Girl Scouts of the USA
Girl Scouts of the USA
Incorporated: 1915 as The Girl Scouts, Inc.
Sales: $48.20 million (1999)
NAIC: 81341 Civic and Social Organizations
Girl Scouts of the USA takes girls and young women ages 5 to 17 and attempts to prepare them for life as responsible adults. Its founder, Juliette Low, helped take American girls beyond narrow 19-century social expectations by putting them in uniforms and teaching them about such “unfeminine” things as hiking and first aid. As with the organization’s older male counterpart, the Boy Scouts of America, civic duty and outdoor recreation have always been part of the program, which has been updated with new activities through the decades in order to stay vital. Numerous professional women in America have been Girl Scouts, and the organization fields 860,000 adult volunteers in addition to its 2.7 million girl members. They move 175 million boxes of cookies a year in their famous annual sale.
Magdelaine de Vercheres, who defended a French fort with her brothers against the Iroquois in Canada, has been called the “first girl scout.” Another early model was Sacajawea (“Bird Woman”), who guided Lewis and Clark through the Pacific Northwest. However, the group now known as the Girl Scouts of the USA took its first cues from a British organization.
Juliette “Daisy” Low (née Gordon) was born in Savannah, Georgia, on October 31, 1861. Born to a genteel family with connections on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, she recalled sitting on General Sherman’s lap on Christmas Day, 1864, after his capture of the city. She also survived the yellow fever epidemic of 1876; however, a botched earache treatment in her twenties left her nearly deaf, and a stray grain of rice thrown at her wedding ruined the rest of her hearing as well as her honeymoon.
She married Willy Low on December 21, 1886 and moved to the storied countryside of Warwickshire, England. Since Willy Low had inherited millions, it may have seemed like the beginning of a fairy tale; however, the two were at odds by 1899. Drinking himself to madness, Willy Low took up with another woman, and ugly divorce proceedings stretched out until his death in June 1905.
In 1911, Daisy Low met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the Boer War hero who had organized the Boy Scout movement in Great Britain. He introduced her to the Girl Guides, the British group headed by his sister, Agnes Baden-Powell. Like the Boy Scouts, the Guides sought to “Do a Good Turn Daily” and learned all manner of domestic and camping skills.
With Baden-Powell’s encouragement, Low started her own Girl Guides company in the lonely valley of Glen Lyon in Scotland. There were just seven girls at first; they hiked, had tea parties, and, of course, tied knots. Proper hygiene was also stressed, and the girls learned to make an economic contribution to their families in the form of raising chickens and spinning wool. Low started more Guide companies after returning to London in October 1911. In January, she sailed for America on the same ship as Baden-Powell and his fiancée Olave Soames.
Juliette Low started an American version of the Girl Guides in Savannah in 1912. She and her friend Nina Pape organized about 20 girls into two troops that first met on March 12. Low’s esteemed position in Savannah society helped persuade doubtful parents to entrust their girls to her care to learn useful survival skills and first aid practices. Thus, Low brought something of a social revolution to the United States and helped American girls advance beyond the traditional social roles of the nineteenth century. As imitation diamonds and fur coats were inferior to the original, so should girls not try to imitate boys, the first handbook said.
Soon the city had half a dozen troops. The Guides marched in uniform: dark blue skirts, light blue sateen ties, long black cotton stockings, and enormous black bows in their hair. However, the dust of Georgia clay soon prompted them to replace dark blue with khaki.
On her way to becoming a national celebrity, Low rented an office in the Munsey Building in Washington in June 1913. While there, she negotiated with the Campfire Girls about merging their organizations; however, the Campfire Girls did not want to adopt the Girl Scout laws.
Incorporated in 1915
A talented artist, “Miss Daisy” was a driven and energetic woman. She sold an $8,000 pearl necklace to fund the movement. She had the trefoil and tenderfoot badge patented and in 1915 received a charter in Washington, D.C. for The Girl Scouts, Incorporated. It held its first national convention the same year. Low continued to travel between England and the United States and was named a commissioner for the growing Girl Guide movement in the west central division of London in 1916.
