Juliette Gordon Low was the founder of the Girl Scout movement, but it was Lou Henry Hoover who created the institutions that remain its foundation today.
As first lady, Mrs. Hoover was the honorary president of the Girl Scouts. But she also served two terms as the elected president of Girl Scouts, one pre-White House and one post-White House.
She worked to streamline administration, professionalize staff, and better democratize relations between councils and the national headquarters. She launched the Little House program, encouraged day camping, and promoted commercial cookie sales.
I spoke on this topic for the Hoover Presidential Foundation’s “Third Thursday” talk for June 2022.
The Foundation taped the presentation, which may be accessed here or below. Enjoy!!
This weekend marks the centennial of Washington DC’s Knickerbocker Theater Disaster of January 28, 1922. Most Washingtonians know that it is connected with the city’s largest snowstorm. But there is also an important Girl Scout connection.
Epic Snow Storm
After a snowstorm dumped 28 inches of snow on the city, cabin fever led some residents to hike to the Knickerbocker Theatre at the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. Not all staff had made it in to work that evening, but the show went on, with patrons ready to watch the silent movie Get Rich Quick, Wallingford!
Above their heads, snow had been accumulating on the building’s flat, steel-and-concrete roof for days. The combined weight was more than the roof could bear. Suddenly, the audience heard a hissing sound. A faint cloud of white plaster dust beginning to swirl above the orchestra—or was it snow? It seemed to glimmer in the dark theater.
With a thunderous crack, the roof collapsed under the weight of the snow, falling in one giant slab. The roof had caught the front edge of the balcony and pulled it down on top of the orchestra and the patrons seated below. People sitting in the front rows of the balcony were catapulted from their seats into the rows below. The rear of the balcony remained attached to the wall, dangling ominously over the enormous pile of twisted iron and steel, concrete slabs, plaster dust, and audience. The downward force created a huge blast of air that blew open the auditorium doors and propelled some late arrivals into the lobby. The collapse lasted less than a minute.
It would take hours for rescuers to clear the debris, soldiers came from nearby bases to help. But they soon heard a clear voice calling out. It was a woman’s voice, it belonged to 26-year old Helen Hopkins, leader of Girl Scout Troop 8.
Trapped under four steel girders, a stunned Helen could hear the agonized cries of the wounded and dying around her and realized that she, too was seriously injured. Blinking in the darkness and struggling to breathe through the thick plaster dust caked on her face and trying to remain calm, Helen began to evaluate her injuries. One arm was pinned under the rubble and useless, and the other one badly swollen, but she reached out to her friend Freddie, and found his hand. She held Freddie’s hand until it grew cold as he succumbed to his injuries. The man who had been seated on her other side lay dead, as well. She saw other people lying around her, but all appeared motionless and silent.
Helen tried to remember her first aid training. All of her girls had earned their First Aide proficiency badges. Their handbooks spelled out what to do in an emergency, starting with “Keep cool. The only way to do this effectually is to learn beforehand what to do and how to do it. Then you are not frightened and can do readily and with coolness whatever is necessary to be done.” Helen took the deepest breath should could and struggled to focus her thoughts.
Helen believed she was in shock. She knew had to get her blood to circulate throughout her body, so she began pinching her body using her thumb and forefinger, although the two could hardly meet, her hand was so enlarged. If nothing else, the sheer pain that resulted gave her something to focus on and helped her to remain conscious. She could hardly move her head, as her long hair was caught on some piece of debris, but she was determined to live.
Rescuers worked slowly, but Helen could hear them inside the dark theater. Gathering her remaining strength, using the loud, strong voice she’d honed on troop hikes and in the church choir, she called out to the rescuers.
But help did not arrive immediately, so Helen continued to shout.
Finally someone answered Helen’s calls. Realizing that she had their attention, Helen began directing the rescuers to her location and that of people hidden under debris around her. She also sang song after song, trying to cheer other survivors, urging them to hang on just a little bit longer.
