine I believe) to set up her rig – which includes climbing a tree and out a window in front of their large home, in order to string the wires. In the end, both mother and father are in full support of the endeavor. Once an acoustical horn is acquired for the radio (at first each person had to wear headphones) the whole family and their guests endeavor to listen ongoing – even a ticketed demonstration for the community to raise funds for a hospital project takes place in the first book.

In a later volume the young girls get to perform on the radio too and we get a glimpse of the mix of the behind-the-scenes performers, professional and amateur vying for radio time. Kim turned me onto some of the radio magazines that existed at the time, ones that seem to mix the upgrades in equipment and mechanics with the emerging star power of the day – sort of a film star magazine for radio. These are very appealing and I may pick up a few on eBay and wander through them.

How the Radio Girls are repackaged as Campfire Girls and the republication schedule of these is a bit of a mystery to me – the original copyright is on the volumes I read. I see some evidence that maybe the subsequent publication was issued in the 1930’s. Each was originally published with the double name title convention such as, The Radio Girls on Station Island or The Wireless from Steam Yacht. Campfire Girls replaces Radio Girls in the titles and they are repackaged and presumably sent out again to another generation of young readers by the new publisher. I can only imagine that they must have been somewhat confusing to girls who were expecting not just plucky heroines, but some actual reference to the Campfire Girls – those novels are chocked full of Campfire Girl lore.

While a tad resentful at first that my Radio Girls were subsumed into another entity, I gathered a few early volumes of the Camp Fire Girls on my iPad. I hope to eventually see if the original characters and story lines of the Radio Girls were picked up – they do not appear to be. However, the very different charm of those lured me in and in a subsequent post I will write about the first volumes I have tackled in that very long and interesting series, the genesis of the series which predates the Radio Girls with the earliest volumes coming out around 1912. As I like to start at the beginning of things I am still in the early volumes published before 1920, so more to discover and come on that.

Ruth Fielding

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I am sitting down to start this post with the first three books in the Ruth Fielding series under my belt, as well as having made a good start on Volume 4. Unlike some of the recent entries in my forays into juvenile fiction of the early 20th century, this series, part of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, is of the multiple author variety all under the nom de plume of Alice B. Emerson. Titles 1-19 are written by someone named W. Burt Foster and so those I write about today are all his. (I cannot find tracks of him other than these books, at least not with a casual search.) For anyone I manage to engage in reading these – the excellent news is that they are widely available online for free in a combination of Project Gutenberg and Google Play Books.

This series of 30 books starts in 1913, making it even earlier than the Miss Pat series and as extensive a series as Judy Bolton. (For new comers, a quick gander at Pictorama posts devoted to those series and you can find the Miss Pat ones here and here and two on Judy Bolton here and here.) Wikipedia makes note of the fact that Ruth ultimately marries and that this is unusual in the Stratemeyer universe. Although of course the aforementioned Judy Bolton, another Stratemeyer alum, marries as well.

The main character, Ruth, is of the plucky orphan variety and we meet her in Volume 1 as a young girl who has just lost her father, the second of her parents to die – no time is spent on any details around this. She is sent to live with a distant uncle on her mother’s side who is billed as a miser – a word we don’t hear that much any longer, but surely has it remains relevant today. He seems to get over that fairly early in the series, at least to some degree, although the moniker does stick. But the first volume shows her mettle and despite a certain modest reserve and even shyness, she manages to rescue people with quick thinking and initiative, more than once.

Ruth Fielding at Briarwood Hall, or Solving the Campus Mystery (Volume 2) is my favorite one so far. I am reminded of a book that came into my possession as a pre-teen that must have been written in the 30’s or 40’s. It was a novel about a girl going away to boarding school and who modeled her life there on these kinds of early stories – like this volume, midnight suppers and secret societies abound. It must have come to me in some box of books or something and for the life of me I cannot remember the name of it. However, as I read this book the scenes come back to me vividly and I remember my own fascination with these rites as a result. However, my life was a public school one, not boarding school so I never got to explore what I am sure was a much different contemporary reality. It was written harking back to the time of stories like this.

Snow shoeing is a frequent necessity or recreation in the snowier volumes.

The third volume (Ruth Fielding at Snow Camp, or Lost in the Backwoods) takes us to a Snow Camp (not a term I am familiar with but seems self-explanatory) somewhere near the Canadian border. (Ruth appears to reside somewhere in the northwest part of New York State in a town I cannot find if real called Cheslow, and near a town Kim thought he invented called Lumberton. It would appear that Burt Foster, aka Alice B. Emerson, lived in that region as well. See Kim’s illustrated novel The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley for his version of Lumberton.) Here we explore snow shoeing, much ice skating, toboggans and being lost in a blizzard. Ruth turns out to be an unusually resourceful young girl, especially in the outdoors. She proves to be a strong swimmer and there is a girl, generally known as The Fox, who is her nemesis despite that fact that Ruth has saved her from drowning in two out of the four volumes I have read thus far. Mary, The Fox, is utterly ungrateful. I’m sure somewhere in the next 26 volumes she will change her ways however and see the light however.

