Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

For Pure Spectacle and Strong Emotion, Nothing Beats: Color War

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

For Pure Spectacle and Strong Emotion, Nothing Beats: Color War

Article excerpt

One of the greatest traditions at this camp, and one of the most indescribable, is Color War. To most people, it may not sound like much, but it is one of the most intense and emotional experiences of my entire life. So intense that it gets to the point where opponents don't talk to each other. Friendship turns to extreme animosity.... [Yet] Color War is a beautiful thing. It tears people and friendships apart for five straight days. Then reunites them even stronger than before.


From the late 19th century onward, adults who planned summer sleepaway camps felt that camps should be fun, but purposefully so. Envisioning camps as spaces of play, nature appreciation, community, improved health, and learning (all under adult oversight), camp leaders kept children busy from reveille or morning bell until taps or "las call" at night. Daily activities included flag-raising and cabin or tent cleaning; water sports such as swimming, canoeing, and sailing; land sports such as baseball, basketball, volleyball, tennis, and riding; creative pursuits such as arts and crafts; and evening activities such as plays, movies, dances, and campfires. "Rest hour" after lunch, when campers could nap, write letters, or read or play quietly, represented a rare moment of calm.

Yet what if this schedule, though varied, came to seem routine? The great majority of early private camps ran for eight or nine weeks. Two months could feel like a long time for campers, some of whom grew restless or disenchanted. Camp directors, therefore, planned special events throughout the summer, such as circuses and moonlight swims. They also created end-of-season rites of passage. For example, Ernest Balch, director of New Hampshire's 1880s Camp Chocorua. took campers on a "long Walk" near the end of August. The boys, many age 8 to 12, "tramped" and camped out every night for about a week.2 These extended camping trips took advantage of campers' increased stamina, skill in hiking, and improved knowledge of the woods, and gave campers the sense of moving toward an exciting conclusion to the camp season.

In the early 20Ih century, the industry rapidly expanded from hundreds to many thousands of camps, becoming appreciably more diverse in its leaders and clients (although individual camps generally remained homogenous). While all camp directors lauded outdoors life, many did not emphasize long camping trips and sought special end-of-season events closer at hand. By the 1910s, Color War, a competition between two teams wearing different colors as their uniform, began to fill that gap. Teams competed for points for three to five days in diverse events, and the team with the highest overall score won. At Schroon Lake (N.Y.) Camp in the late 1910s, for instance, "Red and Gray week'" at the end of August included contests in track and field, checkers, swimming, and "Indian leg wrestling."3 At many camps, each team composed an original song to perform in a heavily-weighted ceremonial contest that served as the final Color War event.

Color War was possibly an elaboration of a war game, Capture the Flag, popular at many Northeastern boys' camps by the 1910s, in which teams named after colors (often blue and gray for the Union and Confederate Armies of the American Civil War) tried to enter one another's territory while remaining unseen.4 The idea of teams named for colors may also have been borrowed from schools.5 Whatever its origins, by the 1920s Color War had become the most important special event of the season at many camps. In 1924, when a New York Times reporter overheard "sunburned children" returning to the city at the end of the summer discussing "how the Blues had beaten the Grays/' the newspaper's casual reference to Color War was a sign of its rapid ascendance. (6)

Blending pageantry and athletics. Color War was, for many staff and campers, the culminating event of the season: a deeply emotional experience inspiring intense devotion to their team. …

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