Last week my daughter graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design. (Summa Cum Laude in scriptwriting, I know you want to ask.)
When she opted for SCAD, I knew we wouldn’t get to see her very often, as the SCAD campus is some 600 miles away.
But I’m glad we made the effort to visit this beautiful city. My husband and I became regulars at a Hampton Inn near SCAD, and only partly because of their free waffles.
Over time we walked around the historic district enough times that we no longer need a map.
As we drove over the Savannah River and into South Carolina and back to Maryland, it was easy to review what I’d learned these past years. Most are connected to Girl Scouts, which began in Savannah in 1912.
1. I was already familiar with the bridge when the Girl Scouts of Georgia lobbied (unsuccessfully) in 2017 to have it named for founder Juliette Gordon Low.
2. My daughter had the coolest college job ever, as a docent at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace. I learned a lot from her about how to bring former residents “alive” in a house museum. After all, tours are just another form of script.
3. I was lucky to have a peek behind the curtain to see Birthplace operations, including the renovated library.
4. I learned more about museum strategies to humanize artifacts. Instead of just showing a uniform, add details about who wore it and what she did while wearing it.
5. I had a fancy dinner in the Birthplace dining room with two of JGL’s great-nieces. They were just as warm and friendly as you’d expect.
6. I learned that shrimp and grits are nature’s most perfect food.
8. I participated in a GSUSA Task Force on the future of the Birthplace.
9. I didn’t spend nearly enough time at the Girl Scout First Headquarters museum. I don’t remember how many rounds of phone tag the director and I had, but we seldom connected.
10. I learned that if you stand on a street corner and yell “It’s Girl Scouts of the USA” every time a tour guide says that JGL founded the “Girl Scouts of America,” tourists think you’re just a weird Girl Scout vigilante and ignore you.
I deliberately decided not to visit the Andrew Low House or Laurel Grove cemetery. I’m saving them as the reason to return in the future.
These four years in Savannah were unforgettable. And yes, I got the patch. All of them!
Both the Little House and Rockwood were generous, but
unanticipated, gifts reluctantly accepted by the national Girl Scout
headquarters (GSUSA). National’s reticence related to the costs associated with
these surprise bequests.
Imagine that I give all readers a new car. (Emphasis on imagine.) The prize sounds like a windfall at first, but your excitement dims when you realize that you must suddenly come up with cash to pay taxes on the gift, registration fees, insurance, and even gasoline.
After accepting Rockwood, GSUSA vowed to never again accept
such a gift without an accompanying endowment.
Indeed, when the Girl Scouts had the opportunity to purchase the Andrew Low Housein 1943, Daisy’s marital home in Savannah, they declined for this very reason—the total cost would be much higher than just the purchase price.
Nine years later, the Savannah Council called again. An
historic property was about to come on the market. The council could not afford
it, so representatives contacted the national headquarters. This time the
property in question was a Regency mansion on the corner of Bull and Oglethorpe
Streets; the Gordon family home and Daisy’s birthplace.
Both the house and the neighborhood had deteriorated over
time, and some Gordon descendants wanted to raze the house and sell the land.
Savannah’s commercial district was expanding, and the Gordon corner lot would
be attractive to business developers.
Daisy’s niece Eleanor Wayne Macpherson was appalled at the
idea of tearing down the house. It held wonderful memories from her childhood.
Losing it, she lamented, “would be a tragedy, because, over and above its
historic value, it is associated with everything I hold dear.”
Macpherson launched a three-pronged strategy to save the
Persuading the Family
The house was owned and managed by an informal trust set up among
Daisy and her siblings. The six children had received equal ownership shares
upon the death of their parents. These shares were subsequently further divided
and sold or swapped among descendants.
Macpherson knew that the trustee, her nephew, favored
demolition, so she began quietly acquiring house shares from distant relatives
so that she would gain a majority and be able to block moves toward demolition.
GSUSA: “No Thanks”
Macpherson approached national Executive Director Dorothy
Stratton about purchasing the home. The reply was a swift “No.”
Macpherson was not completely surprised by this refusal. In
fact, she had already contacted Anne Hyde Choate about the situation. Choate,
Daisy’s goddaughter who had succeeded Low as national president in 1920, agreed
on the need to preserve the house.
