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How One 138-Page Book Inspired the Creation of the Boy Scouts

How a little military textbook evolved into a movement that would captivate generations of young men

(Bettmann/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

In the late 1800s, when Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell was an officer of the British Army, he wrote his sixth book—his second on scouting. He had spent years stationed in Africa and India, and calling on his previous military experiences, he put together a short manual, filled with words of wisdom, simple instructions and useful games. It was meant to instruct soldiers in their downtime on “how to make themselves all-around players in the game of War,” as Baden-Powell writes in the book’s 1915 edition.

Baden-Powell's book—Aids to Scouting for NCOs and Men—didn't have quite the result he intended. It might have inspired some troops to shape up, but it had larger impact on a much younger group of men. His 138-page treatise would, ultimately, inspire the formation of the Boy Scouts.

As Scouting Magazine reports, in 1899, days after sending the book’s corrected proofs to his publisher, Baden-Powell was immersed in battle in South Africa. He’d been relocated there to help deal with the conflict that would become the Second Boer War. With a mere 500 troops, he helped weather a 217-day siege by over 8,000 Boer soldiers, says Mental Floss, mostly through sheer resourcefulness. 

Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

He emerged from battle a national hero. When he returned to Britain after the end of the war, he was surprised to find that Aids to Scouting had become wildly popular,and astounded to see that its biggest fans were young boys. Some youth groups were even using it as a guidebook.

Intrigued by what he saw as an opportunity to fortify the next generation of men, Baden-Powell got to thinking of ways to further harness the boys’ attentions. To test out his ideas, in 1907 he took a set of 13 boys on a nearly two-week camping expedition in what would later be named as the first official Boy Scout meeting.

“The boys had a great time!” declares the Boy Scouts of America website. “They divided into patrols and played games, went on hikes, and learned stalking and pioneering.”

Shortly thereafter, on January 24, 1908, Baden-Powell would publish Scouting for Boys, a manual much like his first but written specifically for young men. It was broken up into “yarns,” each advising on the different points of knowledge that make up a good scout, such as “Self Discipline,” “Chivalry to Others,” “Prevention of Disease,” “Camp Cooking,” “Endurance” and “Stalking.”

The book sold tens of thousands of copies in the first year and inspired scout troops to pop up all over England. Within a couple years, Baden-Powell (who would be named a baronet in 1922) would quit his military career to focus on the Boy Scouts. The movement would soon travel across the pond to the U.S., where the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated in 1910.

Portions of early editions of both Aids for Scouting and Scouting for Boys are available online; the latter comes complete with the Baron’s own illustrations. According to the “Press Opinions” section in Aids to Scouting, the Daily Telegraph found the book “racily written" and reported that "Colonel Baden-Powell’s work on ‘Pigsticking’ [is] a classic."  

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