On March 12, 1912, a venerable young women’s group called the Girl Scouts of the United States of America was organized. Far beyond being cookie merchants, Girl Scouts help instill skills that reinforce leadership and can follow a Scout throughout her life. Currently, 1.7 million Girl Scouts are active across the world, and more than 50 million are alumni. For more on the history of the group, keep reading.
1. The first Girl Scouts were known as Girl Guides in England, and society disapproved of them.
Girl Scouts began with an American living abroad. Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1860, Juliette Gordon Low married William Mackay Low in 1886. Because Low was originally from England, the couple moved there. In 1905, William died; Juliette Gordon Low remained in the country. In 1912, Low had a fortuitous meeting with Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. Baden-Powell told Low he was interested in setting up a similar organization for girls after he witnessed a number of girls “crashing” a Boy Scouts meeting in 1909 and proclaiming themselves Girl Scouts; Low expressed interest in aiding the effort. With the help of Agnes Baden-Powell, Robert’s sister—who had been working on the idea beginning in 1910—two troops of Girl Guides were set up in Scotland and one in London.
These early girl groups were not perceived as a positive turn of events in England. According to author Stacy A. Cordery, who published Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts in 2012, the Girl Guides met with resistance from the establishment. “There were complaints, in England, about mannish girls and girls not being peaceful if they were in a uniform that looked like a military uniform,” Cordery told Smithsonian in 2012. “There were concerns about girls being overly athletic or indulging in sports, games or outdoor activities that were not appropriate for their gender. But, in the United States, there were already progressive era movements afoot suggesting that children needed outdoor exercise, to play, to get out of the classroom and to be able to run and be free.”
In other words, Low’s ambitions were headed for America. She returned to Savannah in 1912 and began recruiting the girls of families in town as well as her own young relatives. Members learned map reading, first aid, and knot tying, among other skills. The merit badge system was adopted from England. Low changed the name from Girl Guides to Girl Scouts in 1913, the same year the organization went national. (Girl Guides eventually became a part of England’s culture. The future Queen Elizabeth II was first crowned a Girl Guide in 1937.)
2. There’s tension between Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.
When the Girl Guides changed their name to Girl Scouts in 1913, James E. West, Chief Boy Scout Executive, wasn't happy. He felt both groups having “scout” in their name would adversely affect his Boy Scouts group, potentially “sissifying” its members and making young men wary of participating in an organization they believed was open to girls. He also took issue with their khaki uniforms, which were the same material as the boy’s versions. West far preferred the Camp Fire Girls, another girl’s group that placed an emphasis on domestic skills like cooking and cleaning. West even tried bringing legal action against Girl Scouts, to little avail. He continued to bemoan the existence of Girl Scouts until he retired in the 1940s.
The rivalry is not yet over. In 2018, the Girl Scouts filed a lawsuit over trademark infringement when the Boy Scouts changed their name to Scouts BSA, a move the Girl Scouts claimed would promote confusion. In 2020, they sued again, alleging that recruiting tactics perpetuated by the Boy Scouts, which began allowing girls into its ranks, was damaging Girl Scouts.
3. Girl Scout skills helped out during World War I and World War II.
The Scouts were organized just time for a huge need for helping hands prompted by America’s entry into World War I. Membership was bolstered by young women looking to aid in the war effort, and Scouts participated in activities as diverse as tending to victory gardens, driving ambulances for the Red Cross, and selling war bonds. It was during the war that the Scouts first started offering their Girl Scout Cookies.
World War II was no different. Girl Scouts added scrap metal collection to their duties, along with becoming bicycle couriers and assisting children during air raids. Cookies, however, were off the menu—supply shortages caused a dip in inventory, so Girl Scouts took to selling calendars instead.
4. Saul Bass designed the Girl Scouts logo.
In 1978, the Girl Scouts recruited Saul Bass to design their now-iconic logo, a “trefoil” shape of three girls in profile. Bass was a renowned graphic designer best known for creating the title credits to several classic films and posters, including 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder. The logo was updated in 2010 to reflect more contemporary hairstyles.
5. The record industry tried to shake down the Girl Scouts.
In a spectacularly poor public relations move, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) threatened to sue the Girl Scouts in 1996 over royalties for songs members would use for sing-alongs during campfires. ASCAP had had some success with the American Camping Association, which had its groups pay $250 for “public performance” rights to songs. Girl Scouts groups belonging to the ACA were advised to do the same, with the ACA cautioning that violations could result in a copyright infringement penalty of $100,000 or a year in prison. Incensed by footage on news broadcasts of Scouts doing the dance to “Macarena” without being able to play the song, the general public offered a swift backlash. ASCAP backed down.
6. Girl Scouts have a special hand sign and promise.
On my honor, I will try:To serve God and my country,To help people at all times,And to live by the Girl Scout Law.
Girl Scouts also have a special handshake used when greeting other Girl Scouts. Members hold up the hand sign with their right hand and shake with their left, because the left hand is closer to the heart.
7. Girl Scouts have produced a lot of astronauts.
For proof of the effectiveness of Girl Scouts to instill feelings of leadership and ambition in members, look no further than NASA. Over 20 Girl Scouts have gone on to become astronauts, including Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, who was the first American woman to perform a space walk in 1984.
8. Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low was buried in her Girl Scout uniform.
Once a Scout, always a Scout. When Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low died on January 17, 1927, she was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Georgia in her Scout uniform. A telegram from the national office of the Girl Scouts was put in her pocket. It read: “You are not only the first Girl Scout, but the best Girl Scout of them all.”