History of Girl Scouts

American Icons, Americana, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on February 25, 2010
David Mudd Girl Scouts Maggie Tattersfield & Georgia Foss

A swarm of eager young girls, all dressed in green uniforms, file into the Girl Scout First Headquarters in Savannah, Ga., as Jessica Hayman prepares to tell them about the early days of Girl Scouting.

“This is basically where the Girl Scouts got started,” says Hayman, 19, who joined the organization when she was 8—the same age as most of the girls in the tour group. “This is where the girls came together to meet and discuss ways to help the community.”

Hayman led educational programs and assisted with Girl Scout ceremonies last summer, and she can’t imagine her life without the Girl Scouts. Her mom, Annette, 47, was a Girl Scout; so were her grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-aunt.

“I love the opportunities that it gives me,” says Hayman, who attends Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. “I just really like helping people.”

To her mother’s delight, Jessica’s college entrance essay focused on Girl Scouts. “When I read it, it was like, ‘Oh man, this really has had an impact on her life,'” Annette Hayman says. “Our family uses the Ten Commandments from the Bible and the Girl Scout Law, and between them, they did her a lot of good.”

American Girl Guides
In Savannah, it’s not uncommon for girls to follow in their mother’s footsteps and become Scouts. After all, the city is the birthplace of Girl Scouts, founded nearly 100 years ago by Juliette Gordon Low, known as Daisy by her family and friends.

In 1911, Low met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Britains Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and became intrigued by the new youth movement. Convinced that all young women should be self-reliant and resourceful, she returned to the United States and, on March 12, 1912, assembled 18 Savannah girls for the first meeting of the American Girl Guides, renamed the Girl Scouts the following year.

In need of a regular place for the girls to gather, Low converted the carriage house and stable behind her Lafayette Square mansion into a headquarters, and began organizing camping trips and hiking excursions, and offering classes in astronomy and first aid.

A well-to-do artist who lost her hearing at the age of 26, Low welcomed girls with disabilities into the organization at a time when many groups excluded them.

“Juliette Low was very open-minded,” says Jami Brantley, historian at Girl Scout First Headquarters, which today showcases vintage uniforms, badges and handbooks, and chronicles the history of the group. “She wanted the organization to not just be for the more elite girls.”

When Low died in 1927, she bequeathed the building to her beloved Girl Scouts. It has been used by the organization ever since. A few blocks away, Low’s birthplace and childhood home—purchased by the Girl Scouts in 1953—serves as a museum.

Savannah draws visitors from around the world to see the Girl Scout First Headquarters and Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace. “It’s part of who we are,” Brantley says. “I’ve seen girls who cant wait until they go to kindergarten, not because they want to go to school, but because they want to be a Daisy [the first rank in Girl Scouts].”

Today, the organization is headquartered in New York City and boasts 3.3 million members nationwide who perform community service projects, and, of course, sell cookies each year to support their local councils and troops. More than 50 million American women are Girl Scout alumnae.

Courage, confidence and character
In the early years, Girl Scouts focused on life skills such as health care, hygiene, child-rearing, cooking and sewing. They earned badges in programs designed to help them become telegraph operators, secretaries and, later, teachers and bookkeepers.

In contrast, Girl Scouts today may travel the globe; prepare for careers in engineering, medicine and business ownership; and learn how to build Web pages. Not all Scouts belong to a local troop, and some even attend meetings online.

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“Some people have the idea that Girl Scouts are about the three Cs of cookies, crafts and camping,” Brantley says. “But today’s Girl Scouting is about building women of courage, confidence and character.”

Some of those qualities are taught at Camp Low, located on a 300-acre barrier island south of Savannah that was purchased by the Girl Scouts in the 1950s. Like the generations before them, todays campers take nature walks on Rose Dhu Island, enjoy cookouts, and learn how to identify planets and stars in the night sky. But theyre also encouraged to look to the future.

Last summer, for example, a busload of Girl Scouts, ages 10 to 16, left Camp Low for 97.3 KISS FM, a radio station in downtown Savannah. The outing was organized to acquaint them with possible career paths.

At the station, Tara Panzo, marketing manager for the Girl Scouts of Historic Georgia and a nighttime disc jockey, helped the girls create a public service announcement (PSA) for the Girl Scouts. One by one, the girls read their lines into the microphone, some softly, others with attitude. The girls laughed as Savannah Crawford, 15, boldly mouthed her assigned words: “environmental a-ware-ness.”

“Perfect!” said Panzo, 24, as she wrapped up the recording session. Then, with near-lightning speed, she edited the PSA and, to the girls’ delight, announced it would air the next day.

Keeping the Promise
Over the years, the Girl Scout Promise and Law have been modified slightly, but the basic premise—to be virtuous, responsible, respectful and helpful—remains the same.

“There isn’t a night that I go to bed that I don’t think, ‘Have I done a good deed today?'” says Allene George, 84, a Savannah resident who joined the Girl Scouts in 1935. “That was ingrained in me when I was a Scout, and I have seen it happen in my own children.”

George served as a Girl Scout leader for 20 years and watched her daughters Fran, 51, and Jennifer, 43, blossom and mature as members of her troop. “They just gravitated toward it, especially Fran,” George says. “She has led a troop all the way through, and right now she is scuba diving in the Florida Keys with her girls.”

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A Sweet Tradition
The earliest recorded Girl Scout cookie sale occurred in 1917 in Muskogee, Okla., when a troop sold the sweet treats in the high school cafeteria to raise money for care packages for American soldiers during World War I. Word spread and the service project evolved into a national movement. In the 1920s, Girl Scouts around the nation started baking sugar cookies, packaging them in wax paper bags, and selling them door-to-door for 25 cents to 35 cents a dozen. Today, the organization offers eight cookie varieties, including Thin Mints and Samoas, which are produced by two licensed bakeries. Proceeds fund local Girl Scout activities.