Picture Yourself in the Girl Scout Archives

Last Saturday was the Nation’s Capital 2018 Annual Meeting, and the Archives and History Committee arranged an exhibit.

2018 Annual Meeting Patch

 

The exhibit theme was “Picture Yourself in the Girl Scout Archives,” and it had two parts. First, Committee members brought a current project to share. We are informally divided by specialty (uniforms, patch programs, books, publications, etc.) and this seemed a good way to demonstrate what the Committee does.

I brought some of our camera collection to decorate our display, and many girls were fascinated by them. We had to explain that these cameras did not have phones.

Second, we organized a photo booth with old uniforms. Last year we had a large exhibit of adult uniforms and people were literally lining up to have their picture made with the mannequins. We decided to build on that by having uniform pieces to try on.

 

Hats were easy to arrange.  We’d been advised by other history groups to be vigilant about hygiene since we didn’t want to accidentally spread germs or unwelcome critters. We lined each hat with a basket-style coffee filter that we changed after each wearing.

Uniforms were more challenging. Folks today are larger than people a few decades ago and some of our uniforms are tiny! We know that for fashion shows, we have to go for younger models.  Sometimes only a Daisy in kindergarten can fit into a vintage Brownie dress, and we have to use a fifth-grade Junior for one of the vintage teen uniforms.

But we’d gotten a fabulous idea from other historians: split uniforms. I saw them up close at the North Carolina Girl Scout Collector’s Show in March, and organizer Becky Byrnes offered some great advice.

 

Uniforms are split along the spine, hemmed, and ribbons or bias tape is sewn in to use as ties. Girls and adults slip the old uniform on over their clothing, much like a doctor slipping into a surgical gown. It doesn’t completely solve the size issue (tiny uniform + clothing = tight squeeze) but everyone seemed pleased with the results.

Our designated photographer reported snapping pictures of 74 groups, and many more visitors took selfies.

This experiment worked well and we plan to have more split uniforms available at our Program Centers.

©2018 Ann Robertson

 

Putting a Name to a Familiar Face

Recently I wrote about the disappointment in having to pass on an overpriced piece of local council history.

But that disappointment was short-lived. Shortly after the elusive eBay auction ended, a new donation arrived in the mail. The enclosed letter from a local estate attorney explained that her client, Betty Chapman, had left behind a scrapbook that she had compiled as a Washington, DC, Girl Scout in the late 1920s. As Chapman had no immediate family, the attorney thought we might like it.

The package contained a three-ring school notebook, with newspaper clippings and other papers pasted on lined notebook paper.

Kahler Scrapbook

The first clipping, on the first page, I immediately recognized:

Kahler Gollden Eaglet

This round-faced girl, with the slightly mischevious grin, is Elizabeth Kahler, one of Washington’s first Golden Eaglets. She appears in many of our early photos, including this one of the 1927 White House Easter Egg Roll.

Coolidge Raccoon

Elizabeth Kahler, top left, at the 1927 White House Easter Egg Roll with First Lady Grace Coolidge and Rebecca the White House Racoon.

Elizabeth has the same photo in her scrapbook, along with an autograph from the first lady. You can still see the creases from Elizabeth putting it in her uniform pocket for safekeeping.

Coolidge Autograph

The book is stuffed with more clippings, invitations, letters, and badge records.

Kahler Red Cross

Elizabeth carefully preserved her Red Cross home nurse certificate.

But perhaps the biggest find is nine issues of the Girl Scout Bugle — a publication that I did not even know existed!

GS Bugle 9 issues

GS Bugle InfoThese four-page publications from 1927 and 1928 were part of a journalism training program.  The first issue explains its purpose. I don’t know how long the program continued.

Stuffed in the envelope with the Girl Scout materials are other mementos of Elizabeth’s life, such as the programs from her college graduation. She attended the George Washington University, earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees before graduating from medical school, with distinction, in 1940.

Elizabeth married fellow physician Ervin Chapman and maintained a medical practice in Washington, DC. She passed away in 2007.

Eliz Kahler Chapman

Dr. Elizabeth Kahler Chapman

I guess those Red Cross courses made a significant impression on Miss Kahler.

© 2018 Ann Robertson

A Practical Approach to Girl Scout Archives

I have a busy week coming up, first going to the North Carolina Girl Scout Collectors’ Show, then on to Savannah, Georgia, to see my daughter, who is a junior at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

She is busy studying schedules and determining what classes to take this fall and the rest of her senior year. I continue to be amazed at the variety of courses and career paths offered at SCAD. They have areas of study that I never knew existed, like yacht design, sequential art, and luxury and fashion management. SCAD takes a very hands-on, applied approach to learning that equips students for creative careers.

