The Girl Scouts of the District of Columbia

You might assume that the Girl Scout Council of Washington, DC, began with a formal meeting of prominent women concerned with youth issues. Perhaps Juliette Gordon Low trotted across Pennsylvania Avenue from her office to meet with the first lady at the White House.

But in reality, the Washington Council was the product of an auto accident, a case of appendicitis, and a brief kidnapping.

The first Washington DC troop formed in December 1913. With the national headquarters located in the Munsey Building, near the White House, national staff initially handled matters related to local troops.

 

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Washington DC Troop 1 with Juliette Gordon Low 

 

But when JGL moved the headquarters to New York City in 1916, Washington Girl Scouts had to take charge of their own affairs. With more than 50 active troops, it was time to get their files in order and apply for a charter.

LHH in Uniform Portrait

Lou Henry Hoover (Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

The first question was who would be the commissioner (president) of the DC Girl Scouts. The obvious choice was Lou Henry Hoover, an old friend of Daisy’s, but she was too busy for the amount of work necessary to seek a charter. After thinking about civic-minded  women in Washington, she came upon the solution by accident–literally.

In 1916, Mrs. Hoover had been in a fender bender with Henrietta Bates Brooke. Mrs. Brooke was well known in Washington for her various charitable endeavors. She had met JGL years earlier in Savannah and seemed ideal. Mrs. Hoover called on Mrs. Brooke, only to find her confined to her bed with a severe attack of appendicitis.

 

Being in no physical condition to deny any request, [Mrs. Hoover] quickly persuaded me to build a council, so when I got well, I had that to do.

Memoirs of Henrietta Bates Brooke

 

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Portrait of Henrietta Bates Brooke that hung at Rockwood National Center

 

Mrs. Brooke turned to her friend Edith Macy, the head of the New York council, for advice. They decided to invite a group of like-minded women to tea at Mrs. Macy’s apartment in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. As an added incentive, they promised a viewing of Mrs. Macy’s art collection.

This was a plum invitation. Mrs. Macy lived in the newly built McCormick Apartments at 1785 Massachusetts Avenue NW. The luxury Beaux Arts building had five stories and only six enormous apartments.

Edna Coleman, director of Girl Scouts in Washington, invited Mrs. Hoover to attend the tea, but, unfortunately, the future first lady was traveling at the time. That invitation is preserved at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

In any case, there was a huge turnout for the Thursday afternoon tea. About one dozen women admired the paintings, nibbled on cookies, and exchanged pleasantries.

After tea was served, I simply locked the doors. Learning that they would only be permitted to depart after accepting places on the Washington Girl Scout Council, they all accepted and always stayed in scouting.

Memoirs of Henrietta Bates Brooke

On July 17, 1917, the Girl Scout Association of the District of Columbia became the eighth council chartered by the national headquarters.

From these humble and haphazard beginnings, the Girl Scouts of the District of Columbia has grown in include parts of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. One hundred years later, the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital is the largest council in the United States, with over 87,000 members.

We rarely kidnap volunteers anymore.

©2017 Ann Robertson

A Pledge for Founder’s Day

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Juliette Gordon Low

As any Girl Scout will tell you, October 31 is more than just Halloween. It also is the birthday of our founder. Juliette Gordon Low was born on October 31, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia.

Today the movement she began in 1912 faces a new challenge, with the recent announcement that the Boy Scouts are opening membership to girls

While that news was not entirely a surprise, I have been shocked by much of the media coverage. In newspapers, on television, and across the internet, I’ve seen the same question, “Why would girls want to join the Boy Scouts?” The immediate answer is almost always “so they can earn the Eagle Scout,” followed by a long ode to its amazingness.

Over and over, reporters insist that the Girl Scouts have no equivalent award. I have grown hoarse screaming at the television, GOLD AWARD, GOLD AWARD, GOLD AWARD.

gold patchDespite celebrating the centennial of the highest awards last year, public awareness still is lacking. We know the reasons, such as the penchant for renaming the highest award every 10 years or so.

But inspired by our founder and her playful spirit, I hereby pledge to change how I speak about the Gold Award. For too long, I’ve described it as “Eagle Scout for girls.” No more.

JGL was known for standing on her head, an unexpected move that livened up any dull meeting. So I am going to do a 180-turn in how I approach these prestigious awards. The Gold Award should exist on its own, it should not need to be defined in relation to another award. It is not a feminized version of a male award. It’s not an Eagle in a dress.

