This article originally appeared in the March 31, 2020, edition of the Washington Post.
Today you cannot turn on the news or surf the internet without seeing plea upon plea for face masks to protect health care workers during the Covid-19 crisis.
Groups across the country have sprung into action, sewing masks while quarantined at home. Girl Scouts are doing their part, collecting materials and sewing masks themselves. Troops across the United States are sending cases of cookies to hospitals and other health-care centers.
Girl Scouts have provided war-time service since the movement was founded in 1912. When the United States entered the World War I in 1917, girls distributed sandwiches to soldiers passing through town, raised homing pigeons destined for the front lines, and made bandages for the Red Cross.
Local Girl Scouts also jumped in to help when another mask-related emergency occurred.
The March 1918 edition of The Rally (the first Girl Scout magazine) introduced a Girl Scout War Service Award to “stimulate thoughtful direct effort that would have a distinct value to those in the war.”
To earn the award, girls had to knit two pounds of wool, make 50 jars of jam, and sell at least 10 Liberty Bonds.
The Rally also directed Girl Scouts to collect and dry fruit pits and nut shells:
A CAMPAIGN FOR PITS
Gather up the peach pits,
Olive pits as well.
Every prune and date seed
Every walnut shell.
The magazine article explained that “200 peach pits or seven pounds of nut shells produced enough carbon for one filter for a solider’s gas mask” (GS Collector’s Guide, p. 87). With the German military deploying highly toxic chlorine gas against the Allied troops, the Red Cross and other organizations launched peach pit collection drives across the country, according to The Atlantic magazine.
The Girl Scouts rose to the occasion, and three Washington, DC, Girl Scouts — all under age 13 — were declared “Peace Pit Champions.”
Hopefully we won’t have to resort to fruit as protective gear but if so, the Girl Scouts are ready.
Many troops had to cancel cookie booths due to social distancing. You can purchase cookies online and have them delivered to first responders, food banks, or yourself!
©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian
This post was originally published in 2014, and it has been updated for the coronavirus era.
The Washington Post recently compared the influenza epidemic of 1918 to the current Ebola outbreak, but the newspaper left out the Girl Scout part of the story.
From late 1918 through early 1919, a particularly nasty strain of flu killed 50 million people worldwide and some 500,000 in the United States. Washington, DC, was particularly hard hit because the city was overflowing with federal workers (“living three or four to a room in private homes and boarding houses”) and soldiers passing through on their way to or from the World War I front.
The Girl Scouts had already mobilized to sell sandwiches, cake, and ice cream to soldiers and war workers. One girl, Edna Schwartz, recalled making stacks and stacks of egg and ham sandwiches and setting up a stand near the Corcoran Gallery of Art at lunchtime. They put those skills to work as a new enemy attacked.
Invalid Cook, 1916
That’s “invalid” as somebody with a persistent disease, not something “not valid.”
(Photo from Vintage GS Museum)
When the Spanish flu brought Washington to a near-standstill in October 1918, the Girl Scouts set up a Diet Kitchen first at Central High School, then later at 1101 M Street NW.
Girls who had earned their Invalid Cook badge had mastered the art of making soup, broth, custard, gelatins, and a formidable-sounding substance labelled “kumyss” in their Handbook. Now they worked from dawn to dark cooking gallons of these very basic meals.
Volunteers delivered the hot meals to patients throughout the city. Leaders had to make a public appeal for drivers and containers to meet the demand. Some 2,180 patients were served from the high school and a total of 7,821 patients at the peak of the epidemic. Troop 60 put on a play and sang songs, charging 10 cents a head, and raised $25 for supplies.
The Diet Kitchen was such a success that Susie Root Rhodes, DC Supervisor of Playgrounds, asked the Girl Scouts to also distribute soup at playgrounds in two of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods. This meal often was the only meal, certainly the only hot meal, that many of these children received each day while their mothers worked or were ill.
Mrs. Rhodes credited the Girl Scouts with saving the lives of people too poor to afford doctors and preventing malnourished children from succumbing to influenza.
Is it a coincidence that the latest virus arrived at the same time as Girl Scout cookies? Girls Scouts to the rescue again!