I already have another trip to Savannah penciled in for October, this time for a Girl Scout history conference. The last such conference I attended was very conceptual–discussions and presentations on the changing role of museums in the 21st century.

IMG_2356

GS Historic Georgia partnered with SCAD to create a Preservation Patch

I have no idea what is being planned officially, but if it were me, I know what Savannah resource I would want to use wisely–SCAD. A conference planned in coordination with the school could provide tremendous hands-on learning opportunities. There are many potentially relevant programs, for example:

Accessory and Jewelry Design: Techniques for cleaning pins and metal camping equipment;  novel ideas for displays of lots of tiny objects.

CharacterDesignWrkshpAdActing and Character Development: For our living Juliette Gordon Lows.

Branded Entertainment: I don’t have any idea what this is, but how often do we hear about communicating and protecting the Girl Scout brand? Maybe we would learn!

Fashion/Fibers/Costume Design: Best techniques for preserving old fabric; how do you clean 100-year old sweat stains and rust stains?

 

SCAD-Museum_School-Visit_07_FS

Museum Studies students craft narratives about their artifacts (SCAD).

Museum Studies: Duh.

 

Photography/Film/Sound: How to archive photos, film etc. (and could someone please convert some Beta tapes that we have?)

Preservation Design: This also seems obvious.

 

Production-Design_Student-Candids_Fall-2013_MN_-272

Designing exhibit displays and props (SCAD).

Production Design: Tips on how to construct and configure exhibits and display spaces.

 

Themed Entertainment Design: to create Juliette Gordon Low World (just kidding–mostly)

Conducting a two-hour workshop on these topics would be a great experience for students, as SCAD teaches them to hone their presentation skills whenever possible. I definitely would sign up for as many as possible.

Ultimately, the conference curriculum isn’t up to me.  Maybe I’ll just browse the textbook aisle in the campus bookstore and try to learn some of these skills on my own.

©2018 Ann Robertson

Collect, Preserve, or Document?

I was so excited by a new item that popped up on eBay earlier this month.

Designated as volume 1, number 1, The Girl Scouts’ Rally Bulletin is the public record of the first national convention, which was held in Washington in 1915. It was compiled by Edna Colman, the local commissioner.

Tableaux 1915

In 1915 local troops put on a demonstration for convention delegates, including this representation of Justice, Liberty, and Peace.

This 32-page booklet includes highlights from troops across the country, including Washington. It also has a uniform price list (hats, $1.25; middy blouses, $1.75, etc.), and the names and addresses of troop leaders from every state.

The Nation’s Capital council archival holdings are surprisingly thin on the early history of Girl Scouting in Washington, DC. While council consolidation has brought the records of many legacy councils into a central location, our historical records are scattered across multiple sites. It takes some ingenuity, detailed searching, and sometimes pure luck, to track down information about our earliest days.

The main problem is that our early history is so closely entwined with that of the national movement. The first troops in and around the District of Columbia were managed out of the Munsey Building, where Juliette Gordon Low established the first national headquarters in 1913. Records from those years are more likely to be found at the JGL Birthplace or the First Headquarters in Savannah.

 

Little House Booklet Cover

Cover of 1923 booklet about the Little House

After national headquarters moved to New York, the national Little House opened in Washington, and the local council rented one room of the house to use as its headquarters. When the Little House closed in 1945, some of its files went to New York, but others went to Rockwood, a national Girl Scout camp just across the District of Columbia—Maryland border. When Rockwood closed, its files and fixtures went everywhere … but that is another story.

 

Surprisingly, some of the best information I’ve found about our early years comes from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa. Lou Henry Hoover’s role in the first years of Girl Scouting cannot be understated, and archivists there have been very generous about scanning documents for me.

Another source, the first Girl Scout magazine, The Rally (1917-20), published a regular column about the Girl Scouts of Washington.

But back to eBay. The asking price for this booklet? Nearly $600!! Pardon while I grab the smelling salts. This was a 30-day auction, now ended, and the price was slashed several times. The final price was $299.99. It did not sell.

1915 Bulletin

At first, I was furious. This was highway robbery! Holding our history hostage for a huge ransom! Unfair!

Then I looked closer. The listing included numerous photos of various pages and ended with the statement:

Early enough, very rare and important enough to be a museum piece according to my research. I could not find another one like it. I could only find a PDF version at Girl Scouts University, Girl Scout History & Preservation. RESEARCH IT!

So I did.

