Back in the day, I was really into Girl Scouts. Like, really into it. I had so many badges that they went all the way down the front of my sash and halfway up the back.*
So I was eager to set about earning some Girl Scout badges from a hundred years ago.
First, though, I needed to figure out what was going on in Girl Scouting back then. I had a head start because in fifth grade I wrote, directed, and starred in a play my troop put on about Girl Scouting founder Juliette Gordon Low.** But not a huge head start, because the only things I could remember about her were that she was born in Savannah, Georgia, and that she went deaf in one ear following a rice-throwing mishap at her wedding.
Low was born in, yes, Savannah, in 1860, the daughter of a wealthy cotton broker who fought for the Confederacy yet somehow ended up being close friends with General Sherman. At age 25, she married William Mackay Low. They moved to England, where their social circle included Rudyard Kipling and the Prince of Wales. Her husband proved to be a drinker, gambler, and philanderer, though, and they separated in 1901. He died in 1905.
Low met Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell in 1911, and the two became close friends. She got involved with the Girl Guides, which were headed by Baden-Powell’s sister Agnes, and traveled with Baden-Powell to the United States in 1912 to launch the American Girl Guides, soon renamed the Girl Scouts.
Other interesting things happened, like a feud with the Campfire Girls, who refused Low’s merger proposal because they thought some GS activities were too masculine, and controversy over the “Girl Scouts” name, which some thought would have a sissifying effect on the Boy Scouts. But I skimmed over this in my eagerness to set about earning some badges.
I got hold of the Girl Scout handbook of the time, a 1916 update of the original 1913 edition. It’s titled How Girls Can Help Their Country, and I was delighted to see that it’s chockablock with badges—36 in all.
I knew going in that I couldn’t hold a candle to a 1919 Girl Scout in some respects—animal husbandry, for instance. Still, How Girls Can Help Their Country informs us that the purpose of scouting is to prepare girls to be housewives. I’ve been a wife for almost sixteen years now, so how hard could it be?
Well, let’s see.
#1. To obtain a badge for First Aid or Ambulance a Girl Scout must have knowledge of the Sylvester or Schafer methods of resuscitation in case of drowning. Must complete one year of regular attendance and know:
- What to do in case of fire.
- How to stop a runaway horse.
To obtain an artist’s badge a Girl Scout must draw or paint in oils or water colors from nature; or model in clay or plasticine or modeling wax from plaster casts or from life; or describe the process of etching, half-tone engraving, color printing or lithographing; or
Arts and Crafts:
Carve in wood; work in metals; do cabinet work.
When I was in kindergarten, our teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up and wrote down the answers, which I still have in a scrapbook. The girls mostly said mommy. One aspired to be a teenager. Another wanted to be a cheerleader. I wanted to be an artist. Admirable from a gender equality perspective, but delusional. To check whether I was underestimating myself, I tried to draw a dog. This is, I swear, my best effort:
I can do some of these things! This, for example:
#4. Must be able to float, swim, dive and undress in water.
(Okay, I’ve never actually tried the undressing part, but I bet I could do it if I could find a pool that allowed this kind of shenanigans.)
Others posed more of a challenge.
#3. Understand the rules of basket ball, volley ball, long ball, tether ball, and captain ball.
I’m solid on basket ball, volley ball, and tether ball. Long ball turns out to be a simplified form of cricket. But I got totally muddled up trying to master the rules of captain ball.
(There’s no picture of this badge, but it’s a silver star, they tell us.)
Must complete one year of regular attendance.
So participation trophies aren’t just a millennial thing! Not in the cards for me, though.
#1. Must pass an examination equal to that required to obtain a permit or license to operate an automobile in her community.
I live in Cape Town, and I’ll be able to convert my U.S. license to a South African one without taking a test once my South African ID comes through. Just as well, because I took a practice test and got 4 out of 10. In my defense, the questions were like this:
Since I never, ever park anywhere near a bridge or abandon my car on a rural road for even one minute, I’m not too worried. But I’m not getting a badge either.
To obtain a merit badge for aviation, a Scout must:
- Have a knowledge of the theory of the aeroplane, helicopter,*** and ornithopter, and of the spherical and dirigible balloon.
- Have made a working model of any type of heavier than air machine, that will fly at least twenty-five yards; and have built a box kite that will fly…
- BIRD STUDY
To secure this badge, a Scout must:
#1. Give list of 50 well-known wild birds of the United States.
#2. State game bird laws of her state.
#3. Give list of 50 wild birds personally observed and identified in the open…
#5. Name 10 birds that destroy rats and mice….
#8. Tell what the Audubon Society is and how it endeavors to conserve the birds of beautiful plumage.
#9. What an aigret is, how obtained, and from what bird.
I can answer #9! It’s a long, colorful feather, usually from an egret, used for adorning a hat. (Thank you, Google!) You presumably obtain it from plucking it out, which the Audubon folks might take a dim view of.
#1. Be able to tie six knots.
#2. Be able to row, pole, scull, or steer a boat.
#3. Land a boat and make fast.
#4. State directions by sun and stars.
#5. Swim 50 yards with clothes and shoes on.
#6. Box the compass and have a knowledge of tides.
