Who’s That Girl Scout? Janet Tobitt

By guest blogger Bethan Clark

Known as “Toby” in Girl Scout circles, Janet Tobitt was born in Reading, England in 1898 and educated at St. Andrews (Scotland), King’s College (London) and the Sorbonne (Paris). She first travelled to the United States in 1929 to teach at the innovative Mary C. Wheeler School in Rhode Island. Two years later she joined the Girl Scouts and began spending her summers teaching folk music at Camp Edith Macy before joining the GSUSA Program Department in 1940. She became a US citizen in 1940

folk songs, Girl Scout History Project
Skip to my Lou cover

She became involved with Brownies and Guides whilst teaching at an English boarding school in the 1920s, where she discovered how well folk songs and dances were suited to young people. Tobitt was an inveterate traveller, and she gradually compiled an extensive collection of songs and dances from Europe (France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Malta), Asia (Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka) and throughout North America.  

Although based in the United States, she retained connections with the UK’s Girl Guiding Association (GGA). In 1936 she returned to the United Kingdom for 18 months, partly for the coronation of King George VI, and partly to travel around England and Scotland leading campfire singing workshops for Girl Guides and leaders for GGA. She took a year’s sabbatical from Girl Scout work during this trip to carry out a survey of music-related activities in 200 towns and hamlets in the United Kingdom.

We certainly tried to get all we could out of “Toby” before she went home to England last fall. We practically have a “Five-Inch Janet E. Tobitt Music Shelf” now.

Marie Gaudette, Leader (January 1937)

From 1947 to 1948 she traveled through more than 100 American communities giving song and dance sessions for 16,000 people. The tour, she wrote, “proved to be not a mangling experience, but a rejuvenating one”. People referred to Toby as an “itinerant Scout executive,” perhaps unsurprising when her work took her to 40 states, some repeatedly, leading workshops for up to 1,000 people at a time.  

As an educator, she believed that “any adult equipped with some basic recreational material, plus sound teaching principles, can go forth as a leader and have fun.” She encouraged groups to sing rounds, stating they “afford a painless, even joyful introduction to part singing.” Her 1937 “Notes for Song Leaders,” listed at the end of the Ditty Bag, are as valid today as they were nearly 90 years ago, and are highly recommended. 

folk songs, Girl Scout History Project
Ditty Bag Songbook

Tobitt achieved several “firsts” during her lifetime. In 1933, she became the first person to introduce the making and playing of shepherd’s pipes to the Girl Scouts. Soon after, she introduced the pipes to a nationwide audience, by playing them on a radio show broadcast from the newly opened Rockefeller Center. 

Tobitt contributed several articles to Girl Scout Leader magazine over the years, and held many Girl Scout job titles, including National Supervisor for Singing and Folk Dancing, where she was credited with creating “a strong musical culture for the organization. “As Music Director, she was considered principally responsible for the “national movement towards keener appreciation of music by Girl Scouts”; and, most notably, the first GSUSA staff member assigned to overseas duty in 1951. 

Her overseas assignment was as head of the North Atlantic Girl Scouts (NORAGS). This new division was based in “the American Zone” in Heidelberg, Germany. She trained 650 women, and organized activities for 3,000 girls in more than 100 troops at 17 US bases. As result of her efforts, the Army granted her the civilian equivalent of a Colonel’s rank. 

folk songs, Girl Scout History Project
Tobitt Clipping

From 1953 to 1954 she directed the Far East American Girl Scout Association in Japan. “These wives and daughters of our security forces’ personnel, State Department officials, traders, and clergymen,” she explained, “have a unique opportunity as ambassadors of good will to effect understanding and to bring back to their homeland their broader knowledge of the world.” Her duties included introducing Japanese women to Girl Scouts. “Our objective was to give understanding, not to change Japanese women.”

She used her contacts in Japan to facilitate the 1955 “Hiroshima Maidens” airlift, which brought 25 severely disfigured young women to the United States for reconstructive surgery. When journalist and peace advocate Norman Cousins repeatedly failed to find financial backing for the venture, Tobitt suggested an appeal to the editor of the Nippon Times, which resulted in the U.S. Far East Command arranging air transportation for the women. 

Once the Maidens were in the United States, Tobitt, together with C. Frank Ortloff from  the Religious Society of Friends in New York City, was in charge of their outpatient care. The women stayed in private homes in New York City, as they prepared for and recuperated from multiple surgical procedures.

In addition to work and travel, Tobitt found time to edit and publish 34 books, including the highly popular Sing Together (1936), The Ditty Bag (1946) and the original Canciones De Nuestra Cabana (1963). She co-authored five books with another British-born naturalized American, Alice G. W. White, aka Alicen White.  

Tobitt continued to lead folk dance and singing workshops until she retired in 1963. She died in February 1984 age 86, in her adopted home of Manhattan.

Bethan Clark is a British woman who has lived in Hong Kong since 1999. She was a Brownie, Girl Guide, Ranger and Young Leader whilst living in the UK and has spent the majority of her career working with amateur singers, much like Janet Tobitt but on a smaller scale! She is currently a District Commissioner for Bauhinia Division, Hong Kong Girl Guides Association’s English-speaking Division, and is Guider In Charge of a Guide Company comprising 27 girls aged 11-17. Last year she created a YouTube channel ‘Songs for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts’ which, as far as she is aware, is the largest repository of Guide and Scout songs on the internet (500 and counting). It was through this project that she discovered Janet Tobitt and wanted to know more. Hence this article, and now a Wikipedia page too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_E_Tobitt  

Leave a Reply