Headquarters were moved to New York City in the spring of 1916. By this time, 7,000 girls had registered. Black troops soon began to form. An official magazine, The Rally (later The American Girl), was launched in 1917.
During World War I, the Girl Scouts raised gardens, mended homes, and offered comfort; the Surgeon General used 60 of them as messengers. A feature film, The Golden Eaglet, was filmed around 1922. It focused on the girls as patriotic heroes and included Low herself in a cameo.
Spacious headquarters at 670 Lexington Avenue in New York City opened in 1924. The World Camp of the Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, a gathering of scouts from many different countries, met at Camp Edith Macy outside New York City in May 1926. Chief Scout Sir Robert Baden-Powell himself attended. Juliette Low died on January 17, 1927; the organization she founded then had more than 150,000 members.
Herbert Hoover was elected president of the United States in 1928. His wife had been president of the Girl Scouts since 1922, and this started the association of first ladies with the role of president or honorary president. By the end of the 1920s, the Girl Scouts had begun registering Native American troops. Membership exceeded 200,000 in 1929, the year the organization first adopted a green uniform.
Selling Cookies in the Depression
During the Great Depression, Girl Scouts collected food, clothing, and toys for the needy. They held their first official cookie sale in Philadelphia in 1934, although the 1928 hand-book had suggested cookie sales as a means for individual troops to raise funds. Half a dozen individuals claimed credit for originating the idea, including Bella Spewack, a journalist who later co-wrote the book for the musical “Kiss Me Kate.”
The Philadelphia council contracted a private bakery to make the cookies; the next year other councils joined in the order. The first national sale of Girl Scout cookies was in 1936; the group sold 10 million cookies in 1938. By 1940, the Brownie Scouts category for ages seven to ten was added.
World War II again found Girl Scouts in their gardens. They also collected strategic materials for the war effort and came up with alternatives for their own copper and silk medallions and aluminum camping gear, introducing canteens made of galvanized iron and enameled pots and cups. The Girl Scouts had been using ten tons of copper a year for their award pins. A new wartime unit of older scouts was created and given duties in child care, food service, transportation and communication, shelter, clothing, and recreation.
The Girl Scouts began the 1950s with 1.8 million members. The record number brought the need for more adult volunteers and professional staff. The national organization bought the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in 1953, and opened it to visitors in 1956. It was the first registered national historic monument in Savannah. The group became congressionally chartered as the Girl Scouts of the USA in 1950. Construction of a new, $3.7 million national headquarters on Third Avenue in New York began in June 1956.
Fighting Prejudice in the 1960s and 1970s
New York troops celebrated 50 years of scouting in March 1961 through “Daisy Days” skill demonstrations. The organization added the Cadette age level in 1963. Cookie sales continued to progress, reaching 58 million boxes in 1965.
The organization had become a strong advocate of the civil rights movement. Black Cadettes from low-income families camped in a Newark gymnasium, watched over by police, in 1966. There they learned community relations as well as camping rudiments, roasting marshmallows over buddy burners— tuna cans stuffed with rolled milk cartons. The Girl Scouts launched the ACTION ‘70 initiative against racial prejudice in 1969.
The Girl Scout Program is girl-driven. It reflects the interests and needs of participating girls. Provides girls with a variety of experiences. Offers age-appropriate activities at each age level. Encourages a progression of skill development and responsibility through the different age levels (Daisy, Brownie, Junior, Cadette, and Senior Girl Scouts). Promotes the development of leadership and decision-making skills. All Program Activities are based on the Four Program Goals. The four goals are: 1) Developing Self-Potential; 2) Relating to Others; 3) Developing Values; 4) Contributing to Society
One woman started a troop for young cancer patients at a New York hospital in the early 1970s. The qualifications for its unique merit pin centered around making their stay “as pleasant as possible for us, our parents, our doctors and our nurses.”
