Scouting Movements

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Scouting is a worldwide organized youth movement for boys and girls, usually aimed at children and adolescents in the six- to seventeen-year-old age range. Scouting is one of the oldest such movements, and the two organizations based in the United States have served a large number of youth. On 4 April 2000, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) registered its one-hundred-millionth member since its founding in 1910. The Girl Scouts of America (GSA) has had over 50 million members since its 1912 founding. As of December 2001, the BSA reported having 3.3 million boys and young men registered in its seven programs across the age groups; the GSA reported 2.8 million girls registered in its agegraded programs.

The Boy Scouts

Although there were precursor youth movements in the nineteenth century, including the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), the movement known as scouting began with the founding of the Boy Scouts in England in 1908 by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a military hero of the Boer War (1899–1902). Disturbed by the poor physical condition of the young men in the army he led, Baden-Powell established the Boy Scouts to revitalize British manhood through an organized program teaching campcraft and other skills meant to improve the mental and physical condition of these young men. From the start, the Boy Scouts embraced a military-style uniform, earned badges and ranks, and possessed a patriotic fervor. The term scouting came from the figure of the military scout, who could live off the land and move about without detection. Baden-Powell's first handbook (Scouting for Boys) for the movement instructed boys in these skills and others, often using games as a means of teaching certain skills.

The ideas evident in the founding documents of the movement reflect a number of currents in late-nineteenth-century England and the United States. Social Darwinism was the dominant thought system, and the creators of youth movements (such as the YMCA and the Boy Scouts) saw no incompatibility between the Darwinian and religious—primarily Protestant Christian—worldviews. In fact, there emerged in this period a coherent theory of "muscular Christianity" that linked physical activity like team sports with moral development and the building of character. The social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer in England and of figures like William Graham Sumner in the United States accepted the view that the human race evolved through distinct, developmental stages, and, with the rise of Darwinian scientific psychology in the 1880s, those reformers interested in revitalizing English and American youth had a full theory of youth instincts and developmental stages to provide a confident, scientific basis for the movements they were creating. The psychology of G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924) in the United States, especially, provided a developmental scheme for understanding how the child's own physical and mental growth "recapitulated" the history of the human race. The publication of Hall's massive work, Adolescence, in 1904 helped create a whole new period in the life course, a period requiring its own, new institutions of socialization and development. Scouting and other movements designed their activities to take advantage of youthful instincts and developmental stages rather than work against this powerful, biological, evolutionary foundation for childhood and adolescence.

Social changes in both England and the United States also provided impetus for the creation of movements that would revitalize the society by revitalizing young people's minds and bodies. Historians agree that there was a crisis in white masculinity felt in the middle classes in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Economic volatility created uncertainty for the breadwinners in those classes, and increasing numbers of immigrants (especially into the United States) threatened to disrupt the white man's sense that he had matters under control. Although England had a history as the colonizer and the Boer War was merely one of a string of conflicts necessary to maintain the empire, the United States began its own twentieth-century empire with the Spanish American War of 1898, another symptom of the masculinity crisis and response.

The creation of the Boy Scouts by Lord Baden-Powell, therefore, drew the attention of Americans who were experiencing the same ideas, forces, and anxieties as their English cousins. The founding story of the Boy Scouts in America traces its origins to an English Boy Scout who did a "good turn" helping American publisher William D. Boyce, who was lost in the London fog. Refusing a tip and declaring himself to be a Boy Scout, the young man's gesture so impressed Boyce that he inquired into the movement and returned to the United States determined to found a similar organization for American boys. Boyce and a number of men already active in youth work gathered in New York City in 1910 to create the Boy Scouts of America. This group included Ernest Thompson Seton, the naturalist, artist, and author, who was experimenting with his own youth movement based on American Indian lore, the "Woodcraft Indians" (founded 1903); Daniel Carter Beard, creator of the Sons of Daniel Boone (founded 1905); and three men—Edgar M. Robinson, John L. Alexander, and James E. West—who brought considerable programmatic and organizational experience from their work with the YMCA. The BSA sought and obtained a charter from Congress in 1916, cementing its claim to the name and protecting its developing commercial interests, which included designating a range of commodities—from camping equipment to rifles to novels—as "official Boy Scout" products.

The first major task of the founders of the BSA in 1910 was to "Americanize" the English movement, which included making changes in the uniform, revising the Scout Oath and Scout Law, and writing the American Handbook for Boys (1911). Seton wrote large portions of the first Handbook. The program described in those pages reflects the founders' ideas that boys' minds and bodies could be trained together through a number of outdoor activities, including games. Seton was a great advocate of using games to teach physical skills and mental ability, but he also believed that games taught character-related values, such as teamwork, sportsmanship, and pride in accomplishment. Seton admired Native Americans as the model for American youth, and he incorporated a number of Native American games in the Handbook, along with traditional games from the United Kingdom (e.g., capture the flag has its roots in an old English game about the border wars between England and Scotland). A harsh critic of the commercialism and competitive individualism of modern American society, Seton promoted the idea of "honor by standards," an approach that favored boys' competing against objective standards tailored to their age and physical characteristics, rather than traditional competitions that required winners and losers.

In 1912, the BSA acquired a magazine, Boys' Life, and made it the official monthly of the organization. Still published, Boys' Life stands alongside the BSA's official publications (the Handbook, the Field Guide, the Scoutmaster's Handbook, the Patrol Leader's Handbook, and numerous merit badge pamphlets and booklets) as a chronicle of the activities the organization promotes for boys. What the organization calls "campcraft"—the various skills associated with living in the outdoors—is central to the program reflected in these publications, as are games and sports (as reflected, for example, in the merit badge for "Sports"). A central consideration in designing all Scout activities is that the boys experience them as "fun."

Across the decades, the American public has come to see the Boy Scouts as the model organization for creating wholesome young men, sound in body, mind, and character. The Boy Scout approach is based on the "patrol idea," which makes the boy's patrol of eight (within a larger troop supervised by a Scoutmaster) the primary group within which the boy, aged eleven to seventeen, engages in the activities that constitute the Boy Scout program.

While a great many of the activities in the BSA program would be pursued in the weekly troop and patrol meetings, hiking and camping required weekends and summers. From the informal patrol campout to the elaborate, formal Boy Scout Council summer camp, boys aged eleven through seventeen have been able to enjoy the full range of Scout activities, including hiking, cooking, crafting, archery, shooting, canoeing, rowing, swimming, and sports. Some of these activities are purely recreational, while others are part of official requirements for earning badges and ranks in the organization. The highest rank in the organization is Eagle Scout. Campfire programs are a staple of Boy Scout camps, and these programs include singing and storytelling, especially of scary stories or local legends.

Thanks largely to Ernest Thompson Seton's initial influence, "Indian lore" has been a staple of the BSA program since its founding, especially through the activities of the Order of the Arrow, the elite service fraternity within the BSA. Making "authentic" Native American costumes and reenacting Native American ceremonies and dances, Boy Scouts were among the larger set of hobbyists who have pursued Indian lore, arts, and crafts as a leisure-time activity. Some Scout troops—notably the Koshare Indians of La Junta, Colorado—have built their programs entirely around Indian lore.

In 1930, the BSA created the Cub Scouts for boys aged eight through ten, with a program geared more for that age group and led by "den mothers," an acknowledged role for adult women in the organization. Alarmed at the large numbers of boys whose interests shift by middle adolescence and responding to the criticism that girls do not have access to the BSA program, the organization has tried various coeducational programs (e.g., Explorers, Varsity Scouting, and Venturing) for teen boys and girls aged fourteen through seventeen, but these have had mixed success.

The huge baby boom generation born in the wake of World War II flocked to Scouting as a wholesome activity that combined physical recreation with the generalized patriotic fervor of the Cold War 1950s. This linking of physical fitness and moral strength with patriotism was not new; the nineteenth-century notion of "muscular Christianity" had a patriotic dimension as well. But the increased public concern about youth's physical fitness in the 1950s and 1960s served well the BSA's highly visible program for linking physical, mental, and moral "fitness," all desirable traits for a strong America in the Cold War.