Volume 4, Ruth Fielding at Lighthouse Point or Nita, the Girl Castaway, takes the gang (a small gaggle of girls and a more or less complementary bunch of boys) to the seashore where they take a runaway under their wing. And in the fifth volume, a lesser favorite, Ruth and her friends take a trip out west. Kim has always warned that out west was usually the end of a series and while it doesn’t kill off Ruth or the series it does make for a lesser book in my opinion.

While these stories are less formulaic than some of the others I have read (not that I dislike those either – nothing wrong with a good formula really), you can count on Ruth to get in the path of at least one, usually more, wild animals in each story. As I round the bend now on Volume 6 I can vouch for her escaping encounters with various large cats in several volumes – puma, mountain lion and something called a catamount which appears to be a type of cougar – and in addition I remember a bear as well. Sometimes she kills the the animal, sometimes someone else does (at the last moment before she herself is killed), but she is indeed a resourceful and one brave little miss!

From a future volume, but a good illustration of Ruth doing her thing.

Ruth’s story lines also favor the finding of lost strong or money boxes – if you lost one or had one stolen, you’d want her on the case because, while these are not detective stories, she has a way of retrieving them again and again for their owners. Seems like banks still weren’t entirely in favor back at the turn of the century, and many of these plots mean that someone has lost their entire life savings in such a missing or stolen box. To date these have been stolen, swept away by floods and buried in an avalanche thus far in my reading.

I will warn that there is some dreadful racist descriptions in a few of these volumes. Unlike Judy Bolton trying, if awkwardly, to figure out her relationship to the Native Americans she encounters, Ruth lives in an extremely white world taking place several decades earlier. Poor, occasionally indigent, people are largely the greatest diversity in these books, but on the one or two occasions she encounters (at least thus far in my reading) anyone of color the descriptions are crude.

If the teens were an era of casual banking, it was equally a time of casual parenting. Stray children abound in these stories – orphans for the most part, but also children who seem to wander away from families, living with other relatives or even strangers; occasionally children stolen or spirited away as well. While in part this can be attributed to the page-turning novel genre which these hail from, I think it was also somewhat a reality of the time. There just seem to be stories from that generation about this uncle who went to live with neighbors or that child sent off that even Kim and I know between us. I remember a few years ago when my mom casually mentioned that my grandmother had a brother who was “stolen by gypsies from the backyard” and never seen again! First, how could I have reached middle age and never heard that family tale and second – gypsies?

Ruth in the gypsy camp here.

Volume 8, Ruth Fielding and the Gypsies; or The Missing Pearl Necklace, is the book I am immersed in as I wrap this first part post up. You’ll have to wait to hear whether or not I think she gives the Romany a fair shake or not. (Spoiler alert – mixed bag really.) I have just been told that Jazz at Lincoln Center will take the coming two holiday weeks off and I intend to happily immerse myself in Miss Fielding’s further adventures from bed, in my pj’s, while listening to music and drinking smoking hot coffee!

Miss Pat: Pam’s Bedtime Reading

Pam’s Pictorama Post: It is hard to believe that it was only a week ago that I sat down to write about Miss Pat’s adventures in the juvenile series written in the first years of the 20th century, the first being published in 1915. After an announcement about the Presidential election was made I detoured and spent Sunday considering my deep affection for the voting process in our country. It’s been quite a week, but I don’t mind sinking back into thoughts of the early 20th century via fiction this morning. I hope you will grab another cup of coffee and join me.

The years between 1915 and 1918 in our country’s history have always interested me. The teens were years that seemed to hold great excitement in this country. Technological advancements abounded – photography change and improves rapidly and gives way to moving picture films – bicycles become early motorcycles and automobiles push horses out of the way. It was a wonderful, bright world and it just seemed to get better and better.

In these times, American women first rode bicycles, then drove automobiles and suffragettes fought for the vote. (I wrote about one series devoted just to women driving, The Automobile Girls¬†and it can be found here.) It was all evolving quickly it seems and I always feel a sort of giddy excitement radiating from it. For me 1916 is the pinnacle of this sensibility, all the hope and enthusiasm peaks – then 1917 comes, the US enters WWI, the 1918 influenza epidemic follows and the second half of the teens is a much more somber time. (Of course we’ve spent much time recently considering the epidemic of ’18, an attempt to read the tea leaves about our own Covid situation.)

By Ginther via the Bucks County Artist Database. Is that a black cat on her lap?

The first three volumes of the series, Miss Pat and Her Sisters, Miss Pat at School and Miss Pat in the Old World were all published in 1915. They aren’t long, but I assume they were written in the years before and the contract received for three at once.

Because it is the most accessible, I was able to obtain Miss Pat at School first by downloading it on Project Gutenberg for free. It appears to be the most popular volume and original copies and reprints are available. It is worth noting that the site Goodreads has been useful in figuring out the order of the books and how to acquire them. As noted in the first post, there is not so much as a Wikipedia entry about Pemberton Ginther or the books.