The original Girl Scout laws were reworded in 1972, for example, changing “A Girl Scout is clean in thought, word, and deed” to a command to “show respect for myself and others through my words and actions.” Leaders strove to combine self-realization with service in the girls’ training. There were 3.5 million Girl Scouts in the mid-1970s. The group stressed “Eco-Action,” and the organization’s first African American president, Gloria D. Scott, was sworn in during the decade.
A total of 105 million boxes of Girl Scout cookies were sold in 1980. Sales reached new heights in 1981, when United Air Lines bought two million shortbread Trefoil cookies for $50,000—packaging them in pairs for in-flight service. The sales provided girls an introduction to the world of commerce, a field in which some excelled. One girl sold 11,000 boxes of cookies in 1985.
National headquarters received a royalty of one cent per box. They allowed no artificial ingredients or preservatives and were supplied by six bakeries: Little Brownie Bakers in Louisville, Kentucky; Famous Foods of Richmond, Virginia; Mother’s Cookie Company in Marietta, Oklahoma, and Salerno-Megowen Biscuit Company in Chicago; Interbake in Battle Creek, Michigan, baker since 1939; and Burry of Elizabeth, New Jersey, which had been baking them since 1944.
Worldly-Wise in the 1980s and 1990s
The Girl Scouts program broadened in scope in the early 1980s. The Daisy Girl Scouts level for kindergartners was added while scout publications began addressing such issues as child abuse and suicide. In the late 1980s, the Girl Scouts rebuilt the training center at Camp Edith Macy into a modern facility for adult leadership training and renamed it the Edith Macy Conference Center. In 1989, the group hired its first outside advertising agency (Chiat/Day/Mojo) to advertise a more active image.
After flirting with Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, and St. Louis in 1991, the Girl Scouts organization decided to keep its headquarters in New York City. It had a staff of 500 at the time. In 1992, the Girl Scouts bought some Manhattan office space from Ted Turner, who ironically, had started his media empire in Atlanta. In 1993, the Girl Scouts initiated a Gulf of Mexico patch in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Year of the Gulf.”
Connie Chung’s “Eye to Eye” television program aired an expose on the distribution of funds from the Girl Scout cookie program in January 1994. A Girl Scout leader in the Connecticut Trails Council had brought charges to the state’s attorney general, whereupon she was fired. In response, the Girl Scouts began displaying pie charts at their sales locations illustrating where the money went.
Cookies then retailed for $2.50 a box. About a third went to the bakers. Troops kept 33 cents. Councils kept the largest portion, spending it to maintain camps. The list of suppliers had thinned to two: Little Brownie Bakery and ABC Interbake. They made similar cookies under different names: Little Brownie’s Tagalongs, Samoas, and Trefoils versus Interbake’s Peanut Butter Patties, Caramel deLites, and Shortbread.
Girl Scouts emphasized physical fitness in the mid-1990s, launching the GirlSports initiative in 1996, which featured such robust activities as cliff rappelling. By this time, the girls were also learning about AIDS and teen pregnancy. They had to learn another new tune, as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) leaned on the group to cease directing troops to sing copyright-protected songs at their meetings.
In 1998, the Girl Scouts hired Siegle & Gale to update its image through a brand identity program. Local troops were also becoming more sophisticated. One in New York City brought in corporate sales coaches to help girls refine their cookie sales pitches. Another in Philadelphia organized “Operation Cookie Lift” to ship cookies to U.S. military personnel in Bosnia. Still others set up web sites. Total sales were around 275 million boxes a year in the late 1990s. Keebler bought Atlanta-based President Baking from a Taiwanese company in 1998, becoming the leading Girl Scout cookie supplier.