GSU Pin

Girl Scout University pin

The website is still up for Girl Scout University, another promising idea that GSUSA quietly abandoned and allowed to die of neglect.

 

I downloaded a good-quality PDF that added several new pages to our history.

The thing is, even if I had an extra $300 or $600 sitting around, there is no way I could justify the cost. I see my task as documenting history, not necessarily collecting examples of everything Girl Scout. While it is important to have artifacts that can be held and experienced, we wouldn’t pass around a century-old, original report anyway. We would scan it, lock it away carefully, and work with a copy. Which is exactly what we now have. And it didn’t cost us $300.

A few days after I first saw this auction, I received a priceless donation of original documents from essentially the same time period.

I’ll share that in a few days…

©2018 Ann Robertson

 

 

Realignment and the Russians, Really?

My calendar has two major anniversaries marked for October 2017.

One is the 10th anniversary of Girl Scout’s realignment program, which consolidated 312 councils into 112 “high capacity” councils. Realignment deserves its own post, but the basic idea is that GSUSA decided that large councils would be more efficient than smaller ones.

The other anniversary is the centennial of the Russian Revolution that brought the Communist Party to power. The new government dramatically redrew the map of their new country, dividing some territories and lumping others together.

What do these two events have in common? For one thing, they are both part of my office wall decor:

(Kookie Kong looks pretty afraid of the First Soviet Airplane.)

The other common thread is that they are both examples of externally imposed new state formation.

NO, wait, come back!!!  Let me rephrase.

They are the political equivalent of a shotgun marriage. These events threw people together whether they wanted to or not.

Whether councils or countries, they faced similar issues: Where do we draw our borders? What do we call ourselves? What does our new flag/logo/patch look like? What if we don’t like our new neighbors? Do we have to pay their debts? What do we do with people who don’t want to merge?

Suddenly the comparison doesn’t seem quite so crazy, does it?

Academic research is about making such unexpected connections. If the examples come from a largely unknown source, that’s even better.

Across the United States, Girl Scout councils are sitting on piles of largely unknown sources. We need to get the word out that researchers should come see what we have. We need to leverage our historical assets for academic research. Doing that requires matching theories with data, a process that often requires travel and field research. I’m very fortunate because I’ve found a way to cover both bases: I can use Girl Scout data in my academic research.

I’m not a professional Girl Scout historian, just a very busy volunteer. In my day job, I am a political scientist who specializes in secessionist movements and new state formation. Most of my work deals with the former communist world, such as the collapse of the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Those countries experienced the opposite of realignment; they were taken apart instead of thrown together; think divorce instead of marriage.  I’m (supposedly) trained to see possible patterns and then find evidence to prove or disprove the pattern.

I know the political scientist/Girl Scout historian combination is about as rare as a genuine Golden Eagle of Merit–or perhaps a Chartreuse Buzzard. But working in this direction doesn’t require a PhD.  Instead, it needs a new mindset. It means looking beyond the uniforms and badges to see what girls and women were doing in your community. You—we—can provide local examples of national issues.

It means looking beyond the uniforms and badges to document what girls and women were doing in your community. You can provide local examples of national issues that researchers can plug into their models and theories.

Letters and fund-raising campaigns can become examples of philanthropy, women’s empowerment, or marketing. Camp and troop policies reflect social trends. We recently found meeting minutes that debate whether or not to integrate resident camps. I knew the date of integration; I didn’t know that some committee members tried to reverse the decision the following year.

 

MAR09AR12

Researchers need examples of local history (GSCNC Archives).

Troop activities can reveal trends in girls’ development and interests. Citizenship programs demonstrate efforts to prepare future voters when the voting age was lowered to 18. Popular history accounts would be enriched by knowing how the American Bicentennial was celebrated in your community.

Blister Rust

Girl Scouts helped track the spread of this fungus (USDA).

In the 1920s campers in Washington were examined before and after weeks in the woods to provide scientific “evidence” of the health benefits of the out of doors. Similarly, girls attending Camp May Flather were tasked with combing the forest for signs of white pine blister rust, a dangerous fungus. We don’t have the data, but we know the agency that conducted the studies and can point researchers in that direction.

Such quirky stories are hiding in the newspaper clippings and the troop scrapbooks in our collections. How can we make them available to researchers anxiously searching for new sources to study?

I’ve had the pleasure of hosting several graduate students in our archives. They were investigating topics such as the national Girl Scout Little House, first ladies, family biographies, representation of minorities, and more. They have all gone away with valuable primary data sources, not to mention a patch and the occasional box of cookies!

©2017 Ann Robertson