Childhood in the Promised Land: Working-Class Movements and the Colonies de Vacances in France, 1880-1960

Childhood in the Promised Land: Working-Class Movements and the Colonies de Vacances in France, 1880-1960

by Laura Lee Downs


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Childhood in the Promised Land is the first history of France's colonies de vacances, a vast network of summer camps created for working-class children. The colonies originated as a late-nineteenth-century charitable institution, providing rural retreats intended to restore the fragile health of poor urban children. Participation grew steadily throughout the first half of the twentieth century, "trickling up" by the late 1940s to embrace middle-class youth as well.

At the heart of the study lie the municipal colonies de vacances, organized by the working-class cities of the Paris red belt. Located in remote villages or along the more inexpensive stretches of the Atlantic coast, the municipal colonies gathered their young clientele into variously structured "child villages," within which they were to live out particular, ideal visions of the collective life of children throughout the long summer holiday. Focusing on the creation of and participation in these summer camps, Laura Lee Downs presents surprising insights into the location and significance of childhood in French working-class cities and, ultimately, within the development of modern France.

Drawing on a rich array of historical sources, including dossiers and records of municipal colonies discovered in remote town halls of the Paris suburbs, newspaper accounts, and interviews with adults who participated in the colonies as children, Downs reveals how diverse groups—including local Socialist and Communist leaders and Catholic seminarians—seized the opportunity to shape the minds and bodies of working-class youth. Childhood in the Promised Land shows how, in creating the summer camps, these various groups combined pedagogical theories, religious convictions, political ideologies, and theories about the relationship between the countryside and children's physical and cognitive development. At the same time, the book sheds light on classic questions of social control, highlighting the active role of the children in shaping their experiences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822329442
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/29/2002
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

Laura Lee Downs is Directeur d'Etudes at the Centre de Recherches Historiques of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. She is the author of Manufacturing Inequality: Gender Division in the French and British Metalworking Industries, 19141939.

Read an Excerpt

Childhood in the Promised-CL

By Laura Lee Downs

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2002 Laura Lee Downs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780822329282

Chapter One

Repairing the Body, Restoring the Soul


The colonies de vacances were not an indigenous development in France. Indeed, Europe's first colonies were organized in the mid-1870s by the Swiss pastor Wilhelm Bion, who, in the summer of 1876, gathered some sixty-eight children of the urban poor from his own parish in Zurich and took them on a three-week holiday in the mountain villages above the city. Once conceived, the idea spread swiftly across France's alpine frontier, where it took root in the real material needs of working-class children, many of whom suffered chronic poor health as they grew up ill-fed in the crowded slums and smoky streets of France's rapidly expanding industrial cities.

A mounting uneasiness over the state of public health in working-class cities and neighborhoods thus gave the colonie de vacances ready advocates in France. But hygienic anxieties alone cannot account for the nation's swift adoption of the colonies de vacances; educational ambitions also played an important role, for the colonies presented a unique pedagogical terrain whose defining qualities-far from home and in the openair-resonated with a powerful Rousseauean current in French pedagogical thought. The Napoleonic reforms of the early nineteenth century had driven this current underground, suppressing it under a blanket of traditional educational practice: rote memorization, respect for the teacher, and a rigorous containment of youthful energies within the four walls of the school. But in themid-1870s, as the French strove to design new institutions worthy of the young Third Republic, these currents began to surface and circulate once again. Let us begin, then, with the Rousseauean pedagogic tradition in France, a tradition that nourished the soil into which the Swiss graft would swiftly plunge new roots.

Pedagogy and the Politics of Republican Virtue

"Travel allows the imagination to soar; it hones the spirit while lending vigor to the soul, strength and flexibility to the body ... it expands one's horizons, develops his understanding, and destroys received ideas ... Citizens, you can all appreciate the potential in a school that, with the arrival of fine weather, moves out into the countryside, and there, in the immediate presence of the Supreme Being, hears the lessons of virtue and love of nation, delivered in the shelter of a rocky escarpment, or from the bottom of a valley, in the lush depths of the woods."

Thus did Citizen Portiez open his urgent plea to the Convention in Year II (1794) of the French Revolution, declaiming to his fellow citizen legislators a revolution in educational technique that might build men equal to the tasks of republican citizenship. At times, Portiez sought to persuade with appeals to the imagination, painting a vivid portrait of eager French youth, shouldering their packs and braving mountainside and valley, ill-weather and fair. With a patriotic song on their lips and a far-away look in their eyes, the hardy youngsters looked out over the constantly changing landscapes and dreamed already of the tales they would tell back home of their adventures abroad. Most important, though, were Portiez's arguments that linked a more "natural" education of children, in the open air and in direct contact with the force and beauty of nature, to the stern demands of republican citizenship. Inspired by Rousseau's ardent depiction of the child Emile, raised in the woods and fields into a vigorous, independent-thinking adult, Portiez developed this vision before the Convention, stressing in particular the importance of harmonizing the child's intellectual growth with his physiological and moral development. Hardened by life on the open road, the children would grow strong and tough, "their bodies reinforced against attack from all illness, and their spirits from the empire of prejudice." Ultimately, the austere pleasures of outdoor living would change the very shape of their desires, leading them gradually to acquire "a taste for pleasures that are simple and pure, and so recasting their passions."