There were 2.7 million Girl Scouts in 2000. Some of the new badges they could earn included “Exploring the ‘Net,” “Desktop Publishing,” and “From Stress to Success,” which offered training in meditation, massage therapy, and other relaxation techniques. As adults, most would juggle careers and family life, giving such lessons lasting relevance.
Boys and Girls Clubs of America; Campfire Boys and Girls; 4H.
- Juliette Low meets Sir Robert Baden-Powell and becomes involved in the Girl Guides.
- Juliette Low starts Girl Guides troops in Savannah, Georgia.
- National headquarters established in Washington, D.C.; Girl Scouts incorporated.
- Headquarters moves to New York City.
- Philadelphia council holds first official Girl Scout cookie sale.
- Girl Scouts of the USA chartered by Congress.
- Original Girl Scout laws reworded to reflect social awareness.
- Media scrutiny prompts greater disclosure of cookie revenue disbursement.
Carroll, Jon, “Spawn of Satan Goes Door to Door,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 28, 1994, p. E10.
Choate, Anne Hyde, and Helen Ferris, eds., Juliette Low and the Girl Scouts: The Story of an American Woman 1860–1927, New York: Girl Scouts Incorporated, 1928.
Curley, Suzanne, “Girl Scout Badges Reflect Modern Times,” The State, April 16, 2000, pp. E1, E4.
Dornbusch, Jane, “What Happened to the Tagalongs & Samoas? Best-Loved Girl Scout Cookies Have New Identities,” Boston Herald, Arts & Life Sec., January 7, 1994, p. 41.
Ferretti, Fred E., “The Selling of the Girl Scout Cookie, 1981,” New York Times, March 11, 1981, p. C1, C18.
Garfield, Bob, “Liz Is Cookie Coquette,” Advertising Age, March 10, 1986, p. 82.
Giordano, Maria, “Girl Scouts’ Goals Change with Times,” Times-Picayune, April 13, 1995, p. F1.
“Girl Scouting, 64 Years Old, Is Changing,” New York Times, March 8, 1976, p. 29.
“Girl Scouts Give Up Scarce Materials,” New York Times, October 23, 1941, p. 18.
“Girl Scouts Open Savannah Jubilee,” New York Times, October 13, 1937, p. 29.
“Girl Scouts Plan ‘Daisy Days’ Fete,” New York Times, March 23, 1961, p. 27.
Gross, Esther, “Giving Doughgirls Perfect Sales Pitch: For Scouts, Sweet Taste of Success,” Daily News (New York), November 12, 1998, Bus. Sec., p. 35.
Haddad, Charles, “Atlanta Doesn’t Get Girl Scouts; US Headquarters to Stay in New York,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, June 4, 1991, p. C1.
“Keeps Tabs on Sweet Sales: Portable Terminals Scout Council’s Cookies,” Computerworld, January 31, 1983.
McLaughlin, Kathleen, “Scouts Will Study Polish Camp Oaths: Girls’ Leaders to Visit Germany to Observe Units That Have Sworn Anti-Soviet Action,” New York Times, June 9, 1946, p. 34.
Oliver, Myrna, “Bella Spewack: Writer, Scout Cookie Inventor,” Los Angeles Times, April 29, 1990, p. A40.
Schultz, Gladys Denny, and Daisy Gordon Lawrence, Lady From Savannah: The Life of Juliette Low, Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1958.
Scouting for Girls, New York: Girl Scouts Incorporated, 1920.
Shavert, Katherine, “Girl Scouts Respond to Cookie Flap; Campaign Reveals How Pie Is Divided,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), April 3, 1994, p. 11E.
Waggoner, Walter H., “Girl Scouts Camp in Police Gym in Newark Neighborhood Project,” New York Times, March 7, 1966, p. 19.
Warren, Virginia Lee, “When a Girl Scout Pin Is Something Special,” New York Times, March 8, 1971, p. 43.
—Frederick C. Ingram