Collecting a century of Girl Scouts

There is a slim blue book on display on the museum’s first floor. In the chapter entitled “Patriotism,” you can read rules for displaying the American flag, learn of Maryland’s history of religious freedom, and memorize all four stanzas of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (not yet the national anthem when the book was published in 1916). You will also find this sentence:

The work of today is the history of tomorrow, and we are its makers.

For me, as a curator, this reads as a rallying cry, a call to represent the everyday lives of people in museums. The book is an early Girl Scout handbook entitled How Girls Can Help Their Country. The quote is attributed to the founder of Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low, who oversaw its publication. It is just one of several “ordinary” objects that mark the centenary of Girl Scouts, objects that belonged to history makers like you and me.

This anniversary presents an opportunity to grow the scouting collection and discover more stories. Already this year, I’ve fielded several donation offers, and I’ve reached out to find even more. While we can’t collect everything (sorry!), some wonderful artifacts have found a home here over the past few months.

Sash
Uniform sash belonging to Louise Davis, c.1930. Some of the twenty-nine proficiency badges include Rock Tapper, Pathfinder, Star Gazer and Home Nurse. Her Golden Eaglet pin is at the top.

Through the Girl Scout’s National Historic Preservation Center, we received a uniform sash that belonged to Louise Davis (later Louise Davis Jones). Louise was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1914. According to her children, she loved the outdoors from an early age, so it was not surprising that she became an enthusiastic Girl Scout and an adult troop leader. As a member of Goldsboro’s Troop #2, her dedication earned her the highest Girl Scout award of her day – the Golden Eaglet.

Golden eaglet
Golden Eaglet pin, 1930. The pin is 10K gold with “Louise Davis / 1930” engraved on the reverse.

The Golden Eaglet was a precursor to today’s Gold Award, the highest achievement in Girl Scouts. Introduced around 1916, the requirements fluctuated, but earning an exceptional number of proficiency badges was a prerequisite. Juliette Gordon Low provided this summary in 1923:

The five requirements for winning the Golden Eaglet are character, health, handicraft, happiness and service, and that others will expect to find in our Golden Eaglets a perfect specimen of girlhood: mentally, morally, and physically.

“A perfect specimen of girlhood” – a daunting goal, yet between 1918 and 1939 (the year it was retired), over 10,000 Girl Scouts earned the award. If that seems like a high number, consider that when Louise earned hers in 1930, there were over 200,000 active Girl Scouts, and the numbers would continue to grow. Louise would go on to further achievements (she was an academic stand-out at the newly-coeducational UNC–Chapel Hill, a businesswoman and mother of three) but this was an honor she treasured her whole life.

Newspaper photo
Newspaper photograph of Louise Davis (right) with a fellow Golden Eaglet, c.1930. The girls’ sashes are unofficial – they pre-date official Girl Scout uniform sashes by several years. When it came to uniforms, Goldsboro Troop #2 was apparently ahead of its time.

Over a decade later, another history maker joined the Girl Scouts in the midst of the WWII. Joan Clark (later Joan Morris) was born in Needham, Massachusetts in 1933. By her own account, she took great pride in wearing her uniform to school. When she “flew up” from Brownies to Girl Scouts in 1943, her mother took up a large hem in her new uniform so she could wear it for several years. Her father sewed on the proficiency badges, using a special cross-stitch he had learned while serving in France in the First World War. It was this uniform, with twenty-two badges lovingly sewn, that Joan donated this year.

Uniform 1
Uniform belonging to Joan Clark c.1943-1948. This style of uniform was introduced just before WWII and originally included a zipper. Wartime rationing saw the zipper replaced with green buttons.

Many of those badges were earned at summer camps, and Joan worked many hours as a babysitter each year to help cover the annual cost. Camping was central to her scouting experience, and she attended several day and overnight camps while growing up, culminating in the Vineyard Sailing Camp on Martha’s Vineyard in 1948. There, she received her sailing badge and a special pin, which she also donated to the Museum.

Joan Clark
Photograph of Joan Clark in her uniform at Four Winds in Manomet, MA in 1943 – her first overnight Girl Scout summer camp.

“I did not realize it then,” Joan related, “but for decades to come, I would continue to be involved in some of the activities in which I earned badges in Girl Scouting.” Indeed, as a scout, she volunteered as a nurse’s assistant – “we tried to help others the best way that we knew how” – and a few years later, she would attend the Newton-Wellesley Hospital School of Nursing to become a Registered Nurse.

Of course, Girl Scouts don’t have a monopoly on scouting experiences. A century ago, following the British example, organized scouting exploded onto the American scene, beginning with Boy Scouts of America in 1910. Camp Fire Girls followed a year later. Camp Fire Girls combined Native American motifs, woodcraft, and a focus on hearth and home to create a scouting experience for girls. The “Blue Bird” level for younger girls was introduced in 1913, just as Girl Scouts would develop Brownies some years later.

Around 1971, a five year old girl named Lori Whiteman, living with her grandparents in the Montana mining community of Butte, would join the Blue Birds. Though she would go on to become a Girl Scout rather than a Camp Fire Girl (the Girl Scout troop leader lived on her street), Blue Birds was Lori’s first taste of scouting.

Uniform 2
Blue Bird uniform belonging to Lori Whiteman c.1971 – note the patriotic color scheme.

When Lori donated her uniform, she related to me her strongest memory from that time – selling white boxes of Camp Fire Candy. At that time, her family travelled to visit her great-uncle Joe – “my rich uncle” she recalled. When she asked Uncle Joe if he would buy some candy at a dollar a box, he offered her five $100 bills for five boxes. Having never seen a $100 bill, Lori stubbornly refused to sell him the candy, despite the urging of her relatives, insisting on a dollar each. In the end, she accepted five dollar bills and the story passed into family lore. Lori’s experience in scouting helped her to become a “tough salesperson” and earning badges always provided a genuine sense of achievement.

Three girls from very different places and times, each working, in their own day and in their own way, to make the history of tomorrow. Turn around and tomorrow is today.

Tim Winkle is an associate curator with the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 11:21 am EDT in Women's History