DISCLAIMER: There is no scientific proof that Girl Scout cookies prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But they don’t hurt, either…
©2014, 2020 Ann Robertson
In the final days of World War II, the Girl Scouts of the USA dispatched six professional workers to war-torn Europe. Their official status was “on loan” to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).
Two of the six women worked for the national organization. By far the best-known of the group, Catherine T. Hammett was a renowned expert in camping. She was joined by Katherine McCullough a GSUSA field adviser.
The other four women had been council executive directors: Eleanor Ault, (Albany, New York); Dorothy Donnell (Orange, New Jersey); Grace Hast (Lincoln, Nebraska); and Marion Sloan (Kansas City, Missouri).
Hammett became director of social services at a Greek refugee camp in Palestine. She wrote a lengthy article in the December 1944 issue of Leader, with vivid descriptions of the terrain, flora, and fauna. The author of Campcraft ABCs, Hammett also wrote about the tents, makeshift stoves, and more in the refugee camps.
Ault, Donnell, and Hast took charge of welfare needs at smaller refugee camps, reporting to Hammett. McCullough and Sloan were posted to Yugoslav refugee camps in Egypt.
While international relief organizations set up schools, hospitals, sewing rooms, the Girl Scouts organized recreation and vocational training for refugee children. In time, they laid the groundwork for establishing Girl Scout and Boy Scout programs in the region.
On September 29, 1945, Eleanor Ault and 2nd Lt. Arlene Waldhaus of the US Public Health Service were aboard a 3,330-ton British ship, the Empire Patrol, accompanying 562 Greek refugees, including 200 children, across the Mediterranean Sea.
Around noon, as Eleanor locked the recreation room, she heard a commotion on a lower deck. She rushed to the scene to see flames sprouting from the starboard side of the ship.
Instead of paraphrasing the ensuing events, I will reprint the cable that UNRAA sent to GSUSA following the incident:
Immediately [Eleanor] began directing refugees in use of fire extinguishers. Flames starred coming from starboard side. Ault was one of those who prevented panic among refugees by calming, answering questions, distributing lifebelts, helping load lifeboats. Fire spread rapidly.
Captain asked Ault to accompany refugees in lifeboat and therein take charge. Line jammed on her boat as it was lowered, pulley had to be knocked off and boat dropped into sea. At this time whole ship was blazing.
At short distance from ship she picked up old man, young man and boy. Little farther off found several more and overtook another lifeboat overloaded with survivors. She transferred some, instructed others how to bail, get out oars. …
Altogether she rescued 35 — many been clinging defective rafts. Sea was very rough, consequently there was danger capsizing. At 4:oo P.M. Aircraft Carrier Trouncer arrived near burning ship; but as darkness fell lifeboats and rafts drifted apart, Ault being steadied by refugee men at oars.
As red distress lantern in boat failed, Ault improvised flare from kapok ripped out of life preserver which she soaked in kerosene and hung on boat hook which led plane circling overhead locating position of lifeboat. At 8:oo P.M. searchlights of Afghanistan picked out lifeboat and after Ault and man and boys climbed aboard, baskets were lowered for women and children. Afghanistan was one of first to reach Port Said [Egypt]Leader (November 1945): 11.
Of the 913 passengers, only 57 perished.
Wow. Let’s pause and take that in for a moment ….
Makes surviving cookie season pretty tame, doesn’t it?
The Girl Scouts were extremely proud of Eleanor, awarding her a citation reading “For distinguished service rendered in the saving of lives on the ill-fated “Empire Patrol.”
Born in Chicago in 1909, Eleanor graduated from De Pauw University. She became a Girl Scout professional in 1932. Following her stint with UNRRA, she moved to England, where she became one of the first participants in a US-UK trainer exchange program. During that time, she also attended the International Training Conference at Our Chalet, Switzerland.
Eleanor returned to the United States in 1947, taking a volunteer development post in Oklahoma. She eventually returned to Albany, New York, where she died in 1994.
©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian
With record low temperatures across the country, I’m sure you are all wondering what Girl Scouts do in the winter. Admit it.
That simple question is the theme of the current Archives and History Committee display at the main office of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital at 4301 Connecticut Ave NW in Washington, DC.
