Edward Bok & The Simple Life
At the turn of the century, a crusading magazine editor exhorted women to seek peace of mind and body through simplicity. For a generation, they listened.
December 1984 | Volume 36, Issue 1
Although Bok preferred year-round country or suburban living for everyone, he realized that many people would remain in the cities. For them he proposed a variety of options intended to provide at least some of the enriching simplicity that contact with nature had to offer. If full-time living among farmers and villagers was impossible, then at least one should “go to the country in the summertime and live with them, and extract some of the wholesome lessons of simple living which their lives can teach us.” Thus, just as Jane Addams and Lillian WaId stressed to their middleclass social workers the benefits of contact with the immigrant poor, Bok saw great merit in the urban bourgeoisie rubbing elbows with rural folk. In an effort to entice his readers into the country, Bok published a series of pictorial essays entitled “Prettiest Country Homes in America,” and he regularly published inexpensive plans for summer cottages.
He saw great merit in the urban bourgeoisie rubbing elbows with rural folk.
For those unable to afford even a rustic cottage, Bok insisted upon the necessity of at least a vacation in the woods. Every woman, he maintained, “should occasionally have a respite from the thousand and one perplexities of housekeeping. That respite may be brief or long, but a respite there should be.” But Bok decried the fashionable practice of summering in posh resort hotels. Such places were too often islands of urban socializing in the midst of Arcady. He argued that whatever benefit vacationing children and mothers received by being in the country was counteracted in such hotels by “the innutritious food that is eaten, the irregular hours that are kept, the air of artificiality that is charged into their lives, and, above all, the cosmopolitan acquaintances which they make.” It would be better for families to rent a cottage in one of the “hundreds of quiet rural nooks” than to engage in the urbane and shallow social life of the resorts.
Bok was particularly concerned that the nation’s children have access to the revitalizing effects of nature, and he joined other Progressive moralists in vigorously championing the youth camping movement that began to flourish during the late nineteenth century. He was one of the early supporters of fresh-air funds that were organized in many Eastern cities to subsidize country vacations for disadvantaged urban children. In such camps, as well as others sponsored by Boys’ Clubs, the YMCA, and other municipal and church groups, sporting activities and handicrafts were integrated with cooperative living in what one writer called the “simplicity and sincerity of nature.” The counselors were supposed to be role models, endowed with “manly” physical strength and high moral values, especially courage, honesty, and devotion to an ideal. One of the most important ideals was the capacity to accept and surmount challenges, a theme of particular importance to Bok, the selfmade immigrant. Hardening young bodies in rigorous camp life would, he felt, help overcome the weaknesses of effete city youth softened by luxury and enervated by the pollution and congestion of metropolitan life.
So Bok preached the values of youth camping—fostering healthy bodies, self-confidence, civic virtue, simplicity, and a love for and knowledge of nature—to much the same middleclass audience that was devouring literature about the out-of-doors during the Progressive Era. The message was appealing to parents anxious about the degenerative effects of city life upon fragile youth. Their own supine dependence on specialists, financiers, middlemen, and servants convinced many of the need to expose their offspring to the salutary effects of summer camps and other forms of outdoor activity. And with remarkable suddenness, the camping movement mushroomed into a major activity. By 1917 the literary critic Henry Seidel Canby could remark that “more Americans go back to nature for one reason or another annually than any civilized men before them.”
The popularity of the back-to-nature movement indicated that Progressive simplicity was gaining momentum as the United States entered World War I, and Bok joined many other social reformers in hoping that the military conflict would promote even more widespread adherence to the principle of plain living and high thinking. President Wilson likewise recognized the moral benefits of war. In a speech delivered shortly after Congress approved the war declaration, he challenged the public to revive old virtues: “This is the time for America to correct her unpardonable fault of wastefulness and extravagance. Let every man and every woman assume the duty of careful, provident use and expenditure as a public duty.” Herbert Hoover, whom Wilson appointed as food administrator, similarly appealed for the “elimination of waste and actual and rigorous self-sacrifice on the part of the American people.” To encourage such frugality, the Department of Agriculture sponsored Wheatless Mondays, Meatless Tuesdays, and Porkless Thursdays and Saturdays. Edith Boiling Wilson, the President’s second wife, persuaded the cabinet members’ wives to pledge with her to “reduce living to its simplest form and to deny ourselves luxuries in order to free those who produce them for the cultivation of necessities. ”