Finally, a patch of daylight shone onto Helen. After hours in the dark, she had been found. It took soldiers nearly four hours to dig her out of the rubble. Rescuers had to cut off some of her long blond hair that was tangled into the debris.
Helen was the first trapped victim to be removed from the theater alive. Soldiers carried her out of the theater on a stretcher and across the street to the Christian Science church. Weak and confused, she called out, “Mother, it was the everlasting arms that saved me!” She was loaded into an ambulance, which sped away, rocking from side to side over snow drifts, and taken to Garfield Hospital on Florida Avenue NW. Thanks to her clear instructions, ten other survivors were located and removed to safety.
The soldiers “could not find words in which to praise her courage and when they attempted to tell her of their admiration, she said that she was a Girl Scout and could do no less.”
Praise for Helen
Helen’s story quickly spread throughout Washington, as newspaper readers were eager to have a happy ending to balance the sadness of the 98 lives lost and some 133 people injured. She became a celebrity, with newspapers across the country providing updates on her condition and mentioning that she was a Girl Scout leader. First Lady Florence Harding sent Helen a large, autographed photograph of herself in her own Girl Scout uniform, with her dog Laddie Boy nearby. Mrs. Harding regularly sent bouquets to Helen while she recuperated at home.
Girl Scouts of the USA awarded Helen the Bronze Cross, a recognitions reserved for persons displaying gallantry, resourcefulness, and personal peril while saving the lives of others. She would be the first Girl Scout from Washington to receive the honor.
Lou Henry Hoover, then national president of the Girl Scouts, hosted the medal ceremony at her home in Georgetown. Each local troop was allowed to send one member, and all of Helen’s troop was invited. Troop 8 assembled in the Hoover’s garden for the ceremony, dressed in freshly washed and ironed uniforms. In addition to their leaders outstanding honor, the girls were allowed to hold their own Court of Awards ceremony at this time. Helen had recently married and was moving to Philadelphia, but the girls had a replacement– Mrs. Hoover.
Another Girl Scout Connection
Among the people following Helen’s story was her mother’s close friend, Carolyn Gangwer Caughey. Carolyn had amassed a considerable sum of money by buildings and managing apartment buildings. Impressed by the Girl Scout program, she decided to leave her entire estate to the Girl Scouts of the USA. The centerpiece of this gift was Carolyn’s country home–Rockwood.
But that’s another story, to be continued in the spring ….
For more about the Knickerbocker disaster, see the two books written by my pal, Kevin Ambrose.
As summer camp winds down for the season, it is time to reflect on the experience. Girls’ letters home often provide insights and anecdotes about camp life.
Lois Milstead (right) attended Camp May Flather in its first summer. The Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital has run May Flather as its flagship camp since 1930. A temporary camp operated nearby in 1929, and Lois attended that as well.
Her letter appeared in the Washington Post on September 7, 1930.
My Camping Trip
I have just returned. from a four weeks’ stay at the Washington Camp, May Flather, situated in the mountains near Harrisonburg. Va., to which I also attended last summer. This camp is for Girl Scouts.
Although I am not yet a Girl Scout, I enjoy the ways of their life. I hope to become one in the very near future.
The whole four weeks to me were but an enjoyable time. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute while there. I am fond of all kinds of athletics and sports and camp life naturally appeals to me. I play golf and tennis a lot at home, and although I had neither of these sports at camp, there were many interesting pastimes to fully make up for the lack of them.
I will give a brief outline of our daily routine. Revielle, breakfast (just before breakfast we have flag raising), kapers (that is little tasks from each cabin), inspection, classes (forestry, camp craft), swimming, court of honor, dinner, rest hour, classes (handcraft, nature), retreat, supper, camp fire, taps.
I took many overnight hikes and one three-day hike. These were loads of fun.
While at camp this year, I met many of the: girls with whom I was acquainted last year.