In the course of his long and eloquent speech, Portiez laid out a method of instruction that would (much later) come to be called the "etude du milieu," in which the world traversed became a kind of school of experience, a living textbook from which all abstract learning was banished in favor of direct encounters with the objects and forces of the natural and social world: a mountain valley where springtime reigned, thanks to the protective embrace of the snow-topped peaks around it, as well as the dreary sight of sterile fields, whose unturned earth bore mournful testimony to the laziness of the local peasantry. Students would thus pass easily from contemplating the world of nature to analyzing the labors of man. From there, they could move to a more systematic investigation of the manners, morals, and politics of the world as it unfolded beneath their tireless march. At every stop along their way, then, the students were to inquire carefully into the shape of local public opinion, and to make direct study of political institutions by attending sessions of the courts and administrative corps. This comparative study of morals would lead them naturally to abandon those arbitrary judgments and narrow prejudices that find fertile soil in the restricted perspective of one's home province. And yet the journey came full circle with a return to home and nation, a point of origin that was now doubly cherished with a love warmed by the light of reason and a patriotism grown fierce, yet also more generous and informed, thanks to the broad experience of the voyage: "Having traveled [the diverse lands of Europe], how much more the young Frenchman will cherish the constitution of his native land!"

Clearly, such voyages of discovery depended crucially upon the guidance of a skilled pedagogue, wise in the ways of Emile's tutor, a teacher who discreetly shaped the personal journey of the student as he traversed the "great book of nature and society." Indeed, without the teacher's skillful, light-handed direction, the student's "natural" progress would soon be stymied. Portiez thus closed his discourse with an appeal to the Committee on Public Instruction, urging that they "develop the means to perfect the system of education by travel." But it would be nearly a century before such "voyages scolaires" found their way into the public school curriculum; for until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Portiez's Rousseauean vision of students and teacher, at home in the school of nature, building relations of comradeship and learning as they journeyed the world together, lay dormant in the archives of the First French Republic. More dominant by far was the model laid down by Napoleon's 1802 reform of secondary education, a model that was based on Jesuit pedagogical strategies in its stress on hierarchical and one-way relationships of learning, where knowledge was passed down from teacher to students, and all learning took place within the four walls of the school. Not till the early years of the Third Republic, as France strove to build society anew in the ashes of defeat and civil war, did Portiez's voyages scolaires return, as part of the plan whereby republican educators strove to renew the nation's outmoded structures of public education.

The reformers were uncompromisingly critical of a system that, "inspired by the monastic or military ideal of the middle ages," locked captive youth inside grim, barracks like quarters and subjected them to a suffocating discipline, mainly learning by mere rote. In place of such "jails" they proposed to erect truly "modern" schools, where a more "collaborative" relationship with the teacher would gradually awaken the students' spirits and open them up to new experiences. By the early 1870s, some ten years before the national constitution of the republican primary school (Ferry laws of 1881-82), individual educators such as E. Porcher, director of the Ecole Turgot in Paris, were already undertaking a complete renovation of both educational method and content within their own schools, replacing the traditional Greek-and-Latin-based curriculum with a more modern, practically minded syllabus based on math, science, and living languages. Portiez's revolutionary dream of open-air schooling, fallen on hard times since Napoleon's law of 1802,was shaken out and revived as a part of a series of reforms that, in Porcher's estimation, was working toward the same goal: "to bring light and air, movement and life, into the dreary, closed walls of the school of yesteryear."

For the next ten years, first the public lycees and later Jules Ferry's primary schools would experiment with Portiez-style voyages scolaires, rewarding their most successful and hard-working pupils with brief, one-to-ten-day excursions at the end of the school year: trips to Versailles and Fontainebleau, Le Havre and Honfleur. "After a year of continuous intellectual effort, what rest and restoration these journeys bring!" reported Porcher with no small satisfaction, noting how the pale faces of book-weary students brightened with new life as they marched two by two in the fresh country air, drinking in the unfamiliar sights and experiences of rural and maritime France. But he underscored with particular pleasure the educational rewards being reaped, as each field and village became a living textbook that opened its pages under the students' feet, presenting them with objects whose vibrant reality "illuminated" the dry, abstract descriptions of ordinary classroom lessons.

