United States Boy Scout Uniforms: 1910s


Figure 1.--These boys were photographed in the 1910s. They wear the jacket like shirt that early American Boy Scouts wear. The look quite different than the tuck in shirts Boy Scouts began to wear in the 1920s. Their hats look like fatigue caps rather than the regulation hat. Note the uniformity of their turn out.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was founded by William D. Boyce and several associates in 1910. Boyce was a businessman with an interest in youth work. His critical contribution to Scouting was to organize the BSA as a business. He incorporated the organization, choosing Washington, DC, rather than Chicago to emphasize its national character. He recruited key youth professionals, primarily from the YMCA, to design and operate the program, and he provided essential funding for the fledgling organization. Important decisions were made about Scouting in the 1910s which had a major impact on its character and success. There were many competing visions of the movement with varying influences including commercial, altruistic, patriotic, militaristic, social, religious, racial, and many others. The American Scout movement was relatively small in the 1910s before World War I (1914-18). The movement grew significantly beginning with the War when a patriotic fervor swept the country. The movement was to grow even more in the prosperous 1920s. Increasingly by the late 1910s it was becoming an excepted part of an American boyhood, at least in small towns and cities, to join the Boy Scouts. The organization became increasingly popular throughout the country and was supported by both schools and churches. It was a virtually all white movement in its first decade as blacks were essentially excluded, especially in the South.

History

The American Scout movement was relatively small in the 1910s before World War I (1914-18). The movement grew significantly beginning with the War when a patriotic fervor swept the country. The movement was to grow even more in the prosperous 1920s. Increasingly by the late 1910s it was becoming an accepted part of American boyhood, at least in small towns and cities, to join the Boy Scouts. The organization became increasingly popular throughout the country and was supported by both schools and churches. William D. Boyce, after his experience with the "unknown" London Scout, incorporated the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in 1910. Immediately after its incorporation, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was assisted by officers of the YMCA in organizing a task force to help community organizations start and maintain a high-quality Scouting program. Those efforts climaxed in the organization of the nation's first Scout camp at Lake George, New York, directed by Ernest Thompson Seton, noted naturalist and illustrator who had organized Woodcraft movement. Another youth group luminary, Daniel Carter "Uncle Dan" Beard, also assisted. Beard was a noted illustrator, author, and social reformer who had previously founded his own youth group--the Sons of Daniel Boone. He would subsequently merge his group with the BSA. Also on hand for this historic event was James E. West, a lawyer and an advocate of children's rights, who later would become the first professional Chief Scout Executive of the Boy Scouts of America. Seton became the first volunteer national Chief Scout, and Beard, the first national Scout Commissioner. This BSA in many ways reflected the increasingly formalized, and bureaucratized quality of life in the early 20th century, also. Such qualities gave the BSA a great advantage over the competition and were soon to drive Seaton out of the organization and Beard to a largely honorary role.

Critical Decade

The 1910s were a critical decade for the Boy Scouts in America. Scouting is now taken for granted as a part of the American scene, primarily because of the success of the movement in the 1910s. The BSA during this first decade grew spectacularly into a respected national organization of 361,000 boys and 32,000 Scoutmasters. The BSA offered a program that appealed to the boys of the time. It should be that unlike todays heavily scheduled youngsters, there were not a lot of competing activities for boys in the 1910s. The BSA put together an appealing program and effectively promoted it. The nationalistic sentiment of Americans fueled by World War I only increased the appeal of Scouting. One advantage of Scouting was that it was a standardized program rather like a fast food chain. [Macleod] It could be started with only a small group in communities throughout America. Not only did Scouting appeal to boys, but the program received substantial adult support because of the concern with finding wholesome activities for boys to keep them occupied and out of trouble. There had been other such efforts dating back to the 1870s, but none had succeeded like the BSA on the 1910s. Interestingly it was the BSA bureaucrats who succeeded with Lord Baden Powell's imported British program rather than the men like Daniel Carter Beard and Ernest Thompson Seaton who preached a less militaristic approach and were the true inspiration for American Scouting.

The YMCA Impact

Important decisions were made about Scouting in the 1910s which had a major impact on its character and success. There were many competing visions of the movement with varying influences including commercial, altruistic, patriotic, militaristic, social, religious, racial, and many others. In this regard the influence of the YMCA had a critical and lasting impact on the direction of the BSA, especially the responsibility for community service. Of course Edgar Robinson was a YMCA executive, but James West also was involved with the Y. Perhaps even more importantly many early troops were organized at YMCAs or by YMCA staff.

Race and Scouting

There were substantial differences in the approach to black Scouting in the North and South. The BSA never at the national level rejected the principle of blacks joining mostly white troops or organizing black troops but they adopted policies that made it very difficult for black troops to be organized, especially in the South. The BSA decided at an early point to require that all new troops be sanctioned by the local councils. Thus blacks wanting to organize troops had to get the approval of all-white councils. Especially in the early years, Southern councils refused to approve any black troops. Alternative approaches such as a request from a group of blacks to organize "Young American Patriots" was rejected by the BSA. One historian quotes Bolton Smith, a Memphis banker who was BSA board's expert on race relations, and answered a critic by saying, "as long as the grown people are willing to stand for the lynchings of colored people," it was futile to expect public support for black Boy Scouting. He insisted that to admit black boys "would lose us many white Scouts..." [Macleod, pp. 212-214.] YMCA executive E.M. Robinson played a key role in early Scouting. He was disturbed that local councils were not approving black troops. The YMCA did have a program for black boys. George W. Moore was the Y's International Committee's secretary for black boys. He designed an alternative to Boy Scouting that he called the Lincoln Guild. Robinson who was Scoutings first executive director during the critical first year in 1910 did not implement the plan, insisting on centralized authority because, as he phrased it, "colored people are less responsible than white ..." [Macleod, pp. 212-214.]

