Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hard mattresses, open bedroom windows...

The Summer Camp Infirmary, Maine Coast, Early-1980's



"Fenwick in mid-February. Kate emerges from her morning dip in Long Island Sound, tiptoeing across the ice and snow. The thermometer outside the kitchen door registers 5 degrees, and brother Dick reports the windchill is 20 degrees below zero. She has been making these swims since she was five. 'Not everyone is lucky enough to understand how delicious it is to suffer,' she says. It is part of the old Yankee tradition handed down from her father. In warm weather she takes an ice-cold shower each morning."

- John Bryson, The Private World of Katharine Hepburn



"Our way of life resembled the one advocated by Sylvester Graham, the abstemious Presbyterian minister who invented graham crackers: 'hard mattresses, open bedroom windows, chastity, cold showers, loose clothing, pure water and vigorous exercise'." 

- Tad Friend, Cheerful Money




42 comments:

Elizabeth H. said...

Camp is good for the soul.

Mayes Hall said...

Puritanical suffering and hardship in the name of "healthy" living. Certainly some, like Hepburn, thrived and built lives around the idea. I think Americans today are too spoiled to live in that disciplined existence today. Too many helicopter parents, cable channels, and me first ideals.

No one wants to work hard and suffer anymore.

Joyce North said...

There is nothing like fresh air to enable one to sleep soundly.

Greenfield said...

To which I would add, heavy lifting at dawn in horizontal sleet and six inches of mud. ; )

Michael Rowe said...

That first picture is so evocative. You can practically smell the pine carried on that cold-warm Maine sunlight.

Anonymous said...

I have always been amused by Prince Charles’ complaint about his school, Gordonstoun, that it was “Colditz in kilts.” I’m sure his remarks fell on deaf ears when it came to his father, an alumnus of the same school. Gordonstoun remains a combination of St. Grottlesex and Outward Bound, with the ultimate goal of toughening as well as educating. My upbringing was not dissimilar.

I remember a particular winter’s night in my school dormitory, the windows thrown wide open as sub-zero air rushed in. You could see your breath, even after lights out. In the morning, my neck had stiffened into a sharp angle and would not loosen until hockey practice that afternoon.

Suffering was worn as a badge of honor, especially if you had been wounded at sport, enough to draw blood. This may explain why I’ve always been the first one on the ice at twenty below, or the last one off a golf course during a downpour.

My summer camp must have followed the same playbook. It was located on an island on a Maine lake. We were expected to skinny-dip every morning, a rather rude awakening. To sweeten the pot, my camp counselor promised breakfast in bed on the last day, served by him, if we did not miss a single day.

At the end of that summer, I was the only camper left, as one by one my fellow campers caught cold, or poison ivy, or slept too late or simply refused to jump into the water. The morning of my reward breakfast, the kitchen served stewed prunes, my least favorite. I managed to force them down and have not touched a prune since. I was also the only other camper, along with my friend Nat, to make the three-mile swim around the island, an act of sheer stubbornness. Our reward for that feat was all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we could eat.

None of these, and similar experiences, had any deleterious effect, but they also did not ensure a life of sublime happiness. I do not begrudge anyone who closes the window and turns up the heat. But there’s something invigorating being out in horizontal sleet and six inches of mud, a quiet and private satisfaction that few seem to share these days.

MGC

P.S. A female Hepburn cousin is an old friend and I can tell you, they are definitely from the same rugged gene pool.

John G said...

Love that third photo.

My camp, also on a small island in a Maine pond, had "100% dip" every morning, with encouragement also to swim around the island (technically a pair of islands_. I remember being very proud when I could stand the cold and was able to swim off Sand Beach in Acadia that August.

My mom also put the window open at night, even just a bit in winter to get the fresh air in.

John G said...

Sorry, I meant "second picture"-- the waves.

Wasp Decor said...

I can't wait to open up the camp for the summer. That odor that rushes over you as you open the door for the first time since last October is wonderful. The faint smell of wood smoke, mothballs,etc just can't be replicated, sorry Yankee Candle Co.
Now that I'm in Maine, for good, I can head up as soon as mud season is over!
Looking at your camp pic is just so familiar of camps in Maine. The mismatched sheets and blankets, unfinished floors, opened windows are all classic. It's not " a look". It's not planned, it's not designed, it's not well thought out, it just *is* camp.

Blossom and Poppy said...

Spent summers at Brown Ledge Camp, Mallets Bay,Vt. where the only scheduled activity was riding- what a fabulous place and its still running! Hope to send my grandchildren there.
Susie

Max said...


I love posts like this one and like ''The traditional WASP declaration of deep affection?''. They help me understand my family and my heritage more deeply.

I think deliberate suffering with a positive intent and outcome is divine and grows the soul,
suffering without a purpose is senseless and inhumane and destroys the soul.