Arguably this second voulme,¬†Miss Pat at School, it is the best volume and a fair place to start if you aren’t a completist like I am – Ginther clearly drawing on her own experience at art school makes it more vivid. The Manhattan art school they attend is very reminiscent of The Arts Student’s League (which I attended briefly in the late 1980’s and in my life in the great before I walked past it on my way to and from my office daily), although I do not believe it is ever named as such. It is co-educational, unlike Moore College of Art which we know Pemberton Ginther attended, but she also took classes at the Philadelphia Academy which was probably a great deal like the Art Student’s League here.


Illustration for Miss Pat at School, by the author.

It is a classic book of its type – filled with dress up balls worthy of a Busby Berkley production by description; minor scholastic intrigue around a prize which the eldest sister, Elinor (whose nickname is Norn, never heard that name before and just love it), is hugely talented and who is a prime candidate to win.

These three young sisters living in New York alone and going to art school were clearly just on the edge of respectability for the times. They are orphaned and under the charge of Norn, who is probably about 18 or 19. For me these books are about that edge and the reality of the pressures of remaining respectable that women in particular at the time faced – as combined with the realities of making a living and being young and alone in the world.

Illustration by the author from a later volume, Miss Pat at Artemis Lodge

Many references are made to the specifics of the first novel and a great deal of plot that occurred in it and I was peeved I was reading them out of order. However Miss Pat and Her Sisters turned out to be harder to obtain. I was eventually rewarded for my diligence with a fairly inexpensive copy on eBay as I was unable to find it online.

Miss Pat and Her Sisters presents the three young women, recently orphaned at the death of their father, their mother longer deceased. We never get the backstory on either parent, nor their demise and find the three young women under the care of the eldest, but it is Miss Pat the middle sister, who engineers much of the plot and displaying the necessary pluck and drive to move the story.

The girls have inherited a lovely house, located in a small town which seems to be somewhere in northwestern New York state, from an aunt they didn’t know (is always good to kill off people no one will much miss), but sadly no money to maintain it. The book follows their endeavors to make money which include: candy making (hard work, but successful until someone steals the business out from under them, nefarious man!); giving music lessons; starting a library (also successful, but no one did the math to figure out that it wasn’t going to make enough to save their bacon); and taking in boarders – you can imagine how that might work out.

Drawing or illustration by Pemberton Ginther currently on sale on eBay.

Staying on the right side of being respectable is a large paradigm of this book. They feel they cannot let anyone know they need money which adds difficulty to earning it – being impoverished and without family evidently reflected poorly on young women at the time. Unlike ambitious young men their stories of self made fortune, women had fewer avenues.

Therefore, despite their enterprise their fortunes are ultimately largely turned by the appearance of a lost twin brother (yeah, we never really find out why or how they were separated so no spoiler alert there), and ultimately a marriage change their financial fortune. This of course is largely the only way women at the time really went from rags to riches. All in all, this volume only vaguely pays off on the promise of the delivery of the entire backstory. It disappoints in that sense.

The third volume, Miss Pat in the Old World, (this volume is available for free on Google Play books) takes them on a ship voyage to a Europe which turns out to be on the verge of war – sending them home abruptly. This volume has some marked racism so a heads up there. It is in part an interesting glimpse of the almost real time account of war beginning in Europe. I have to wonder if it reflects an actual experience of the author – it has that sense about it. In many ways I found it the thinnest of these. There are some passages of fairly wonky European history filling it out. I must say the ocean voyage was the most interesting part for me – the ship leaves Manhattan and makes a stop at Atlantic Highland, NJ near where I grew up and where I recently landed by ferry.

Miss Pat and Company Limited (also available for free on Google Play) returns us to the ancestral home, Greycroft. Miss Pat is back at her money making schemes and this time takes to raising chickens with mixed results. Norn has gone off to live in Manhattan with her husband to pursue a career as an artist, and this satisfying volume concentrates on Miss Pat and her younger sister, Judy (or Ju as she is known to family) residing in the aforementioned family home. Having removed the direness of her need for funds allows for a bit more fun in the enterprise. Miss Pat is able to glory in her pursuits and I feel well launched for the second half of the series.

Acquiring these books has been a bit difficult to map. I have a reprint of Miss Pat’s Holidays at Greycroft (book five, this in a reprint version I paid up for – they are available in a spotty way in reprinted paperbacks), Miss Pat at Artemis Lodge (book 6) safely tucked away on my iPad from Project Gutenberg, and Miss Pat’s Career (book 9) sitting on my desk. Original volumes can sometimes be found on eBay, or for significant amounts on other used book sites, but not consistently – in this sense Judy Bolton they are not. While waiting I began an entirely new series from the same period, centered around another orphaned but plucky young woman named Ruth Fielding, more to come on that.

Found this volume at a flea market a few weeks ago and started at the beginning of the series which is available on Google Play. I am excited for the period descriptions of film making.

However, even though they are quick reads I believe I have my bedtime reading more or less set until the beginning of the New Year – alleviating the daily concerns of 2020 before heading to the Land of Nod each night and setting me up for better dreams. I highly recommend it. Seems that Pemberton Ginther wrote a few other series and something called The Jade Necklace seems to have been very popular. I think between Ruth Fielding and these I will make it well into 2021, armed at bedtime no matter what the world decides to throw my way.