106 Years and Counting

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.

 

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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!!

Leaders Born Women

Happy Birthday, Girl Scouts!!

©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

 

 

Celebrating Our Success: A National Award for the Library at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace!

The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace just received a major honor for its redesigned Library. Click below for details?

Source: Celebrating Our Success: A National Award for the Library at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace!

I wrote about the Library redesign in February.

Buying the Birthplace

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?

Leader June 1954

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.

Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman (October 5, 1954): 18.

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.”

Birthplace Gift Form

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.

JGL Cake 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.

©2017 Ann Robertson

 

Back to the Birthplace

Last weekend, I finally visited the renovated library at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah, Georgia. I had not toured the house since the library’s controversial redo in April 2015.

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.

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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.”

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The stereopticons were extremely popular (photo by Mark Bowles)

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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.

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This desk once held a vintage typewriter, a technology that proved too popular to remain on display  (photo by Mark Bowles)

Community Service

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.

vintage-texting

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.

©2017 Ann Robertson