Chronology

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was founded by William D. Boyce and several associates (1910). Boyce was a businessman with an interest in youth work. His critical contribution to Scouting was to organize the BSA as a business. He incorporated the organization, choosing Washington, DC, rather than Chicago to emphasize its national character. It was in Washington that the BSA was incorporated on February 8, 1910. The BSA chose an army lool-alike style complete with the Baden-Powell lemon squeezer hat. We see many troops organizing throughout the countru=y during the 1910s. Many early troops did not have the uniform. Often only a few boys had the uniform. Th BSA was bnew anf getting the cuniform was a ptoblkem logistically. By the ebd if the decade, trioops were becoming much better uniformed as scouting became increasingly established. The uniform was poular and most boys swanted to wear it. They either petered their parents or went out and earned the money, Scouting very quickly becane part pf the american landscape and American boyhood. It was a phenomenal achievement for such a novel socia movenent.

The Uniform

The BS A triumphed over competitive groups in large part because it management to appropriate the major national symbols. In this regard, nothing seemed more patriotic than the uniforms that khaki-green uniform that millions of Americans were putting on to fight in the War. The BSA was very similar to the U.S. army uniform which closely associated BSA Scouting with national service. The uniform was a major issues in early American Scouting. Not every new Scout was equipped with the same items. Early portraits of Scout troops often shows substantial variations in how the boys were equipped. Acquiring the full official uniform was strongly encouraged by many units. This tended to make the Scouts a middle-class organization as often poor boys who could not afford the uniform decided against Scouting or was made to feel uncomfortable. One historian reports, "... acquisition of full uniforms soon became a test of commitment." [Macleod, p. 178.] The BSA gave individual Councils the authority to require them by 1918. (When the new uniform was introduced in 1922, it was made mandatory. There was no "activity uniform" in early Scouting. The Scouts wore their uniform for every activity. The same uniform was used for hiking and camping that was used for dress occasions such as parades. The BSA was determined to present their boys as well ordered young men and not uncouth mountain men. A historian reports, "... leaders wanted all who met them to know that they were sepoys, not savages; the uniform made it clear that control outweighed free-ranging woodmanship". [Macleod, p. 178.] As in Britain, American Scouting was not without critics. The principal one was the military as opposed to the wood craft approach to Scouting. The early Scouting movement in actuality had not decided to what extent that Scouting should be seen as preparation for military service. Certainly the choice of uniform gave that impression. We know of no actual agreements between the BSA and the military. Among many BSA officials, however, "So closely, however, did patriotism, discipline, and military service seem to be related that Boy Scout leaders had trouble telling them apart." [Macleod, p. 178.]

Scouting Levels

Different levels of Scouting were slow to develop in America.

Cub Scouts

There was no Cub Scouting in the 1910s. Cubs were not officially authorized in America until the 1930s. Some troops allowed younger boys to tag along, especially if they had an older brother in the troop. There was, however, no organized Cubbing program despite the fact that the British Scouts began cubbing in 1916. BSA officials were concerned that allowing younger boys to participate would make the movement less attractive for the older boys.

Boy Scouts

American Scouts in the 1910s and at the beginning of the 1920s seem to have worn an essentially military style uniform. The American Scout uniforms continued to be the khaki-green Army-style uniform after World War I (1914- 18). The shirt and pants was khaki and belt olive drab although there could be considerable differences in the colors worn by individuals and various groups. The photographs are of course black and white. It seems to me that the color was not the tan khaki now familiar, but a kind of olive-green khaki. Here this is something that we need more information about. Hopefully we can find some kind of colorized image. The boys wore a coat-type garment rather than a shirt--worn without kerchiefs. I am not precisely sure what the actual BSA regulations specified concerning uniform pants. One source indicates: shorts or breeches with leggings, puttees, or stockings. This seems to be an accurate description, except for the shorts. We have not noted any images of American Scouts wearing short pants in the 1910s. As far as we can determine, American Scouts wore knicker-length pants or breeches and the short pants that boys in virtually every other country wore. This army-style uniform continued to be worn in to the early 1920s. The boys wore a flat-brimmed Smokey Bear type hat with a high crown like the British Scouts. Coincidentally this also happened to be the U.S. army hat. (Here we do not yet know the history of how this hat came to be the official army hat.) We have acquired little written information about the Scout uniform in the 1910s. Available images, however, suggest considerable differences in the uniforms worn by the boys.

Ordering the Uniform

The BSA initially sold Scout uniforms and equipment through its Department of Scout supplies. The Boy Scouts of America was incorporated in 1910. The United States Congress in 1916 granted a federal charter to the Boy Scouts to protect their name and to authorize uniforms similar to U.S. military uniforms. Thus no one could compete with the BSA in the sale of uniforms. BSA publications show that the mail order sale of uniforms and equipment was a major undertaking by 1919. The BSA bragged about their efficient office workers. Presumably this mail operation was begun almost as the BSA was established to make uniforms available to Scouts around the country. mail order suppliers were already well established in the United Sates and thus consumers were used to ordering clothing, and just about every thing else including the kitchen sink, by mail.

Sources

Macleod, David I. Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920 (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 315p.







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Created: November 15, 1998
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