A friend emailed to say she was “not a happy camper.” Then said, “I wonder where that phrase came from.”
I couldn’t find a specific source, but the phrase has been around for a while, and means, “a happy person.” More often it seems to be used with “not” to describe unhappiness.
An online source suggested that the phrase originated in summer camps for kids. In the US it’s common to send kids, from say age five and up 5 up, to summer camp for a week or two. The kids live in barracks, do crafts, hikes, sing-alongs and swimming, while being herded around by camp counselors who generally are older kids — roughly 17-24 years old. It’s not unusual for some kids to be severely homesick or otherwise be unhappy with camp. These kids are literally “not happy campers.”
So it seems obvious that the phrase ‘unhappy camper’ refers to the homesick city kid who mopes about the countryside hating cows, cursing mosquitoes, refusing to make up a bunk, rejecting the hearty companionship of fireside storytelling and tossing his cookies with dismaying regularity.
In 1961, Camp Counseling: An Illustrated Book of Know-how for the Camp Worker highlighted enthusiastic distraction as the strategy to head off unhappy campers at the pass:
“He is ever mindful of the value of “fun,” for happy campers seldom become problems. If he is teaching a new skill, he is thorough, but patient and understanding, and proceeds by an informal, friendly manner. He knows the value of laughter.”
The phrase happy camper was used with a touch of sarcasm in the fictional account of two castaways in 1913 Everybody’s Magazine, but castaways share in all the misery of campers: “One might have thought that we were a pair of happy campers enjoying a hard- earned vacation, rather than two forlorn maroons.”
It was probably the Boy Scouts that caused the overuse of the phrase: from the staff of Camp Shaffer, the summer camp of the Blair-Bedford Council, Boy Scouts of America, the slogan “Every Scout a Happy Camper” was selected. … Bedford Gazette (Newspaper) – May 30, 1930.
I was a pretty happy camper until, quite a long time ago, I remembered to pack the tent, but not the air mattresses!