Sometimes I wish our parents and prep schools would communicate and had communicated this dynamic better to us young people. Because when I went to boarding school discipline often seemed to be intended to subjugate and control the soul, not free it and grow it, and I rebelled against it.

Then again, clear and compassionate communication is not a puritanical/preppy strong suit and I see now that my teachers and parents did the best job they knew how to raise and educate me and I am grateful for their effort and influence in my life.

This is a very deep and inspirational post to me. I am learning. Thank you.

WrySmile said...

I am so glad that "everyone" does not share the misguided opinion that "no one" wants to work hard and suffer anymore. We have a small family construction business and after laying block on a hot Florida day, or pouring and finishing a concrete slab for a foundation or deck or flying trusses when a rain squall blows up when nothing was in the forecast we know hard work. Now I'm not complaining, I just want to say we do work hard, and so do many other Americans as well as immigrants that we have met and worked with and beside along the way.

Max said...


MGC,

you are probably aware that Gordonstoun founder Kurt Hahn first founded the Schule Schloss Salem in Germany, but was expelled from Germany by the Nazis in 1933 after he publicly spoke out against Hitler. That he was Jewish probably did not help either.

I can highly recommend to the community to take a look at Kurt Hahn's wikipedia page and to read about his educational philosophy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Hahn

Here an excerpt on his philosophy:
'' Hahn's educational philosophy was based on respect for adolescents, whom he believed to possess an innate decency and moral sense, but who were, he believed, corrupted by society as they aged. He believed that education could prevent this corruption, if students were given opportunities for personal leadership and to see the results of their own actions. This is one reason for the focus on outdoor adventure in his philosophy. Hahn relied here on Dr. Bernhard Zimmermann, the former Director of the Göttingen University Physical Education Department, who had had to leave Germany in 1938 as he did not want to divorce his Jewish wife. Hahn's educational thinking was crystallized by World War I, which he viewed as proof of the corruption of society and a promise of later doom if people (Europeans particularly) could not be taught differently. At the Schule Schloss Salem, in addition to acting as headmaster, he taught history, politics, ancient Greek, Shakespeare and Schiller. He was deeply influenced by Plato's thought. Gordonstoun is based less on Eton than on Salem. Hahn's prefects are called Colour Bearers, and traditionally they are promoted according to Hahn's values: concern and compassion for others, the willingness to accept responsibility, and concern and tenacity in pursuit of the truth. Punishment of any kind is viewed as a last resort.''



Flo said...

I never thought about it as hardship or suffering, it was just "how things were". Early morning swimming lessons with chattering teeth, itchy wool blankets (several of which my grandmother brought home from her stint in the military!) and opened windows were the norm at our house. As was hauling water to the garden and weeding, mowing the lawn as soon as you were tall enough to reach the handle on the push mower or legs long enough to reach the clutch on the rider, helping hang the laundry outside to dry (and running out to grab it off the line when the unexpected rain turned up). And it was the same whether we were at the house or the vacation home, didn't matter, same rules and work applied. I am amazed nowadays when I drive through neighborhoods and see no kids (or adults either) outside. Very sad.

Anonymous said...

Love the photos of summer camp! Do you have more? As a youngster, my family had a cottage on Sebago Lake. Now I'm trying to replicate the look in our cottage in coastal NH. It is currently 80's chic...oh my.
Any other photos/blogs would be greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Such an appropriate post for the Lenten season. Being in control of the flesh, not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

"No one wants to work hard and suffer anymore."

I love it when people have this attitude. It gives me a definite edge.

Hard work and suffering have always been a part of my life. I am thankful for it and never felt diminished in any way because of it. I was taught early on not to give in easily, even when things were tough and especially if it felt uncomfortable. Discomfort, no matter how intense, always goes away. When difficulty yields to perseverance, the rewarding feelings always trump whatever discomfort had been felt.

We always put in the hard work and willingly suffered for what we held of value. Still do. Perhaps this is why some people feel that "no one wants to work hard and suffer anymore." They just aren't clear on what is of value.

Cheers,
Gary

LG said...

I'm sorry to say that I believe today's standard workplace rewards hard work with more hard work. Meanwhile the slackers slide by (with much more fulfilling personal lives) because its so hard to fire people these days. I know that's cynical but...

My favorite living space ever was a studio apartment in a pre war building in Cincinnati. My bed was on the porch and I slept in a hat in the winter. It was lovely when it snowed. Still a far cry from swimming in sub freezing temps- yikes.

Carmelo Pugliatti said...

As Italian i like soft mattresses,well shut bedroom windows (for sleep well in late morning),moderate lust (moderate because lust is tired),warm showers,well fitted clothing (but with natural shoulders),good wine,and some soccer game on TV.
I have fear that we we are not "wasp",but slight butterflies.