Choate advised Macpherson to not condemn national leaders
for their veto, as “One cannot blame those overburdened people for wanting to
avoid more responsibility.”
Rally the Troops
Choate encouraged Macpherson to persevere. Specifically, it
was time to rally the membership behind this cause.
Somehow we must get into our Nat. Hdqrs’ mind the idea that one of their chief functions is to encourage local or other Girl Scout groups to take responsibility and carry out their own good ideas, — in fact, to treat their experienced members as grownup people!
–Anne Hyde Choate
She encouraged Macpherson to contact Louise Dawe, an influential Girl Scout in Richmond, Virginia, and the women began assembling an informal panel of volunteers to save the Birthplace.
The Board Bends
When the national Board of Directors met in October 1952,
Choate formally proposed creating a committee to study the implications of
purchasing the Gordon home. Board members agreed they should not to dismiss the
issue outright. The motion passed, and an “Ad Hoc Committee to Consider
Purchase of the Birthplace” was created from Choate’s list of proposed
committee members. She reported to Dawe that the motion had passed “definitely
against” the advice and wishes of top GSUSA officials.
The Ad Hoc Committee visited Savannah in February to inspect
the Birthplace and offered their preliminary impressions to the Board in March.
At that point, the Board expanded the committee, creating subcommittees to
focus on finance as well as restoration, operations, maintenance, and program.
The latter subcommittee was to include representatives from Savannah.
The national Board also instructed headquarters to pay $500 for an option to purchase the house for $65,000. This would prevent the building from being razed or sold to another buyer until after the October Board meeting, when the Dawe report would be presented.
The Committee worked at a frantic pace throughout the summer
of 1953 to assess the financial implications of purchasing and restoring the
Gordon home. They looked at a range of expenses and consider what programming
could be offered at the house.
Not Just Another Expense
Volunteers spent the summer trying to convert key leaders to
National President Olivia Layton sent Dawe a list of other
properties that had recently been offered to and refused by GSUSA, trying to
establish that a precedent existed for such matters. Dawe, for her part,
insisted that none of these cases were relevant because “none of them belonged
to the Girl Scout history nor offered a reason for the girls’ participation in
the project.” Furthermore, she cited bankers and real estate experts who
believed the property would be “not alone a sentimental or emotional [purchase]
… [but] a very good investment.”
Dawe went on to compare the Girl Scouts to the United
Nations as both sought “to build the defenses of peace in the minds and hearts
of children.” Just as the UN complex has a small chapel dedicated to the
founder, she thought the Gordon house could provide a similar focal point for
Girl Scouts. “It might offer that sense of the beginning of an idea and the
continuity of its great purpose.” Office locations might change, but the house
would remain a fixed anchor.
Layton took note of Dawe’s lofty ideals, but plainly stated that finding a new national headquarters building and developing Camp Macy should take precedence over buying an old home in Savannah. Dawe acknowledged these priorities, but
“With the house, it is now or never. … Is that also true of headquarters, and of Macy?”
The Committee’s findings were assembled into an extensive
report, which Dawe presented at the October meeting of the national Board of
Directors. In a nail-biting vote, the board approved the purchase, 32–24.
The Ad Hoc Committee to Consider the Purchase was dissolved
and a new “Special Committee on the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace” created. This
new group included members of the initial committee, as well as individuals
representing Savannah, and Girl Scout Region VI, among others.
Macpherson was also a part of this original committee.
Although I have seen no provision requiring a Gordon family member to be on
such an advisory group, typically someone has. That is true for the latest
incarnation, as well.
As the Birthplace continues to evolve, let us remember that volunteers can have a lasting impact on key decisions determining the direction of our movement.
My daughter recently mentioned that visitors on her tours at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace are often surprised when Erin says, “She was about my size.”
That comparison surprised me, too. Erin and I are only 5 feet tall, and even then we really have to stretch on our tippy toes. “Hold on,” I replied. “I think I’ve seen her height.”
Less than a minute later, I texted her a copy of Low’s 1919 passport application, which states her height at 5 feet, 4.5 inches.
“OK,” Erin conceded. “But that’s still pretty small.”
“You’re not going to comment on my just happening to have JGL’s passport application sitting around?”
“No, mom.” She replied. “I’ve learned to expect that.”