The expense of these holidays was to be borne by the caisses des ecoles, school assistance funds that had been established in each school district in 1882 in order to encourage school attendance by rewarding the best students with prizes-illustrated books, voyages scolaires-while extending assistance-in-kind-shoes, textbooks, and warm clothing-to the very neediest. It seemed that Portiez's dream had at last found a place in the system of public education in France. But in June of 1887, when the Paris municipal council reviewed the overall deployment of funds in the city's twenty caisses (each arrondissement constituted a separate school district), it was found that the comparatively expensive voyages scolaires were diverting a substantial portion of these resources away from the poorest students in order to reward those stronger and more resilient souls who were already flourishing. Should not the order of priority be reversed, so that the bulk of these funds reached those who were most in need? Several months earlier, the city council's Fourth Commission on Public Education had heard a report from Protestant philanthropist Edmond Cottinet, administrator of the caisse des ecoles of the ninth arrondissement, on the rather singular use to which he had turned the resources of the caisse. Since 1883, Cottinet had been using these funds to take his poorest and sickliest pupils on restorative holidays in the country, battling the all-too-common blights of anemia, tuberculosis, and undernourishment with a three-week "cure d'air" whose benefits, he argued, were both dramatic and enduring. The members of the Fourth Commission were moved to a man by Cottinet's stirring account of these trips, and recommended that the caisses reverse their order of priority: rather than leaving the poorest students behind to languish, pale and anemic, in the dust and smoke of the city while their stronger, more successful colleagues disported themselves on holiday, the commission urged that the caisses reduce their voyages scolaires to cheaper, simpler day trips and place the bulk of the school assistance funds behind Cottinet's colonies scolaires. The staunchly republican city council voted accordingly and the primary schools of Paris immediately set about organizing colonies scolaires for their neediest pupils. By 1888, thirteen out of twenty arrondissements had organized colonies in their primary schools, and by 1890, nineteen out of twenty were sending their poorest students on restorative country holidays with the schoolmaster.

Cottinet patterned his colonies scolaires after the model pioneered by Wilhelm Bion, of whom Cottinet had learned while on holiday in Switzerland, in the summer of 1880. But Edmond Cottinet was neither the first nor the only Parisian to hear of Bion's work. By the time the city council had placed its stamp of approval on the colonie scolaire, proclaiming it "an institution that is particularly to be recommended" (10 June 1887), at least two private oeuvres de colonies were already flourishing in Paris, sending hundred of children each summer to peasant villages in the countryside and along the Atlantic coast. What was it in Bion's initiative that so captured the imagination of Protestant evangelicals in late nineteenth-century France?

Protestant Charity and the Colonies de Vacances, 1880-1900

In the autumn of 1880, Pastor Theodore Lorriaux and his wife Suzanne, recently arrived in the industrial district of Levallois-Perret, on the northwestern edge of Paris, received a visit from two neighbors. Mme Bonnet and her daughter had just returned from their annual holiday in Switzerland, and were still marveling at the results of Wilhelm Bion's first colonies de vacances, which they had witnessed with their own eyes: "Could we not organize something similar in France-in Paris," they inquired of their hostess? Seized by the vision of transporting sickly children from the industrial faubourgs to the fields of rural France, the Lorriaux set to work immediately in search of practical solutions. The following summer, the pastor and his wife sent three young girls from the smoky streets of Levallois-Perret to a peasant farm in Nanteuil-les-Meaux (Seine et Marne), where the three spent twenty-one-days restoring their weary bodies and breathing in "the perfumed breeze of woodland andmeadow." The experiment was an unqualified success, and the girls returned home, "cheeks glowing with health and their hearts filled with joys hitherto unknown to them."

Thus it was that Pastor and Mme Lorriaux came to organize France's very first colonie de vacances, the Oeuvre de Trois Semaines. From this modest beginning the program expanded rapidly, sending seventy-nine boys and girls to peasant farms in Burgundy and the Loire during the summer of 1882. That same year, charitable activist Elise de Pressense decided to add a colonie de vacances to her own Oeuvre de Chaussee de Maine, a workshop and school that she had opened in 1871 to assist impoverished widows and orphans in Paris's Chaussee de Maine district. As the women worked, sewing clothing and lingerie, their youngest children played in the workshop's infant school, while the older ones learned to read and write in the program's primary school. With the establishment of regular public primary schools in 1882, which, in her view, had "every advantage" over private ones, Mme de Pressense decided to close the program's schools and turn her energies to organizing a colonie de vacances. News of the Lorriaux's Oeuvre de Trois Semaines had already reached her ears via the small and tightly interconnected networks of Protestant charity in Paris, and Elise de Pressense designed her own colonie with this model clearly in mind.


Excerpted from Childhood in the Promised-CL by Laura Lee Downs Copyright © 2002 by Laura Lee Downs. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations




1. Repairing the Body, Restoring the Soul: The Origins of the Colonies de Vacances in France, 1881-1914

2. Toward a Pedagogy in Child Leisure: The Politics of Catholic Defense, 1882-1914

3. Family Placement in a Socialist Mode: The Foundation of the Colonie Municipale of Suresnes

4. Inside the Nièvre Colonie, 1923-1939

5. Les Lendemains Qui Chantent: Social Movement and Pedagogical Innovation in the Colonies de Vacances during the Popular Front

6. Municipal Communism and the Politics of Childhood: Ivry-sur-Seine, 1925-1960



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