Anonymous said...

I was walking with an old friend’s father as we traded stories about my father’s experiences in the Battle of the Bulge, and his during the same campaign. He gave me a rather vivid description of marching for a month without any change of clothes, bullets flying as he battled through field and forest, little sleep, frequent bouts of dysentery, his uniform caked with mud and excrement, cuts that wouldn’t heal and a ragged cough that would not go away. He was also a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross for extreme gallantry, second only to the Medal of Honor.

I asked if anything had prepared him for these hardships. His answer, his austere and disciplined live as a student at Groton School.

MGC

Anonymous said...

As another European I completely agree with Carmelo. Why be miserable when you can enjoy La Dolce Vita. You only live once!

Anonymous said...

Ha, ha, ha, ha! Oh my gosh the absolute most amusing post ever by Carmelo! I love it! Thank you for making me laugh so hard. Dont care if its real or a joke, its funny as heck! :)

JSL said...

I am encouraged to see all of the posts acknowledging the willingness of so many Americans, young or old, brand new to the country or centuries deep, to work hard and endure discomfort for the sake of improving themselves and the world around them.

I did want to add my own observation on the strange ways in which we now choose to punish ourselves through extreme diets and exercise past the point of injury. What would the Puritans have thought of our modern appreciation for liquid diets and juice fasts? That otherwise reasonable people would dedicate hours out of every day and significant portions of their pay to train for ultra-marathons or climbing Everest? Or that these fashionable means of suffering are almost exclusively the territory of the rich? Is our modern "pop-health" culture a burlesque of traditional hard work and character-building discomfort?

GK Chesterton said...

"The fact is that purification and austerity are even more necessary for the appreciation of life and laughter than for anything else. To let no bird fly past unnoticed, to spell patiently the stones and weeds, to have the mind a storehouse of sunsets, requires a discipline in pleasure and an education in gratitude."

~G.K. Chesterton

Anonymous said...

Oh, the champagne of a hard-won game!

Lancer RIUSA said...

I am happy to forgo the celibacy & hard mattress aspect of the prep life

RDR said...

Isn’t life difficult and punishing enough without going out of our way to make it even more uncomfortable?

I agree that suffering can ennoble the soul, but only in moderation. Too much and the mechanism of our being breaks down. One must ask oneself what is the purpose of putting yourself through these trials (freezing windows, mattresses like granite slabs, bone shocking morning swims, etc,) It reminds me of how in order to prove his chastity and iron will power, the Green Knight had to sleep next to a voluptuous naked woman all night without touching her. I wonder what he was thinking about?

The already rugged Pilgrims didn’t sail over here to found a new Sparta, and I doubt any of them had self-created hardships in mind.

Voluntary asceticism is really only a recent historical development. Sure, a few monks and religious zealots had always practiced it, but the overwhelming majority of people who’ve ever lived on this harsh planet could never find enough creature comforts. And billions still can’t and probably never will. A millionaire who “roughs it” for two weeks a year seems a sad mockery compared to the unfortunate lot of so many.

Rupert Bloomsbury said...

Muffy, I've been reading your blog for the past four years and this simple truism is your best post yet.

I'm not a Yankee, I'm not even North American but this hits home for anybody who grew up in a Protestant Anglo-centric society.

Well done, carry on.

Soames

Happy Chappy said...

@Blossom and Poppy: My best friend used to teach riding lessons at that camp. Small world.

As for swimming in icy waters, hard as a rock mattresses, and sleeping with the window open—I’d call that living closer to nature—not suffering. And what a luxury it is!

Anonymous said...

I have fond memories of my girl scout camp where I spent 2 weeks a year growing up. Also, a neat twirling camp I attended for 3 summers in high school. Both were very simplistic: bunk beds made of 2x4's, lots of open windows, and knotty pine walls. Fond memories! --Holly in PA

WRJ said...

Let's not lose our perspective entirely by insinuating that the discomfort of spending time playing lacrosse in the mud and sleeping on uncomfortable mattresses at expensive summer camps in Maine or exclusive boarding schools is somehow any sort of real suffering. Or else I guess I'll start comparing a day of skiing in subzero temperatures to surviving the Voyage of Endurance. A life of luxuriously pampered isolation from nature is not something that appeals to me, but a soft bed after a day outdoors sure is.

BlueTrain said...

John McCain claimed that the best preparation for his ordeal as a P.O.W. in North Vietnam for over five years was attending Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia.

On the other hand, George Washington Sears said we don't go to the woods to rough it; we go to smooth it. We have it rough enough at home.

Debra Turner said...

I would love to visit this part of the country. So crisp, down-to-earth and healthy! The landscape and ocean looks amazing! Love your blog!!

