On March 12, 1912, Juliette Gordon Low gathered 18 girls in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, and swore them in as the first Girl Guides (later called Girl Scouts) in the United States. The inductees signed an official register and hoisted up mugs of hot chocolate to toast the momentous occasion.
One hundred years later, more than 50 million girls have made the same Girl Scout Promise—to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law. With over 3.2 million members, the educational organization has the distinction of being the largest for girls in the world.
Rightly so, much is underway to celebrate the centennial of the Girl Scouts. Historian Stacy A. Cordery’s biography, Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, published just last month, provides an intimate look, through diaries, letters, institutional correspondence and photographs, at Low’s life and the personal challenges, including the loss of her hearing and a failed marriage, that she overcame on our way to establishing the organization. (For an interview with Cordery, see “The Very First Troop Leader.”) This summer, on June 9, the National Mall will play host to the largest of the festivities, “Rock the Mall,” a sing-along expected to bring together some 200,000 Girl Scouts, friends and family from around the world. And, of course, welcoming visiting Girl Scouts wandering north of the Mall, is the National Portrait Gallery, and its current exhibition “Juliette Gordon Low: 100 Years of Girl Scouts.”
The centerpiece of the exhibition, which opened January 13 and runs through January 6, 2013, is a grand portrait of Low by artist Edward Hughes (above). Gifted to the National Portrait Gallery by the Girl Scouts, the painting was commissioned in 1887 by Low’s husband William Mackay Low shortly after the two married and moved to England. Hughes, an esteemed London portrait painter whose subjects included the royal family, depicts her in full Southern-belle, Georgia-dubutante glory, wearing an airy, pink, floral dress. Actually, the portrait stands in contrast to many photographs of Low taken decades later, after she founded the Girl Scouts, in which she is suited in crisp uniforms.
A couple of these photographs, on loan from the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah and the Girl Scout National Historic Preservation Center in New York City, accompany the portrait, as well as a few artifacts, including the patent for the Girl Scout symbol, a trefoil with each leaf standing for one part of the three-fold Girl Scout Promise; an official Girl Scout Membership Pin; and a 1927 reprint of the 1920 edition of Scouting for Girls, Official Handbook of the Girl Scouts.
The “once a Girl Scout, always a Girl Scout” mentality came out in the organizing of the exhibition. Both the pin and the handbook are on loan from National Portrait Gallery staff members. “It wasn’t a goal, but it sort of organically happened,” says Kristin Smith, an exhibition and loan specialist. “As we were talking about it in different meetings, people would say, ‘I was a Girl Scout,’ and they would offer up something that they had.” Smith, a former Girl Scout herself, purchased the copy of the handbook and loaned it to the museum in her daughter’s name. “My daughter, Sophie, is a Brownie now,” says Smith. “I thought she would be thrilled to see her name on the label in the exhibit.” Later this month, Sophie and her troop are participating in “Her Story,” a museum program that uses the collection to teach Girl Scouts about historical figures who sought justice and equality for women. The program qualifies scouts for a certain badge.
“What I would like them to see is the history of the organization—how far back it goes and how strong it is today in terms of the number of members internationally,” says Smith. “Also, the spirit of Juliette Gordon Low. She was such an incredibly strong woman, who had a difficult life but really created an amazing legacy for herself.”
Author Stacy A. Cordery will discuss her biography of Juliette Gordon Low and sign copies this Wednesday, March 14, at 6 p.m., in the National Portrait Gallery’s Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard.