The Festival of Nations, 1931

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.”

Festival of Nations Program
Festival of Nations Program (GSCNC Archives)

This was 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.

Local 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.

Washington Times (February 18, 1931)

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.

Selected costumes featured in the Sunday Star (April 19, 1931)
Winning poster designs. Washington Times (April 20, 1931).

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.

Washington Times (April 20, 1931)

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.

© 2019 Katherine Cartwright

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 kscartwright@email.wm.edu.

Realignment and the Russians, Really?

My calendar has two major anniversaries marked for October 2017.

One is the 10th anniversary of Girl Scout’s realignment program, which consolidated 312 councils into 112 “high capacity” councils. Realignment deserves its own post, but the basic idea is that GSUSA decided that large councils would be more efficient than smaller ones.

The other anniversary is the centennial of the Russian Revolution that brought the Communist Party to power. The new government dramatically redrew the map of their new country, dividing some territories and lumping others together.

What do these two events have in common? For one thing, they are both part of my office wall decor:

(Kookie Kong looks pretty afraid of the First Soviet Airplane.)

The other common thread is that they are both examples of externally imposed new state formation.

NO, wait, come back!!!  Let me rephrase.

They are the political equivalent of a shotgun marriage. These events threw people together whether they wanted to or not.

Whether councils or countries, they faced similar issues: Where do we draw our borders? What do we call ourselves? What does our new flag/logo/patch look like? What if we don’t like our new neighbors? Do we have to pay their debts? What do we do with people who don’t want to merge?

Suddenly the comparison doesn’t seem quite so crazy, does it?

Academic research is about making such unexpected connections. If the examples come from a largely unknown source, that’s even better.

Across the United States, Girl Scout councils are sitting on piles of largely unknown sources. We need to get the word out that researchers should come see what we have. We need to leverage our historical assets for academic research. Doing that requires matching theories with data, a process that often requires travel and field research. I’m very fortunate because I’ve found a way to cover both bases: I can use Girl Scout data in my academic research.

I’m not a professional Girl Scout historian, just a very busy volunteer. In my day job, I am a political scientist who specializes in secessionist movements and new state formation. Most of my work deals with the former communist world, such as the collapse of the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Those countries experienced the opposite of realignment; they were taken apart instead of thrown together; think divorce instead of marriage.  I’m (supposedly) trained to see possible patterns and then find evidence to prove or disprove the pattern.

I know the political scientist/Girl Scout historian combination is about as rare as a genuine Golden Eagle of Merit–or perhaps a Chartreuse Buzzard. But working in this direction doesn’t require a PhD.  Instead, it needs a new mindset. It means looking beyond the uniforms and badges to see what girls and women were doing in your community. You—we—can provide local examples of national issues.

It means looking beyond the uniforms and badges to document what girls and women were doing in your community. You can provide local examples of national issues that researchers can plug into their models and theories.

Letters and fund-raising campaigns can become examples of philanthropy, women’s empowerment, or marketing. Camp and troop policies reflect social trends. We recently found meeting minutes that debate whether or not to integrate resident camps. I knew the date of integration; I didn’t know that some committee members tried to reverse the decision the following year.

 

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Researchers need examples of local history (GSCNC Archives).

Troop activities can reveal trends in girls’ development and interests. Citizenship programs demonstrate efforts to prepare future voters when the voting age was lowered to 18. Popular history accounts would be enriched by knowing how the American Bicentennial was celebrated in your community.

Blister Rust

Girl Scouts helped track the spread of this fungus (USDA).

In the 1920s campers in Washington were examined before and after weeks in the woods to provide scientific “evidence” of the health benefits of the out of doors. Similarly, girls attending Camp May Flather were tasked with combing the forest for signs of white pine blister rust, a dangerous fungus. We don’t have the data, but we know the agency that conducted the studies and can point researchers in that direction.

Such quirky stories are hiding in the newspaper clippings and the troop scrapbooks in our collections. How can we make them available to researchers anxiously searching for new sources to study?

I’ve had the pleasure of hosting several graduate students in our archives. They were investigating topics such as the national Girl Scout Little House, first ladies, family biographies, representation of minorities, and more. They have all gone away with valuable primary data sources, not to mention a patch and the occasional box of cookies!

©2017 Ann Robertson