To those wearing white one week longer,
The great Brian Distelberg, a PhD candidate in history at Yale, returns today to these pages. In case you missed it, check out his musings on Connecticut. And check out his own website, where he writes about his research, contemporary politics and culture, and LGBT issues.
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) turns 100 this year, and as Katherine Q. Seelye recently observed in the New York Times, the anniversary finds the Scouts facing “a host of issues”: plummeting membership (from a 1973 peak of 4.8 million to 2.8 million now), an $18.5 million jury verdict stemming from a sexual abuse case, and ongoing challenges to its exclusion of atheists, gay people, and girls under 13.
Given that I currently fall into two of these three categories, it’s not surprising that I often felt a bit ill-at-ease during the eight years I spent as a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout. But memories of that youthful discomfort now feed my curiosity about the remarkably under-examined place the Scouts have historically occupied in American society and popular mythology, and encourage me to look skeptically on the sort of fuzzy ahistoricism that prompted Seelye to declare that the Scouts were “long an icon of wholesomeness in a simpler America.” As Michael Rosenthal wrote in his 1986 study of the Boy Scouts in Britain, “immunity from critical scrutiny has left Scouting almost entirely in the hands of its own historians and publicists, a situation that is not helpful in trying to understand the origins and meaning of any movement.”
Although now a quarter-century old, Rosenthal’s diagnosis remains surprisingly applicable to the case of Scouting in the United States. David Macleod’s social history Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920 (1983) examines the Scouts’ Progressive-era origins, and Jay Mechling analyzes a contemporary Scout troop’s summer camp rituals in On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth (2001). A few unpublished dissertations also cover the organization’s early years. But large swaths of the Boy Scouts’ history, including the wartime and Cold War decades when it enjoyed its greatest popularity, remain largely unexplored—to the detriment of our understanding of American political conservatism, youth culture, suburbanization and recreation, and masculinity and male sexuality, among other topics.
Lack of easy access to BSA organizational records is, of course, a major obstacle. (The National Scouting Museum, which moved to its current Irving, TX, location in 2002, offers few useful exhibits on its website, and researchers must apply, and pay a daily usage fee, to examine to its holdings.) But the digital archive can provide inquiring historians an alternative means of exploring the organization’s place in American society, particularly as revealed through the voluminous print culture produced by and about the Scouts in its century of existence.
The Boy Scout Handbook is probably the best known of these publications. The handbook, which sets out and explains the Scout Oath and Law, describes the requirements to advance from rank to rank, and offers information on subjects from camping to fitness to good citizenship, has passed through twelve editions since 1910. (It carried the title Handbook for Boys until 1959.) Jeff Snowden, scoutmaster of Troop 97 in Fort Collins, Colorado, maintains a detailed online compendium of images of Boy Scout, Scoutmaster, and other Scout handbooks. The images, which accompany Snowden’s study of the handbook’s evolution, reveal telling shifts in the Scouts’ self-presentation and traces of wider social changes.
Around 1950, for instance, the fifth edition’s cover was redrawn reflect the introduction of “overseas caps” —popularized in the U.S. armed forces during World War II—to replace “campaign hats” in the Scout uniform. Scouts of color appear on the back cover in 1965, and on the front in 1972. And since 1990, the covers have shifted from depicting hiking, camping, and fishing to emphasizing more “extreme” outdoor activities, especially whitewater rafting and kayaking. (Troop 97’s website only includes handbook covers; the full text of reprint editions of the 1911 handbook and 1913-1914 scoutmaster handbook are on Google Books.)
Between 1910 and 1930, the early handbook was joined by a flurry of inexpensive juvenile fiction featuring the Scouts.The historian M. Paul Holsinger, in an terrific essay about these novels, writes, “Almost from the very moment of the chartering of the national B. S. A. in 1910, publishers, especially those specializing in cheap children’s fiction, sensed a ready market for sales… More than one hundred full-length novels dealing with the Boy Scouts were published between 1911 and 1914; well over three hundred different books had appeared in print by the advent of the Great Depression.” Most of these books have since passed out of copyright, and many can be found, in full, on Google Books and/or the Internet Archive. Percy K. Fitzhugh, who wrote sixty-nine Scouting novels (in four series!) between 1915 and 1930, beginning with Tom Slade: Boy Scout of the Moving Pictures, received the BSA’s official endorsement. Other authors, such as G. Harvey Ralphson, lacked this imprimatur and wrote fantastical tales of Scouts engaging in covert operations in far-flung global locales. Among his titles were Boy Scouts in the Philippines: Or, the Key to the Treaty Box (1911), Boy Scouts in a Submarine: Or, Searching the Ocean Floor (1912), Boy Scouts Beyond the Arctic Circle: Or, the Lost Expedition (1913), and Boy Scouts in Belgium: Or, Under Fire in Flanders (1915).
But by far the richest and most granular print resource to the full sweep of the Scouts’ century of existence is Boys’ Life magazine, published monthly by the BSA since 1911. Ninety-eight volumes of the Boys’ Life archives, spanning 1911 through 2008, have been digitized by Google Books, and they offer raw material to support countless lines of inquiry into the Scouts’ past.
Curious, for instance, about how the organization promoted patriotism and anticommunism during the early Cold War? This October 1952 cover (right) advertised a BSA campaign to encourage voting in the 1952 presidential election, an act characterized as evidence of American “Freedom.” The editors explained, “The coming month will see the Boy Scouts of America distribute 30-million Liberty Bell doorknob hangers urging all citizens to vote for their favorite candidates of any party to keep our nation the place that this foreign born father and son, and all the rest of us, want it to be.” A survey of “Scouting ’round the World” a few years later declared, “Scouting thrives in a democracy—but not under dictatorship or communism.” In March 1959, Boys’ Life launched a cartoon series called “America’s Heritage” that explicated the history of American democracy.
The Boys’ Life archives also provides a powerful barometer of broader social and political trends. Historians of physical culture and fitness can find a series of “fitness tests”: from 1940 (“How long can you hold your breath? 30 seconds is fair, 60 seconds good.”) to 1957 (a series of push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups, as well as the “recovery index”) to 1987 (organized horseplay, including “Kneel to your superior” and a “Duck fight”).
Historians of technology can trace the shift from a 1964 advertisement for a “toy computer” and a 1968 article describing the “Computerized School House” of the future to the first mention of the World Wide Web in the magazine’s Computer column, in 1996 (with a sidebar titled “Wow! Web Sites!”). Historians of the Vietnam-era home front can read about Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 announcement of air strikes against North Vietnam, made during a speech to Boy Scout representatives (a “memorable encounter with a great government leader”), and can ponder the import of war-related jokes submitted to the “Think and Grin” page and war-invoking advertisements for model fighter jets and Chap Stick.
The Boy Scouts may, indeed, face considerable challenges today. Still: nearly half of the male members of the current 111th Congress were or are involved in the Boy Scouts. Every U.S. president since William Howard Taft (including Barack Obama, chain e-mails from your conservative uncle notwithstanding) has served as honorary head of the organization. Despite its recent struggles, Scouting continues to play a significant role in American society. Taken together, these digital archives—along with sites maintained by members, enthusiasts, and collectors documenting the history of Scout badges, World’s Fair memorabilia, and other ephemera—offer a very rich resource for those curious to know why this is so, and what it might mean.
Yours in trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness…,