I had found the passport records earlier on Ancestry.com. It is fun to see Daisy’s handwritten comments, description of her own appearance, and to read the reasons given for her travel abroad. The passport photos are great, as well.
The documents have been bound into hardback volumes, and some text is not fully visible.
Her 1915 application gave her destinations as England, Italy, and Egypt, and she requested that the document be delivered to her parents’ home on Oglethorpe Street.
Daisy describes herself as 5 ft, 4.5 inches tall.
Passport Photo, 1915, 1916
She renewed her passport in 1916, and her brother’s statement served in place of a birth certificate. The file also includes a letter noting that her landlord in London, Lady Coghlan, was upset to discover that Daisy had used parafin oil lamps and left at least one sink stopped up.
By 1918 Daisy had misplaced her passport and urgently needed a new one. She included a letter from Boy Scout founder Lord Baden-Powell explaining the reason for her travel.
In 1919 she explained that she needed to renew her passport for six months to attend an international scouting conference. She handwrote that her travels would include Switzerland, and another letter from Lord Baden-Powell confirmed the international meeting.
The last passport on file was for 1923. This trip included Egypt. She also indicates that her previous passport had been canceled.
Unfortunately, the photo for the 1923 document is almost illegible. Likely the product of poor quality microfiche.
I always enjoy looking at original documents, especially ones with personal details such as eye color, face shape, and height.
Now I have yet another reason to look up to Daisy Low.
One hundred and six years ago today, a 51-year old widow reinvented herself by inventing the Girl Scouts of the USA.
Juliette Gordon Low invited 18 girls to the first Girl Scout meeting on March 12, 1912, in the carriage house of her home in Savannah, Georgia.
Today that building, known as the First Headquarters, welcomes girls (everyone, actually) from around the world who want to learn more about this woman and her life-changing movement. I look forward to being there next week.
Girl Scout First Headquarters in Savannah, Georgia
Here’s to the women willing to break the mold, challenge tradition, and shape the future. And here’s to life’s second acts!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 have had the good fortune to make two trips to the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah in the past month. In between, I decided to learn more about the history of the building. How did it become a Girl Scout National Center?
Girl Scouts of the USA, the national organization, purchased the home from the Gordon family in 1953. The Birthplace became the third national Girl Scout center, joining Camp Edith Macy in New York and Rockwood outside of Washington, DC. The Savannah home would become
a unique center for Girl Scouting in this country — a place where ideas for new troop activities can be tried out, where there will be records of the past and plans for the future of Girl Scouting where girls from all over the world may come together to find friendship and inspiration.
–Lilly Macintosh, chair of Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace Committee in 1954
The GSUSA Board of Directors advanced the purchase price ($500,000), intending to launch a national fundraising campaign to pay for the building and its renovation.
Girls were asked to contribute pennies equal to the cost of an ice cream cone.
However, the campaign did not go as smoothly as hoped. Only $88,450 had been raised by late 1954; $100,000 was needed before restoration could begin.
To date, contributions to the Juliette Gordon Low birthplace fund have been very slow. As a report will be made at the regional conference of Girl Scouts in October, it is asked that any adult or troop wishing to make a contribution to this fund do so as soon as possible.
Other indications of trouble were sprinkled throughout local news columns on Girl Scout activities, such as “the local quota of $105 for the Juliette Gordon Low birthplace restoration” and “each troop be contacted and made acquainted with the plan of contributing one dollar or more for restoration.”
Coupons like this ran in Leader magazine in 1955.
If the Girl Scouts were to meet their target grand opening in 1956, they needed a new strategy. So they turned to a time-tested fundraiser: baked goods.
One year earlier, Helen Duprey Bullock, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, had begun adapting “classic” cake recipes for Dromedary Heritage Series cake mixes. Not only were the recipes based on family traditions from historic American homes, but a portion of the profits went to restore the related home. Dromedary was a division of the National Biscuit Company
The company’s first mix, First Lady Martha Washington’s “Great Cake,” was a flop (perhaps because it required 40 eggs), but her gingerbread recipe was a hit.
Soon Bullock created mixes for James Monroe’s white cake,Thomas Jefferson’s pound cake, Mary Todd Lincoln’s yellow cake, and Theodore Roosevelt’s devil’s food cake, among others.
For Juliette Gordon Low, she created an angel food cake mix. Thankfully, the required 13 egg whites came with the mix.
