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.

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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

Brownies and Blair House

Tradition holds that the president-elect spends the night before his inauguration at Blair House, the “President’s Guest House” at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

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Blair House (Carol Highsmith)

But what do you know about the Blairs?  The family produced several prominent American statesmen—and one very spunky Girl Scout leader, Edith Blair Staton.

Edith’s grandfather, Montgomery Blair (1813-1883), studied law at my alma mater, Transylvania University in Lexington, KY, and his most famous client was the fugitive slave Dred Scott. Blair moved to Washington in 1852 and became Lincoln’s Postmaster General in 1861.

The family’s “country house,” Falkland, was the earliest residence in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Today, Montgomery Blair is the namesake of one of the largest high schools in Montgomery County, Maryland.

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Edith Blair Staton, 1924 passport photo

Edith arrived at Blair House on September 6, 1896, and was the last baby born at the residence. She married a young naval officer, Adolphus Staton, on July 28, 1917.

While her husband was at sea, the young bride took the helm of a Girl Scout troop. When the girls were preparing for their first camping trip and realized they had no bedrolls or other equipment, Edith went to her hope chest, stored in her attic of her parents’ home, and took her brand new wedding linen into the woods!

Edith threw herself into Girl Scouting and met founder Juliette Gordon Low in Savannah in 1922, where Daisy taught her how to stand on her head.

When Girl Scout leaders decided to adapt the British Brownie program for younger girls in the United States, Edith was recruited to help launch the program. She organized the first Brownie “Pow-Wow” for prospective leaders in November 1922. She had the perfect venue for a large meeting–Manor Country Club. Her uncle’s club was about to open and the meeting offered a good dress rehearsal opportunity for the staff.

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Logo for the First Brownie Pow-Wow in 1922 (GS Collector’s Guide)

Edith Blair Staton thus became the first Great Brown Owl, the main Brownie leader for the United States.

Edith remained active in Girl Scouting for most of her adult life. She was a member of the advisory committee for the Rockwood National Camp and was president of the District of Columbia council.

Edith passed away in 2001, at the age of 104. She is buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband, Admiral Staton.

©2017 Ann Robertson

 

 

Seeking the Silver Fish

“I found a bunch of silver fish!” I recently announced to my family.

“Call the exterminator,” my husband replied.

Then, as a good Man in Green, he corrected himself. “Oh, you mean the other one.”

Indeed, this is what I found in the bargain bin at Jo-Ann Fabrics:

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It’s a string of silver-colored, fish-shaped beads. Each is about 1″ in size. I thought they would be perfect additions to a Juliette Gordon Low costume or a Daisy-themed Kim’s Game.

The Silver Fish was the highest award available to Girl Guides. It could be considered the first highest award for Girl Scouts, because it was listed in the 1913 handbook, How Girls Can Help Their Country, along with the list of the 20 badges needed to earn it. But no Girl Scouts ever did. In fact, some of the “required” badges were not even available in the United States.  Instead, Daisy created a US equivalent: the Golden Eagle of Merit.

In October 1917 Girl Guides redefined the Silver Fish as an adult-only award recognizing outstanding contributions to the movement.

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Helen Storrow (Wikipedia)

Originally the award depicted a whiting with its tail in its mouth. It changed to a swimming fish on a dark blue/light blue striped ribbon in October 1917.

Today the fish is an Atlantic salmon. According to the Girl Scout Collector’s Guide, Lord Baden Powell suggested this species, “a salmon swimming up a river, overcoming every water fall, boulder, and other obstacle in order to reach a quiet place in which to spawn.”

Lady Baden Powell received a specially created golden Silver Fish in 1918.

Three Americans received the prestigious Silver Fish. Lord Baden Powell personally presented the first to JGL at the 1919 national convention in Washington, DC. Anne Hyde Choate and Helen Storrow received theirs at the 1921 national convention in Cincinnati. Choate, JGL’s goddaughter, was national president from 1920 to 1922. Storrow led the effort to build Our Chalet.