Eagle_Scout_medal_(Boy_Scouts_of_America)

The Gold Award for Boys

From now on, I will describe Eagle Scout as the “Gold Award for boys.”

Who’s with me?

©2017 Ann Robertson

New Look for GS History Project

With the 54th Girl Scout National Conference session convening this week in Columbus, OH, I decided to refresh the look and content of the Girl Scout History Project.

I’ve added links to my other website projects, an archive of Council’s Own badges and a new site with Cookie Patches and Prizes from the past.  In early 2018, the site will begin hosting an archive of Leader magazines, the product of a collaborative project among Girl Scout historians. (I’m hosting it temporarily; hopefully, GSUSA will take it over in the future.)

I’m excited to announce a new logo for the website, definitely the most fun part of the transformation:

GS History Project

Meet Digital Daisy!

“Digital Daisy” was designed by an Illustration major from the Savannah College of Art and Design, which gives the image an extra dose of Girl Scout history.

I’d hoped to have patches made to use as SWAPs at the convention, but time ran out. I do have some stickers and business cards.

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Look for the Daisy tote bag!

I’m still not convinced “Digital Daisy” is the best nickname, so suggestions are welcome!

(And yes, I secured permission from GSUSA to use “GS” in the image.)

©2017 Ann Robertson

The Original Girl Scout Ambassadors

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Ambassador Program Patches

Who were the first Girl Scout Ambassadors?  If you said 11th and 12th graders, you’d be wrong.

 

While GSUSA did introduce the Ambassador program level in 2008, the name “Ambassador” was first used in 1975.

GSUSA introduced the first Ambassador program as part of a larger project to improve retention. Estimating that one out of every four families moves each year, this program encouraged girls who moved to a new town to join Girl Scouting in their new neighborhood. Instead of being the “new girl,” the traveling Girl Scout became a more prestigious-sounding “Ambassador for Scouting.”

To be an Ambassador, a girl must be helped to recognize that one of the most important things in the mission of Scouting is to be aware of the different customs and values of different groups in her community. That was one of the ideas Juliette Gordon Low had when she started the Girl Scout movement back in 1912. She hoped then, and we hope now, that Scouting will make girls more sensitive to differences in the way of life in our communities and our nation.

Leader Magazine (October 1975): 18.

The patch requirements had two parts.  First, the arriving girl would share something about her former community, such as a popular tradition or celebration, with her new troop.

Second, the girls welcoming her would then share a similar tradition or event celebrated in her new community. Together, they would prepare a report on these differences and send it to the former troop. Members of the new troop would then be eligible for the Ambassador Aide patch.

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Maybe a Girl Scout moving van would help us track members who move to new towns! (Van from Girl Scouts of River Valleys)

Leaders could request an Ambassador Program application form from their council. Girls entered their current and new address on the form and send it to GSUSA. New York would forward it to the appropriate council, which would invite the Ambassador girl to a new troop.

When introducing the new program, Leader magazine encouraged troop leaders to focus on the many holiday traditions celebrated in December and January.  Sample questions showed a deliberate effort at multiculturalism and inclusion:

  • On what day is Christmas celebrated? On what or days is Chanukah celebrated? Does the celebration begin some time in December, as it might in families with a Dutch or Belgian or Scandinavian background? Does it continue until January 6th, as it does in many families whose ancestors came from Italy or Mexico? And on what day to the children exchange gifts? When is the Chinese New Year?
  • Where do all the different customs connected with the holidays (lighted trees, mistletoe, reindeer, lighted candles, fireworks, dragons, and tribal dance) come from? Do all families everywhere observe the same customs? Why do some of them observe them differently?
  • What about different kinds of special foods prepared during the holidays?

The yellow ribbon patches were intended for the back of the badge sash and cost one dime each.

This first version of the Ambassador program lasted until 1979. A similar program, with a booklet and button pinback, was offered in the mid-1980s.

The foundations of these programs are still valid in the second century of Girl Scouting. We need to improve retention, and we need to encourage tolerance and diversity to truly “make the world a better place.”

As Juliette said over 100 years ago, “To put yourselves in another’s place requires real imagination but by doing so, each Girl Scout will be able to live among others happily.”

©2017 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