The result, according to advertisements, was
Angel Food light as a moonbeam, fluffy as a summer cloud, white and moist as a fresh snowfall. And with a delicate crust and flavor all its own.
Dromedary kicked off the deal with a $500 token payment. Going forward, the company would pay royalties of three-fourths of one cent per case of angel food cake mix. They anticipated selling six million cases per year and pledged an advertising campaign worth $1 million.
I haven’t found the total amount raised, but the cake mix strategy was evidently a recipe for success. The beautifully restored Birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low re-opened in 1956.
Based on the criticism I’d read, I expected to step into a high-tech Apple Store, with rows of gleaming iPads, computer monitors, and glaring fluorescent lights. The reality was quite different.
Birthplace Executive Director Lisa Junkin Lopez (right) discusses the theory behind the new library (photo by Mark Bowles)
I watched a Cadette troop swarm into the room and head straight for the activity table in the middle of the room. Most of them passed right over the iPads—that’s something they see every day. What they really liked was the stereopticons. Everyone had to try out the “vintage virtual reality glasses.”
The stereopticons were extremely popular (photo by Mark Bowles)
Birthplace Executive Director Lisa Junkin Lopez, front view (I forgot to take her picture!)
I spent over an hour in the library with Lisa Junkin Lopez, the executive director of the Birthplace. She arrived in November 2015, shortly after the new library was unveiled and instituted several modifications in response to a range of feedback. We had an excellent discussion about the purpose of various museum features.
Honor the Past, Serve the Future
The interactive table is the focus of the library and provides hands-on activities that allow girls to physically connect with the past. After a series of “do not touch” displays in other rooms, the girls welcome the change. The activities are grouped around the themes of Poems, Songs, Speeches, and Storytelling.
The exhibit has also been designed for maximum accessibility. Girls can feel Braille letters, for example. Girls are encouraged to compose poetry about their Girl Scout experiences, and they can leave their own mark on history by adding their favorite book to the memory journal. At one point, they could use a beautiful blue vintage typewriter to record their thoughts, but it was so popular that the machine would jam and congest the room. As the last stop on the tour, the library also offers a transition between past and present.
This desk once held a vintage typewriter, a technology that proved too popular to remain on display (photo by Mark Bowles)
The library is now stocked with books by and about women, which builds on the Gordon family’s love of reading and learning. Troops are encouraged to bring contributions for the library, and returning girls often search the shelves for “their” books. Surplus books will be donated to Loop It Up, a local literacy charity.
There are also traditional Girl Scout handbooks and fictional stories on view, but these are for display only. It might be nice to have scanned excerpts of the older books available to browse on the iPads.
For All Girls
While the Birthplace is one of the holiest shrines of Girl Scouting, it also is one of the best-known house museums among the many restored mansions in historic Savannah. It is also the only house museum that has an elevator, making the upper floors accessible to visitors with physical disabilities.
Lisa explained that the Birthplace has an opportunity to expand on Juliette Gordon Low’s principle of inclusion. It can serve as a model and resource for other historic house museums seeking to improve the accessibility of their facilities without compromising their historical integrity. That seems like an outreach effort worth pursuing.
The Girls’ House
Overall, I did not find the new library as horrific as often portrayed. I’d feared isolated girls with earbuds roaming about, following a pre-recorded tour.
Instead, I was delighted to watch girls eagerly experience both the old and the new technology. We need to use the tools and technology available to help modern girls connect with the past. I’m sure I’m not the only Girl Scout historian who has referred to semaphore as “vintage texting.” That translates into something the girls understand, something more appealing than waving an old rag on a stick.
Girl Scouts has long embraced technology. These campers from the 1920s are using “vintage GPS systems,” also known as a compass (GSCNC Archives).
I also don’t think the redesign of the library has damaged the historical integrity of the building. The rooms have not been structurally modified, just the contents changed. Any house museum will have to make compromises to meet modern building codes. I’m fairly sure the gift shop and public restrooms were not part of the original layout either, but I don’t hear complaints about those.
I find that when girls connect with Girl Scout history, when they discover their place in this venerable movement, they come away with a deeper appreciation of Girl Scouting. That’s what I saw happening in the Birthplace library, and I have no problem using the occasional iPad to help that process along.