The Girl Scouts

At the request of young women in England, Lord Baden-Powell enlisted the help of his sister, Agnes, in creating a movement for girls to parallel his own Boy Scouts. This Girl Guides movement was founded in 1910. Juliette Gordon Low (1860–1927), called "Daisy" by her friends and family, was an American friend of Robert and Agnes Baden-Powell. While visiting England, Low expressed interest in this movement created by Agnes. Low helped found Girl Guides groups in Scotland and London, and upon her return to the United States in 1912, she began an American Girl Guide troop in her native Savannah, Georgia. In 1913, the name was changed to the Girl Scouts; Walter John Hoxie, a naturalist, worked with Low in writing the first handbook for the movement.

In 1916, Low wrote a revised handbook (Scouting for Girls) that reflected the full program of the movement, a program that taught girls outdoor skills and self-reliance in addition to the domestic skills that were considered a proper upbringing for girls on the eve of World War I. Low wanted girls to be prepared to enter professional lives and to be skillful citizens (women did not win the vote until 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution). The first official Girl Scout uniform was blue, but, in 1928, it changed to the green now so closely identified with the GSA (colors now differ by program for four distinct age groups, created in 1963). The GSA published a popular magazine, The American Girl, from 1917 to 1979; like Boy's Life, this magazine recorded the broad range of activities Girl Scouts were expected to undertake. Unlike the BSA, which established early a powerful national office and a hierarchy of organizational levels (council, district, troop, patrol), Low preferred to keep the Girl Scouts decentralized, giving most organizational power to the local troop. She also worked in the 1920s to create a healthy World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), which still existed in 2004.

Related Organizations

The Scouting movement was the dominant movement for young men and women in the twentieth century, but other organizations have served young men and women. Dr. Luther Gulick and his wife, Charlotte Vetter Gulick, founded the Camp Fire Girls in 1910; that organization and its programs (now coeducational and called Camp Fire USA) reports over 700,000 registered members as of 2002. After a falling-out with BSA leaders in 1915, Ernest Thomson Seton returned to his Woodcraft Indians idea and rebuilt a decentralized, coeducational organization that lasted into the 1940s. The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), in addition to its usual recreational activities, also built a movement based on Native American lore. The decentralized "Indian Guides" program began as a strategy for fathers and sons to work together on costumes, rituals, and related projects, all taking advantage of the "romance," "beauty," and "color" of Native American cultures. The Y-Indian Guides eventually developed programs for fathers and daughters ("Indian Princesses") and then for mothers and sons and mothers and daughters ("Indian Braves and Indian Maidens"). Increasing pressure from Native American groups has influenced the Y-Indian Guides program to move away from Indian lore as the basis for its programs.


Scouting has been the most visible and dominant youth movement of the twentieth century, providing organized recreational and educational experiences for millions of girls and boys, ages five through seventeen. The Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs stress the connection between strong bodies and moral character, so the activities of the organizations are designed to strengthen minds, bodies, and morals. While the Boy Scouts became embroiled in controversy in the 1990s as various people sued the BSA for excluding atheists, gay men and boys, and younger girls, the GSA has managed to avoid these controversies by adopting inclusive policies. The exclusionary policies of the Boy Scouts remain controversial in the opening years of the new century, and the long-range effects of these controversies are hard to predict. The controversies do confirm that for the BSA, recreational programs are not simply about physical fitness. In linking physical fitness to mental and moral fitness, the BSA hearkens back to its late-nineteenth-century roots in a crisis in masculinity.

See also: Camping, Childhood and Play, "Muscular Christianity" and the YM(W)CA Movements


Boy Scouts of America. Available from

Boy Scouts of America. Boy Scout Handbook. 11th edition. Irving, Tex.: Boy Scouts of America, 1998.

Choate, Anne H. Juliette Low and the Girl Scouts: The Story of an American Woman, 1860–1927. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, and Company, 1928.

Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Girl Scouts of America. Available from

Jeal, Tim. The Boy-Man: The Life of Lord Baden-Powell. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990.

Macleod, David I. Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870–1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

Mechling, Jay. On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Murray, W. D. The History of the Boy Scouts of America. New York: Boy Scouts of America, 1937.

Rosenthal, Michael. The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Shultz, Gladys D., and Daisy Gordon Lawrence. Lady from Savannah: The Life of Juliette Low. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1958.

Jay Mechling