Girls Scouts, the Great War, and the Great Flu

The Washington Post recently compared the influenza epidemic of 1918 to the current Ebola outbreak, but the newspaper left out the Girl Scout part of the story.

From late 1918 through early 1919, a particularly nasty strain of flu killed 50 million people worldwide and some 500,000 in the United States. Washington, DC, was particularly hard hit because the city was overflowing with federal workers (“living three or four to a room in private homes and boarding houses”) and soldiers passing through on their way to or from the World War I front.

The Girl Scouts had already mobilized to sell sandwiches, cake, and ice cream to soldiers and war workers.  One girl, Edna Schwartz, recalled making stacks and stacks of egg and ham sandwiches and setting up a stand near the Corcoran Gallery of Art at lunchtime. They put those skills to work as a new enemy attacked.

Flu Soup Kitchen

Volunteers ladle soup to children whose parents were stricken by the flu (Bettmann photo)

When the Spanish flu brought Washington to a near-standstill in October 1918, the Girl Scouts set up a Diet Kitchen first at Central High School, then later at 1101 M Street NW. Girls who had earned their Invalid Cook badge worked from dawn to dark making soup, broth, custard, and gelatins. Volunteers delivered the hot meals to patients throughout the city. Leaders had to make a public appeal for drivers and containers to meet the demand. Some 2,180 patients were served from the high school and a total of 7,821 patients at the peak of the epidemic. Troop 60 put on a play and sang songs, charging 10 cents a head, and raised $25 for supplies.

Washington's Central (later Cardozo) High School became a Girl Scout Diet Kitchen in October 1918. General Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces visited the school a few months later.

Washington’s Central (later Cardozo) High School became a Girl Scout Diet Kitchen in October 1918. General Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces visited the school a few months later (Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress).

The Diet Kitchen was such a success that Susie Root Rhodes, DC Supervisor of Playgrounds, asked the Girl Scouts to also distribute soup at playgrounds in two of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods. This meal often was the only meal, certainly the only hot meal, that many of these children received each day while their mothers worked or were ill.

Ms. Rhodes credited the Girl Scouts with saving the lives of people too poor to afford doctors and preventing malnourished children from succumbing to influenza.

 

©2014 Ann Robertson

 

 

 

 

Who’s That Girl Scout? Leah Burket

Seventy-five years ago, in June 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Washington, DC.  Girl Scout Leah Burket was selected to present the Queen with a bouquet of flowers as the royal couple left the White House en route to a garden party at the British Embassy.  Her Majesty was enchanted by Leah and paused the procession for a closer look at one of Leah’s badges.

Girl Scout Leah Burkett, left, tells Queen Elizabeth about one of her awards.

Girl Scout Leah Burkett, left, tells Queen Elizabeth about one of her awards.

Today, June 8, 2014, Washington Post columnist John Kelly recalled “Their majesties’ magical tour of Washington 75 years ago.” He included a version of this photo, but the print version cropped out poor Leah. That is a shame, as she was an outstanding  Girl Scout.

Queen Elizabeth asked Leah about her Book Finder badge.

Queen Elizabeth asked Leah about her Book Finder badge.

Leah was a member of Takoma Park, Maryland, Troop 51.  She was in the same troop as Jean Boyer Porter, who remained an active Girl Scout in the Washington area until her death last year.  Jean’s children generously donated her Girl Scout memorabilia to the Nation’s Capital Council, including scrapbooks and photo albums full of Troop 51’s exploits in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Girl Scout troops were to assemble at 3:45 on June 8, 1939, for the royal visit.

Girl Scout troops were to assemble at 3:45 on June 8, 1939, for the royal visit.

Leah, 15, became quite the celebrity.  She told the Evening Star newspaper that after she presented Queen Elizabeth with a bouquet of forget-me-nots, sweet peas, and lilies of the valley, the royal asked to shake her hand.

“Then she asked how many badges I had, and I said there were 15 on this uniform. She asked about one in particular. That is the book-finder badge. She told me that her daughter Elizabeth [now Queen Elizabeth II] is working for her badges.”

The photo of Leah and the royals was reproduced around the world. She recalled getting letters containing the clipping from people across the United States, as well as from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and India.  She became pen pals with several of them and learned about the hardships many people faced in war-torn Britain.

Leah put her Girl Scout leadership skills to work to organize a “Bundles for Britain” dance at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Bundles for Britain sent packages of warm clothing, first aid kits, and other items to British families. Inspired by Leah, the Silver Spring Young Men’s Democratic Club and the Indian Springs Country Club also held similar dances.

Three cheers for Leah Burket!