Mrs. Hoover visited the camp while I was there. Mrs. Cheatham and Mrs. Flather also came with her. They spent two days and a night with us. They were present for the formal dedication of the new camp site. Mrs. Hoover dedicated a picturesque little bridge and Mrs. Flather, for whom the camp is named, donated much toward it.
Miss Dorothy Greene, the director of our camp, has done much to the bettering of it, making the girls feel at home, and they are trying to live up to the high standards and morals which she has set for them. I had lots of fun at camp, but I was rather glad when the time came to go home, for I missed my mother and daddy.
Lois A. Milstead (age 12), Dahlgren, Va.
I don’t know if Lois ever joined the Girl Scouts. She graduated from the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1938.
Lois worked on the school newspaper, the Commercial Echoes. She married George Goodwin, a reporter, two years later and moved to Georgia.
Note: This entry was originally published on March 10, 2014, but somehow it was accidentally deleted.
No, it’s not a newly discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder book. The Little House in Washington, DC, was the first in a series of model homes used by Girl Scouts across the country. Sadly, the Washington Little House is long gone and one current Little House in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, is about to close.
Built behind the White House in Washington, DC, for the second Better Homes Demonstration Week in June 1923, the Little House was a fully working home, with a modern kitchen, breakfast nook, three bedrooms, and a nursery. Between June 4 and June 10, 2,500–3,500 people visited the house each day. After the exhibition, the Better Homes in America and General Federation of Women’s Clubs donated it to the Girl Scouts for use as a national training and innovation center. It became the first of many “Little Houses” across the country, where Girl Scouts practiced their homemaking and hospitality skills.
Lou Henry Hoover, wife of the secretary of commerce and national president of the Girl Scouts, paid $12,000 to relocate the Little House. First Lady Grace Coolidge (right) laid the cornerstone, as Hoover watched.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Little House was THE place to go on Saturdays. There was always some badge activity to try or new skill to learn, and the First Lady, as honorary president of the Girl Scouts, might decide to drop by. After all, the White House was just around the corner.
A well-dressed group waits to welcome a distinguished guest to the Little House
The Girl Scouts of the District of Columbia rented a room in the northwest corner of the second floor as its headquarters until it outgrew the facility in 1928. The Little House was used continuously for trainings and demonstrations of the domestic arts from June 1923 to April 1945. The building was used as a branch of Girl Scouts of the USA, the national organization, for the next decade then given to the landowners in May 1955. The Little House was torn down in the early 1970s. There is a commemorative plaque in the lobby of the office building that currently sits at the site. Update: We now have the plaque at our Frederick Archives and Program Center.
A dollhouse versionof the Little House has been on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
POSTSCRIPT: All of the photos used here are from the Harris and Ewing collection and may be downloaded FREE OF CHARGE from the Library of Congress. You don’t need to buy the overpriced copies offered on eBay!!
As World Thinking Day approaches, we look back at a previous experiment in international friendship with a guest post by Katherine Cartwright, a doctoral candidate in history at the College of William and Mary. She was a Girl Scout for seven years in Michigan.
On Monday, April 27, 1931, First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, former First Ladies Edith Wilson and Helen Taft, the Vice President, the Ambassadors of Japan and Poland, and the ministers of Czechoslovakia and Austria crowded into Constitution Hall near the White House. The event? The “Festival of Nations” – a six-day theatrical production put on with the help of the Girl Scouts of the District of Columbia. The pageant, according to the Washington Star (March 22, 1931) was intended “to promote friendship and better understanding between the youth of all nations.”
exactly the type of event I was hoping to find while conducting research for my
dissertation in the archives of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital.