I lived on a lake when I was growing up and we used to putter around in canoes, rowboats, and small sailboats, so I’m pretty confident of my ability to do most of these things. And I bet that, if I tried, I could swim 50 yards with clothes and shoes on, although can’t I can just take them off like in the Athletics badge? Boxing the compass sounded daunting but turns out just to mean reciting the 32 points and quarter points on a compass, North by Northwest and the like.
Telling direction by the stars, though? Especially in the southern hemisphere, with no Little Bear to guide me?
#1. Take care of a child for two hours a day for a month, or care for a baby for one hour a day for a month.
#1. Must have legible handwriting;
ability to typewrite;
a knowledge of spelling and punctuation;
You can judge for yourself, but I’m giving myself this one.
a library hand;
Wait! What’s a library hand?
It turns out to be a special kind of handwriting taught in library school to make card catalog entries legible. It looks like this:
Here is my library hand:
Not great, but not terrible. I’m on the edge here. But it’s a moot point because of
#4. Keep complete account of personal receipts and expenditure for six months.
I majored in government in college, and I worked for the government for 28 years. Feeling good about this one!
#1. Be able to recite the preamble to the Constitution.
I knuckled down and memorized it in fifteen minutes. Check!
#2. Be able to state the chief requirements of a voter, in her state, territory, or district.
I looked at the West Virginia state website and nailed down some details I was wobbly on, like how long you have to have lived in the state to vote (30 days). Check!
#3. Be able to outline the principal points in the naturalization laws in the United States.
I was a consular officer at one point, so it was my job to know this. Check!
#4. Know how a president is elected an installed in office, also method of electing vice-president, senators, representatives, giving the term of office and salary of each.
Solid on this except some of the salaries. I knew the president’s ($400,000) and looked up the vice president’s ($235,100) and senators’ and representatives’ ($174,000).**** Check!
But then I got to:
#5. Be able to name the officers of the President’s Cabinet and their portfolios.
Like, all of them? Even the ones who are about to resign?
Maybe this will be it. I cook every day! Okay, every day that we don’t eat out or get takeout or have leftovers. Okay, once a week.
#1: Know how to wash up, wait on table, light a fire, lay a table for four, and hand dishes correctly at table.
#2: Clean and dress fowl.
- INVALID COOKING
#1. How to make gruel, barley water, milk toast, oyster or clam soup, beef tea, chicken jelly, and kumyss.
In case you’re wondering, kumyss, or kumis, is fermented mare’s milk. It’s an important part of the diet of the people of the Central Asian Steppes. Whom I don’t anticipate ever having to cook for when they’re sick.
#1. Own a bicycle.
Check! (Okay, it doesn’t get out a lot.)
#3. Pledge herself to give the service of her bicycle to the government in case of need.
I’m on board with this, although I doubt South Africa will ever need this particular bicycle.
#4. If she ceases to own a bicycle, she must return the badge.
Harsh! Having some kid steal your bike is bad enough without having to turn in your badge like a disgraced FBI agent. But I think I can hold on to mine, and if I don’t I have another one in D.C.
Unfortunately, there’s also
#2. Be able to mend a tire.
#1. Know how to test cow’s milk with Babcock test.
Oh well, this badge is a little too Bolshiviki to be walking around with in 1919 anyway.
(No picture of this one either, but it’s lightening.)
#1. Illustrate the experiment by which the laws of electrical attraction and repulsion are shown.
#2. Understand the difference between a direct and an alternating current, and show uses to which each is adapted. Give a method of determining which kind flows in a given circuit.
#3. Make a simple electro-magnet.
Etc., etc., etc.
Here in Cape Town, we’re experience “load shedding,” a euphemism for power cuts, and I’m sitting here in the dark. I wish some Girl Scout would come along and straighten out the whole mess. It’s not going to be me, though.
What? Not farmerette?
#1. Incubating chickens, feeding and rearing chickens under hens.
There’s lots more, knowledge of bees and curing hams and the like. The only one I got was
#2. Storing eggs.
#1. Participate in the home and school garden work of her community.
#2. Plan, make and care for either a back-yard garden, or a window garden for one season.
Here’s my back-yard garden:
I have a good excuse for this. Cape Town was under severe water restrictions during last year’s drought, so I let my garden die. But they don’t give badges for good excuses.
So here I am, halfway through and no closer to earning a badge than I was at the beginning.
My quest has left me full of admiration for those model airplane-flying, milk-testing, bird-identifying, chicken jelly-making, electricity-explaining 1919 Girl Scouts. And for Juliette Gordon Low, who, for all her talk about “hussifs,” didn’t dumb down these badges for the girls. But will I ever be able to earn one? I’m beginning to despair.
But then that old Girl Scout spirit kicks in. I turn for inspiration to the words of our founder and find…well, this:
But also this:
Which turns out to be mostly about the joyful exercise of vigorous outdoor games, but good enough.
I will go on! Stay tuned for Part 2.
In the meantime, you can try for a badge yourself. Drop me a line if you earn one!
*Unfortunately I have no photos of myself as a Girl Scout. My dad was an excellent photographer, but he wasn’t into candid shots. Anyone looking through our family scrapbooks would get the impression that I spent my entire childhood sitting in a wicker chair outdoors in darling outfits.
**Like I said: really into it. Although, in my defense, Girl Scouts is, or at least was back then, a bit of a JGL personality cult.
***What??? I thought helicopters weren’t invented yet!
****In 1919, the salaries were $75,000 for the president, $15,000 for the vice president, and $7,500 for senators and representatives.