 

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Anne Hyde Choate (l) and Juliette Gordon Low wear their Silver Fish (Harris & Ewing photo)

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Anne Hyde Choate’s Silver Fish at GSUSA

Daisy was buried in her Girl Scout uniform, including her Silver Fish, at Laurel Grove cemetery in Savannah.

Anne Hyde Choate’s Silver Fish was donated to GSUSA. Earlier this year, it was on display in the lobby of the 17th floor of national headquarters, 420 Fifth Avenue in New York.

Today Storrow’s fish lives at the Cedar Hill Museum in Massachusetts. 

Thank you to the Cedar Hill staff and volunteers who confirmed the location!

©2016 Ann Robertson

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Look who turned out for the 2016 Washington, DC, St. Patrick’s Day parade!

It’s Lord Baden-Powell,  Juliette Gordon Low and Chevy Scout, all members of the Nation’s Capital Archives & History Committee.

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Photo by Craig Harmon

Shining Light on the Civil War

Last Saturday I was a guest of honor at the 27th annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination.

For the past 27 years, the first Saturday in December is a huge event at the National Park in Sharpsburg, Maryland, about an hour’s drive from my house.

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Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and other volunteers spent all day installing 23,110 luminaries (candles in paper bags full of sand) to commemorate the 23,110 soldiers killed, wounded, or reported missing in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.

The ceremony started promptly at 3:45 pm and featured distinguished speakers, a bagpiper, a color guard from the Army’s Old Guard unit, a choir, vocal soloists, and a bugle choir.

 

I was seated with Congressman John Delaney, former Congressman Roscoe G. Bartlett, Jr., and the wonderful Georgene Charles, founder and organizer of the Illumination.

I was particularly moved by Bartlett’s comments. He emphasized that all soldiers are remembered equally at the Illumination. Casualties are not broken into Union versus Confederacy, but rather have been united by their sacrifice. Noting the country’s current toxic political atmosphere, he held up the unifying aspects of the Illumination ceremony as a model for today’s leaders.

I had been asked to speak about the Girl Scouts and the Civil War. Since the movement began nearly a half-century later, I anticipated a very short presentation. But as I researched the topic, one very clear connection emerged.

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Nellie & William Gordon, Jr., Daisy’s parents.

Juliette Gordon Low was born on October 31, 1860; the Civil War began in April 1861. Her father immediately volunteered and left Savannah. Meanwhile her mother faced the added burden of being a Chicagoan living in the deep south. Her husband, brothers, and uncle were fighting on opposite sides, and her neighbors questioned her loyalty.

Daisy did not see her father again until she was three. She grew up knowing the hardships, stress, and anguish that affects a family when the father goes off to war. She also understood the heavy burden that falls on women at war, both mentally and physically.

That, I think is the connection between the Girl Scouts and the Civil War. The movement was only a few years old when the United States entered World War I, but Daisy knew immediately what role her girls could play. She made sure that Girl Scouts had the cooking, homemaking, and first aid skills that would allow them to keep the home fires burning, as men went to war and women went into the fields and factories. She dispatched her girls to ease the burden and worries of mothers and wives.

Back at the Antietam Battlefield, the sun was beginning to set and  the distinguished guests lit the first luminaries. (I almost lit a few bags instead of candles, it was harder than you’d imagine!)

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Slowly, volunteers lit the luminaries across the battlefield. As the sky darkened, the candles began to flicker brighter, until the entire park was aglow.

The ceremony ended with a 21 Gun Salute from The Old Guard and bugles sounding an echo version of Taps.  Everyone returned to their cars and joined a slow procession through the park.

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Photo from Hagerstown Magazine (better than any I took!)

 

Girl Scouts have been a part of this tradition since its inception. I think Juliette Gordon Low would agree that it is an excellent form of citizenship training. The scope of the conflict becomes much more tangible through the luminary installation rather than a paragraph in a textbook.

©2015 Ann Robertson

 

 

 

 

First National Headquarters

Juliette Gordon Low used her carriage house in Savannah for the earliest Girl Scout meetings and the first administrative office.

But she envisioned her movement as a national one, so in June 1913 she set up a national headquarters in the Nation’s Capital — Washington, DC.