The answer? Lots!
Keep Toasty Warm
Girl Scouts have long had many options for frosty fashions. And if they have nothing in their closet, they will knit something themselves!
Personally, I’ll stick with lodge camping in the winter, but some hardy souls will still pitch their tents in the snow.
And let’s not forget the brave troop that was rescued by helicopter from Camp Potomac Woods after a surprise snowstorm in 1958. Here they are after arriving at Ft. Belvoir.
Earn a Badge
There have always been badges appropriate for winter time.
March in a Parade
Holiday parades, Martin Luther King Day parades, Presidents’ Day parades, Girl Scouts take part whenever asked. And every four years, there is a presidential inauguration to take part in.
Enjoy Tasty Treats
Bake cookies, decorate gingerbread, sip cocoa, or try a cookie-flavored coffee pod and creamer.
Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow will distract us from a cookie booth.
But the absolute best part of the exhibit? New lights.
Finally, everyone can see the treasures on display!
©2019 Ann Robertson
A few months ago, I wrote about former First Lady Barbara Bush and her involvement in the Girl Scouts.
Although not an honorary national president of the Girl Scouts of the USA, President George H.W. Bush was also a great supporter of the Girl Scouts.
Troops touring the White House from 1989 to 1992 often received a special greeting from the president himself.
He kept the tradition up when his son became president, especially with groups that came to watch a White House tee-ball game.
Nation’s Capital Girl Scout Troop 2722 hoped to see the country’s leader when they cheered on a White House tee-ball game on June 3, 2001, but they were surprised to see two President Bushes! The elder Bush graciously posed for photos.
Tributes to President George H.W. Bush consistently cite his kindness and decency, attributes that align with the Girl Scout mission of making the world a better place.
©2018 Ann Robertson
Just off the National Mall in Washington, DC, lies a little-known war memorial, one with an even more obscure Girl Scout connection.
Resembling a Greek temple, the District of Columbia World War Memorial honors the 499 DC residents who died in World War I. With its open-air design and widely spaced Doric columns, the memorial could easily be used as a bandstand.
In fact, it was located at the site of a former bandstand, and legendary conductor John Phillip Sousa led the Marine Band’s performance for the dedication.
While some Girl Scouts likely took part in the dedication of the memorial, there is one strong link between it and the young women’s leadership group.
The award-winning memorial was designed by Frederick H. Brooke, whose wife, Henrietta “Texas” Bates Brooke, helped found the first Girl Scout council in Washington, DC, in 1917.
Mr. Brooke seems to have been a bit camera-shy. This is the only photograph of him that I have found. It was taken in 1928 at the groundbreaking for the current British Embassy in Washington, another of his projects. Could that be his wife next to him? If only she had worn her Girl Scout uniform to the embassy event!
The memorial is located on Independence Avenue NW, between 17th and 23rd Streets. It underwent extensive restoration in 2011.
©2018 Ann Robertson
There are no words to adequately acknowledge the tragedy suffered by our Girl Scout family this weekend. In Wisconsin, a pickup truck plowed into a Junior troop gathering trash on a roadside, killing three girls and an adult and seriously wounding another girl.
How can we possibly comment on this loss? How do Girl Scouts grieve?
My first thought was to share part of some traditional Girl Scout song, but none seemed quite right.
I also remembered an odd set of photos from the Nation’s Capital archives. It seems to be a Girl Scout honor guard at a funeral in the 1920s.
But then I thought of something else. Something much simpler, a ritual that a 9 or 10-year old’s troop mates would understand.
It is a ceremony known as “Our Last Friendship Circle.”
UPDATE: This ceremony was created by Mary Burdett of the Western Ohio legacy council.
Please share. This tradition should not be stored away in the depths of an archive.
©2018 Ann Robertson
The wrenching images of immigrant children separated from their parents reminded me of several articles about Girl Scout outreach programs. The Department of Homeland Security should take note:
Girl Scouts have a long tradition of welcoming newcomers. They have created innovative programs to welcome girls moving across the country or across town; girls moving into overcrowded boom towns, as well as refugees from all corners of the world.
