Childhood in the Promised Land

Working-Class Movements and the Colonies de Vacances in France, 1880–1960

Childhood in the Promised Land

Book Pages: 432 Illustrations: 38 b&w photos, 2 maps Published: November 2002

Author: Laura Lee Downs

History > European History, Pedagogy and Higher Education, Sociology

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.


"[A] remarkable book. . . . [S]o much is conveyed about ideology, gender, class, work and leisure that this book is a 'must' for all who are interested in French society in the past century." — Hugh Clout , Modern and Contemporary France

"[I]n its insistence on the possibilities of working-class agency and social change, Children in the Promised Land is a provocative and hopeful book." — Roxanne Panchasi, Labour/Le Travail

"[I]nformative and lively. . . . Based on exhaustive research in archival and printed primary sources, her book represents social history at its best, informing and informed by political and cultural history." — Rachel G. Fuchs , American Historical Review

"[M]eticulously researched. . . . More than simply a history of summer camps, Childhood in the Promised Land is ultimately a rich and perceptive account of the rise and fall of one particular ideal of social transformation and solidarity." — Katrin Schultheiss , Labor History

"[R]ich, fascinating, and gracefully written. . . . Downs's book is so well written, solidly researched, and full of original insights that it is difficult to find any fault. . . . That Downs's study raises such pivotal questions magnifies the importance of this deeply satisfying book." — Edward Berenson, Journal of Modern History

"Down takes great care to show us how children were often at the center of ideological and cultural disputes in France between 1880 and 1960. Her book . . . opens up new terrain for historians to discuss how children fared in these cultural conflicts." — Anne T. Quartararo , The Historian

"Laura Lee Downs’ superb new book is a study of the emergence and evolution of colonies de vacances, those weeks-long stays in the country that were once part of a good many working-class children’s summers. . . . This brief summary does little justice to the rich detail of Childhood in the Promised Land. . . . Downs uses a wide array of sources, including records of the municipal colonies, newspaper accounts, interviews, and children’s journals. Such a strong source base allows her to differentiate the social control often intended by the adults in charge of colonies from the actual experiences of children. . . . In the end, this book is an accessible way to learn how catholicism, socialism, and communism actually affected people’s, and particularly children’s, lives. . . . [E]xcellent. . . . Childhood in the Promised Land is, without question, one of the best books on the history of childhood in France to appear in a very long time." — Stephen L. Harp , H-France, H-Net Reviews

"This book's strengths lie in Downs' skillful analysis of this pedagogy, the underpinning attitudes about childhood and child development, and the factors that produced this transformation in France's colonies. . . . Downs has offered us a masterful analysis of a much more complex view of childhood than previously supposed, and the fascinating implications this entailed for the competing ideologies that sought to leave a lasting imprint on France's future generations." — Steven M. Beaudoin , Journal of Social History

"[A] spirited and readable book. . . . For the French, the colonie de vacances has become a veritable lieu de mémoire, and Down's book demonstrates why in artful and telling detail." — Philip Nord , Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Childhood in the Promised Land reveals the prominent place of contesting and complementary ideas of the countryside, childhood, education, and play in republican, social Catholic, Socialist, and Communist worldviews as they developed in Third and Fourth Republic France. Laura Lee Downs takes us beyond parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics to the differing cultural projects of each group.” — Donald Reid, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“This is a marvelous book, written with the analytic power and sensitivity to human experience that only the finest practitioners of the historian’s craft manage to combine. Laura Lee Downs takes us deep into the complexities of the colonies des vacances to reveal a world of working-class childhood that has largely been closed to us until now. She also provides a brilliant history of the grown-ups—Catholic, Socialist, and Communist—who created the colonies with competing political agendas, even as they shared pedagogical convictions that summertime play held a key to nothing short of human freedom. The result is an arresting reexamination of working-class life and social reform that will make this book a milestone in the literature on twentieth-century France.” — Herrick Chapman, New York University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
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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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2944-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2928-2
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