Low signed a lease for Room 502 of the Munsey Building at 1327 E Street NW in Washington, DC. Monthly rent was $15, and she spent $2 for a sign on the door.

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Munsey Building (Library of Congress photo)

The building was conveniently located near the Willard Hotel and the Treasury Department.

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Neighborhood map (Library of Congress image)

The Munsey Building was the Washington base of Frank Munsey, a New York newspaperman who had made his fortune publishing racy articles on cheap, low-quality paper — the original pulp fiction. In 1901 he purchased the Washington Times from William Randolph Hearst.

According to Lost Washington, DC, by John DeFerrari, Munsey bought the old Lawrence Hotel on E Street in 1905, razed the building, and erected one of the first Washington “skyscrapers.” He hired the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White to design his new offices.

The 12-story building boasted luxury details throughout, including marble Roman Doric pilasters, brass details, and exotic wood paneling. Black and red marble designs on the floor indicated the entrances to each suite.

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Typical suite entry (Library of Congress photo)

The Munsey Building became the center of Washington’s “Newspaper Row.” The Washington Times and Washington Post offices were just doors away, with the Evening Star a few blocks east.

National Executive Secretary Edith Johnston arrived from Savannah, GA, and set up shop with Miss McKeever, a local woman hired to handle mail requests for information, handbooks, and badges. Johnston also publicized troop activities, and local newspapers had a regular column about local Girl Scouts.

DeFerrari writes that the building was home to “a variety of patent attorneys,” which proved convenient when Low patented the trefoil design in 1914. Other tenants included the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

 

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Typical office suite in the Munsey Building (Library of Congress photo)

Low paid the rent herself and covered the cost of uniforms, handbooks, and all types of expenses until the organization could become self-funding. She famously sold her wedding pearls in 1914 to raise funds for her girls. Low moved the national headquarters to New York City in 1916.

Johnston later lamented that Washington was not adequately recognized as the site of the first national headquarters:

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Letter from Edith D. Johnston to Kathleen Eihlers (GSCNC Archives)

The Munsey Building was torn down in the early 1980s.

©2015 Ann Robertson

To Savannah We Go

This week we’re taking our daughter, Erin, to college.

Old College 101 Interest Project.

Old College 101 Interest Project.

As much as I’d love for her to enroll in GS University* full time, she will be attending SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design. At least she’ll be in Savannah.

Every Girl Scout compass points to Savannah, birthplace of our founder, Juliette Gordon Low, and site of the First Headquarters.  Both museums are within easy walking distance of the SCAD campus.

But I was delighted to learn that SCAD is forging strong ties with the Girl Scouts.

GS Historic Georgia-SCAD Preservation Patch

GS Historic Georgia-SCAD Preservation Patch

SCAD and the Girl Scout Council of Historic Georgia, which runs the First Headquarters, have collaborated to create a patch program on preservation.

Earlier in 2015, SCAD students created a new exhibition and library space at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace: Girl Writing the World: A Library Reimagined. According to the Birthplace website,

From the 1913 Interpreter badge to today’s Netiquette badge, proficiencies in reading, writing and speaking       have played fundamental roles in the growth of Girls Scouts — fostering curiosity, exploration and intellect, as well as in developing their full potential. Tracing the arc of female writers and speakers from the beginning of time to the present, and inspired by muses, goddesses and heroines, the framework for this installation focuses on the themes of Memory, Knowledge, Imagination, Poetry and Wisdom. As a room of their own, this library provides girls of all ages a space in which to see themselves reflected and to find their own voices.  Nourishing the senses, it can inspire them to remember, know, imagine, rhyme and reason, and from it, to grow wise — writing the world and making it a better place.

Here’s a look at the process of setting up the exhibit:

I’m glad that she’ll be attending SCAD, a university that realizes the value of Girl Scouting.

I’m also glad that even though Erin will be far from home, Savannah is a warm (as in friendly) welcoming city.

We’ve already found our favorite Italian spot, Fra Li Gourmet, where Lisa is a gracious host and incredible chef. They even provide pasta for several SCAD eateries.  At least I know Erin will eat well.

©2015 Ann Robertson

*and what’s up with GS University? The website looks abandoned.