They have established and operated Girl Scout troops in challenging, high-security settings, such as the Japanese internment camps of the early 1940s. Since 1992, the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program has formed troops in women’s prisons so that inmates can participate in troops with their daughters. They even sell cookies to prison staff!
Early in the Cold War, troops were encouraged to seek out Displaced Persons arriving in their communities.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Girl Scouts in the United States reached out to children in Europe and Korea, sending care packages and school supplies to communities ravaged by war.
The Girl Scout way of Making New Friends continued in the 1980s. A February/March 1981 article in Leader magazine highlighted programs designed to help newcomers integrate into their new communities.
Leaders in the Girl Scout Council of Tropical Florida … visited Cuban mothers to assist them with grocery shopping, cooking and coping with the trials their new and confusing lives, while the Riverland Girl Scout Council in LaCrosse, WI, held a five-day cross-cultural “get acquainted” day camp with some of their new Cuban neighbors.
When community members in Fort Smith, Arkansas, were less than welcoming toward a group of Cuban refugees, Mount Magazine Council staff greeted the newcomers. The council CEO went on local television to challenge Girl Scouts to be friendly, prompting more residents to come forward with donations.
The article highlighted efforts in my own council, Nation’s Capital, to warmly welcome Vietnamese and Laotian families to the Washington region. Council staff first recruited high-school aged Vietnamese girls into Girl Scouting, then used their language skills to form multi-level troops for each community. The best sign of the program’s success—the girls soon were bringing more friends to the meetings.
The current refugee crisis in the United States, with children desperate for friendship, attention, activities, and caring adults, provides a critical opportunity for the Girl Scouts to put decades of experience to work. We have the skills and a proven track record—if we are allowed to use them.
© 2018 Ann Robertson
Fifty years ago today, the Girl Scouts of the USA released this telegram:
Copies were also sent to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Judge Otto Kerner, every member of the Kerner Commission, every member of Congress, and every Girl Scout council president.
Two months earlier, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder released a landmark study on race relations in the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson had convened the 11-man panel of experts following riots in Newark, NJ, Detroit, MI, and 23 other cities the previous year. The violent uprisings, concentrated in African-American neighborhoods, were responsible for the deaths of 69 people in Newark and Detroit.
Known as the Kerner Report, as Judge Kerner of the US Court of Appeals chaired the panel, the report’s conclusion was concise and alarming: The United States faced such deep social and economic division that
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.—Conclusion of the Kerner Commission
The Report called for massive investment in housing and jobs to improve living conditions for African Americans and an end to segregation in urban neighborhoods, among other recommendations.
GSUSA received many responses to the telegram, including one from Judge Kerner:
Your message of the action of the Board of Directors of the Girl Scouts of the United States should be hailed by all throughout the United States. I am a great believer in using existing organizations to work on the greatest social problem the country has ever faced. I am sure that through the Girl Scouts you can reach into the economically deprived areas and give new experience and opportunity there as well as to those people outside the depressed areas by becoming acquainted with the conditions. Please extend my congratulations to the officers and the Board of Directors.
—Judge Otto Kerner
President Lyndon B. Johnson ignored the Kerner Report’s advice, mainly due to the cost, but the Girl Scouts paid attention.
At the 1969 National Council Session, GSUSA launched “Action 70,” a program to improve race relations within Girl Scouting. Within Nation’s Capital, the leaders of the Southwest Montgomery County and Mid-Eastern Washington Associations took up the challenge of fostering good relationships within the council. Mary Ann Claxton, of Southwest Montgomery County, invited Field Vice President Ethel Harvey to a discussion on “The Kerner Report and Its Implications for Girl Scouting.”
This discussion evolved into the Inter-Association Friendship Committee, a series of joint events between the Girl Scouts from the urban Mid-Eastern Washington and upper-middle class Southwest Montgomery County Associations spanning more than three decades. The Friendship Committee brought together troops for camping, swapping program ideas, service projects, and fun. One of the Committee’s most popular annual traditions was polishing the brass on the carousel at Glen Echo Park, once a whites-only establishment.
A half century later, the United States remains a sharply polarized society. The Girl Scout’s persistent determination to be inclusive is still a model worthy of consideration.
For more about the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Report, follow the link to an interview with the last surviving panel member.
©2018 Ann Robertson