My name is Kat Cartwright and I am a Ph.D. candidate at the College of William and Mary. My dissertation examines how young people engaged in and shaped efforts aimed at cross-cultural understanding and internationalism from World War I through World War II and when volunteer archivist Ann Robertson handed me a 1931 scrapbook containing newspaper clippings that chronicled the Festival I knew I had struck gold.
newspapers began reporting on the Festival as early as November 1930. In
cooperation with the Department of State, four countries were chosen for the
play: Mexico and Canada, the closest neighbors of the United States; Czechoslovakia,
a nation “greatly interested in promoting friendship among nations”; and Japan
since the Festival was to correspond with the blossoming of the cherry trees, a
gift from the mayor of Tokyo in 1912. The drama was to feature the “authentic”
culture, dancing, and singing of these four nations and end in a finale with
youth representing 50 nations.
While the initial articles in the scrapbook concentrated
on the adults organizing the production, the articles increasingly emphasized
the youths’ participation throughout that spring. These articles allow me to
incorporate the actions and voices of young people into my work.
Not only did young people, especially Girl Scouts from
troops in the Washington area, join professional singers, dancers, and actors
in the cast and serve as ushers at each performance, they also played an
important role in promoting the Festival. For example, they submitted posters
to be circulated throughout the United States, Canada, and other countries
leading up to the Festival.
About 30 Girl Scouts and Girl Guides representing at
least ten countries attended a promotional “Flying Tea” held at Hoover Airport,
now the site of the Pentagon. Nellie Veverka from Czechoslovakia got to do the
honors of christening a new airplane. Other reports scattered throughout local
papers followed additional preparations for the Festival, from the spectacular
costumes to the involvement of embassies.
With so much hype leading up to the premiere, I was sure that the Festival was going to be a hit. But, alas, the first reviews were hardly favorable. The most scathing review came from an Eleanore Wilson, who wrote in the April 28 Washington News,
Once more, we regret to report, Washington has made a daring and desperate stab at art and fallen short of the mark.
Washington News (April 28, 1931)
Others cited the duration of the play as its primary flaw and wished that it had been a silent film because the discourse took away from the music and scenes. Though we don’t know the exact reason why, even First Lady Hoover left half-way through opening night! The crew and cast quickly responded, cutting scenes here and there.
By the time more than 2,000 Girl Scouts and various other youth from the Washington area crowded into the hall for the children’s matinee on Saturday, the play had been shortened by an hour and fifteen minutes.
Many of the articles in the scrapbook suggest that the Festival
that took place in DC in 1931 was modeled on similar events held elsewhere.
That suggests many additional research paths to explore: Where did these events
take place? Were the Girl Scouts and Department of State involved? What
countries were represented in the festivals? How were young people—both from
the U.S. and abroad—active participants? I hope to explore these questions and
find more events like the “Festival of Nations” as I continue my research.
P.S. I am currently working my way through The American Girl magazine [the Girl
Scout publication, 1920–1979] and have evidence of international correspondence
between Girl Scouts in the U.S. and Girl Guides and Girl Scouts abroad. Maybe
you know of such letters collecting dust in an attic or basement? If you have
any leads, I’d love to hear from you! You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How did you receive your Girl Scout volunteer training?
Was it in a classroom with other new volunteers, led by an experienced volunteer?
Was it a telephone conference call, with you alone in your living room?
Perhaps you watched an online video? Read a packet of papers that came in the mail?
When you were taught how to perform a friendship circle, did you hold the actual hands of a living, breathing human being, or did you have to make do with the throw pillows on your couch?
Chances are, you did not head to the nearest university to major in Girl Scouts. But that was the practice in the earliest days of the movement, especially in areas where troops were just forming.
In 1922, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller fund awarded the first of many grants to the Girl Scouts to train a group of young women who would teach Girl Scout Leadership Training Courses at colleges as universities. The program was extremely popular and quickly spread across the United States.
Reports for 1925 indicate that 6,000 young women had taken courses in the first three years they were offered. Training courses were available at 116 universities, colleges, and technical schools, located in 39 states and territorial possessions.
Participating institutions included Wellesley, Smith, Vassar, Columbia, New York University, Cornell, University of North Carolina, and the University of Texas.
