Juliette Gordon Low was born on October 31, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia. Girl Scouts today honor her by wearing pearls on Halloween.
William Mackay Low presented his bride, known to all as Daisy, with a magnificent set of matched natural pearls for their wedding on December 21, 1886.
It was an extravagant gift from a handsome and quite wealthy groom, but Mr. Low turned out to be a dud of a husband. He had affairs throughout their marriage, never gave Daisy the children she had hoped for, and was perpetually late in sending an allowance to his estranged wife.
Just as Daisy was about to take the drastic step of divorcing her husband, Low conveniently died in 1905.
A new man, Robert, Lord Baden Powell, entered her life five years later, and soon Daisy devoted herself to the scouting movement then emerging in Great Britain. She launched an American version in Savannah in March 1912. (Dear readers, you realize this is heavily abridged.)
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. Monthly rent was $15, and she spent $2 for a sign on the door.
The 12-story building was full of law firms and financial executives. It 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.
Daisy summoned National Executive Secretary Edith Johnston from Savannah, GA, who 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.
Low paid the rent herself and covered the cost of uniforms, handbooks, and all types of expenses until the organization could become self-funding.
Who Needs Pearls in the Woods?
When expenses became overwhelming, Daisy sold the pearl necklace to raise funds for her girls. She had rid herself of her husband, and his pearls held little sentiment.
Jewels are not important, but my Girl Scouts are, they need the money more than I need pearls.Juliette Gordon Low
Ted Coy, the celebrated former captain of the Yale football team, bought the pearl necklace for his new bride, Savannah native Sophie Meldrim. They had just moved to Washington DC, for Ted to begin a career in finance. One client owned the Munsey building, and soon the Coys met Daisy. She responded in typical fashion, informing Sophie that she was now the Girl Scouts’ national treasurer. “Since I can neither add nor subtract,” Sophie recalled with a laugh, she passed the job to Ted.
In 1970, Sophie told American Girl magazine that her husband had paid $2,800 for the pearl necklace. Other accounts report the price as $8,000–close to $200,000 today.
The Coys soon moved to New York City and stayed in contact with Daisy, especially after she moved the national headquarters to New York City in 1916. The Coys divorced in 1925.
The Woman with the Pearls
Before Sophie married Horatio Shonnard in 1929, she and Nona McAdoo Park opened Chez Ninon, a couture salon in Manhattan, where they dressed many wealthy women in custom copies of the latest European styles.
The most famous outfit that Sophie created was the pink wool skirt suit that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wore to Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Sophie had worn the pearl necklace almost daily, but “Years later, sad to say, they were lost and I never got them back.”
Mrs. Kennedy’s dress is stored at the National Archives annex in College Park, Maryland. The fate of Daisy’s pearls, however, remains a mystery.
© 2023 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, Girl Scout historian