Max said...


Absolutely perfectly put RDR!
Great point on Delayed Gratification too, LPC.
Thank you for all the thoughtful and eloquent responses.
I know discussions like this can turn from philosophical to political in no time, and so I am not going to add anything more, but I really appreciate this discussion and all the thought provoking feedback. Thank you again for this post.

Tom Conroy said...

I wouldn't even venture on the golf course in Fenwick before May.

Michael Rowe said...

Which model of Grundens rain slicker is that….?

BlueTrain said...

I don't know about the historians but I don't agree with every point made. It is a curious fact, however, that all who are in line for the British throne are descended from a German, Sophia of Hanover. She wasn't Prussian, however, nor was Albert. The first in my line who left the old country came from the Palatinate, which coincidentally is where my daughter is living now. But there are, or were, such a thing as Prussian virtues but I'm not quite sure if militaristic is one of them, nor am I at all certain that it is in any way associated with prepdom, if I may be so bold. In any event, other parts of Germany are quite different, just as New England coastal culture is different from the rest of the country. But generally speaking, things aren't what they used to be.

BlueTrain said...

I can't believe I'm going to do this but I'm going to speak up for the institution of the summer camp.

A relative of my wife (that would be the preppy side of the family) owns an 80-year old summer camp for girls in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, near Lewisburg (also not far from Alderson, where the Federal Prison for Women is). It isn't New England and it's nowhere near the coast but it is on a river. Otherwise they couldn't offer canoeing.

Hardship, ice and snow and suffering are not part of the picture. It is, after all, a summer camp. Some of the campers live in tents. It would be relatively rustic for most of those attending the three-week sessions but the living arrangements are not the point. The camp attempts to build character, establish lasting bonds of friendship with other campers and to educate them in the principles of sportsmanship, citizenship, consideration for others and to instill in them a sense of tradition. Many campers return for reunions. Yes, it is a privilege to attend and the idea is also to create that sense of responsibility that goes with such privileges, such as they might be. The owner and his late father, the previous owner, both graduated from prep schools and running a summer camp for girls is about as preppy as it gets.

Also in keeping with general traditions of summer camps everywhere, there's also a boys camp just down the road.

Patsy said...

I just found out I'm Italian! Except for the sleep late part....Salute, Carmelo!

LPC for the win :)

Max said...


Thank you for your feedback BlueTrain. You are correct, that the American/New England Prep Culture is very different from the Prep Culture of the ''Old Country and Old Continent'', and it is the most superior in my opinion and most appealing to me personally, because it is based on democratic principles and values.
What I am attempting to do right now is to understand my heritage more deeply and to find its traces in today's American Prep Culture, because I know they are there, because New England Prep feels very familiar to me, even though I did not grow up or have any close or personal ties to the region. It just feels natural to me and I am curious to find out more about it and connect with it more deeply, and The Daily Prep blog and all the feedback in the comments is an invaluable tool for me in this research and personal-discovery process. As commentator Rupert Bloomsbury said earlier, like for him, this post really hit home for me: ''Muffy, I've been reading your blog for the past four years and this simple truism is your best post yet.

I'm not a Yankee, I'm not even North American but this hits home for anybody who grew up in a Protestant Anglo-centric society.

Well done, carry on.

Soames''

In regards to the Windsors, yes, it is quite interesting how German they are, but most people are not aware of it: '' Due to anti-German sentiment in the United Kingdom during World War I, George V of the United Kingdom changed the name of his branch from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor in 1917.'' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Saxe-Coburg_and_Gotha

Thank you again to everybody for this very insightful and lively discussion.

sara said...

One of the things I've noticed recently here in Virginia is how few houses have window screens on them. It makes the houses look cleaner and fresher but it would drive me completely insane not to be able to open windows. It's a very rare night (except during the very hot and very humid summers) we don't have the windows open a bit during the night. Sleeping is so much better in a cool room.

Some of the above comments are so interesting. When my daughter was born, we lived in the historic area in Williamsburg and kept the house at 50 degrees. We had no choice; the buildings were uninsulated and heating them was impossible. We then moved to an unheated summer cottage on the James River during one of the coldest winters on record. We had a Kerosun but it was a very frosty 28 degrees in our bedroom on Christmas morning which wasn't unusual that winter. The really interesting thing is that our daughter never got sick until we moved into an apartment and turned on the heat.

We still keep the house very cool but I never want to go back to that extreme cold of "healthy living".

Max said...


I just found this most amusing video clip of Caroline Kennedy on the CBS Late Show with David Letterman, talking about her mother's passion for ''character building experiences'' for Caroline and her brother. After I watched it, I immediately had to think of this post, and share it with the TDP Community:

''David Letterman - Caroline Kennedy: Castaway''

Video Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0OVA0y2fgU