At Stanford University, for example, the Department of Education offered classes to prepare prospective troop leaders.
Typically, students from a variety of majors took the Girl Scout coursework in the spring quarter, but the smaller summer quarter classes were usually made up of rural teachers hoping to bring Girl Scouting to their schools.
Nancy Beck Young, Lou Henry Hoover: Activist First Lady
Some schools offered academic credit for the leadership training. The University of Iowa offered one credit hour to women who complete the course and run a troop for the rest of the school year.
Stanford alumna and GSUSA President Lou Henry Hoover threw her support behind college-level training and encouraged expanding the program to more and more teachers’ college whenever possible.
Girl Scout officials also hoped the courses would encourage young women to consider careers in the Girl Scout movement.
GSUSA partly revived this idea with the website Girl Scouts University (http://gsuniversity.girlscouts.org/), which provided online training and enrichment courses. However, the website has not been updated in over two years.
This Girl Scouts University should not be confused with an earlier incarnation, also called Girl Scouts University (http://www.gsuniv.org/history/). This site somewhat links to the newer GSU site. Notably, it still has valuable history resources produced by the former National Historical Preservation Center.
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.
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.
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.
pages from washington scouting news
pages from whos who in 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
coleman to hoover page 1
coleman to hoover page 2
coleman to hoover page 3
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.
Girl Scout summer camps are in full swing by mid-July, and even in the digital age girls are encouraged to write letters home. A few lucky girls may even be asked to write about their experiences for local newspapers.
I thought I would share a few from our archives. This report appeared in the Washington Post, September 14, 1930, and I’ve added some photos from various scrapbooks.
My Summer at Camp
by Helen Sheets (age 13)
1831 Lamont Street NW
This summer I went to Camp May Flather for a month. It is a Girl Scout camp near Stokesville Va on the North River. We lived in log cabins that faced the river, and ate in one big mess hall. Our camp uniform was a green suit of middy and shorts.
There were two different classes going on in the morning and two in the afternoon, and we could pick one in the morning and one in the afternoon to go to, like: campcraft, handcraft, weaving, or some others.
In swimming we were divided into three groups beginners, intermediates, and· advanced and we all went swimming in one pool but at different times.
We had horses up there three days a week that we could ride if we wanted to. I went with a group of girls up to Pioneer Camp for three days where only the girls that have passed all their camp craft tests can go We got red ties as a kind of badge to show that we had been up there.
I went with a group of girls up to Pioneer Camp for three days where only the girls that have passed all their campcraft tests can go. We got red ties as a kind of badge to show that we had been up there.
The big event of the season was the dedication ceremonies. Mrs. Hoover, Mrs. Flather and some other important people came up and we had a program in their honor. Mrs. Hoover also dedicated a bridge that she had given to the camp.
We also had a water carnival, a wedding between the old and new campers and lots of other things.
Camp was not all play though, we had to do kitchen duty about once a week and dishes about twice a week. We also had our cabins inspected every morning and they had to be just right.
We got in lots of mischief too, like powder fights, mud fights, midnight feasts, and sliding down a mountain on a clean pair of pants, and lots of other things.
In all I had a wonderful time in spite of all the scrapes I got into.
In 1928, their duties were spelled out in a letter from Captain (leader) Adah Bagby. Three years earlier, Grace Coolidge had replaced White House police officers with Girl Scouts and assigned them to locate “lost parents.”
Also in 1928, Mrs. Coolidge noticed the rose troop crest on the girls’ uniform and gave each girl a rose from the Rose Garden.
The Girl Scouts performed a May Pole dance during the 1929 Easter Egg Roll, much to the delight of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.
The dancing Girl Scouts must have been a hit. They performed a square dance during the rainy 1931 event.
In recent decades, Girl Scouts have returned to their child-wrangling role.
Has your troop ever worked at the Easter Egg Roll? We need some newer photos!