Scout and Other Uniformed Youth Groups

Modern youth groups first appeared in the late-19th century as social leaders attempted to channel the energies of young people in the new developing industrial economies of Europe and America. Never before had young people had so much money. Families had moved from ancestrial homes to the growing impersonal cities. Crime was increasing. Centuries old social restraints were crumbling. Government an community leaders pondered what to do. The answer was the formation of youth groups to chanel the boundless energies of the young people in the new industrial societies of Western Europe. In this new movement, England led the way.


Role of the Church

The Church was the motivating institution behind the first group, the Boys' Brigade. All of these new groups were uniformed groups. It is not entirely clear why uniforms came to be an consist element of these groups but appears to reflect a combination of a young boy's desire to wear a uniform, the British penchant for uniforms, and the purpose of the new groups which was to mold and chanel the energies of young people. Regimentation was seen as an important element in that process.

Britain's role

British attitudes were important as the idea of youth groups and many of the early groups were founded in Britain. Of course my information is primarily British and American. I know little about the early history of youth groups in other countris such as Germany and France. I'd be very interested in any information on this topic visitors can provide.

Totalitarian copies

Youth groups were also susequently founded by the totalitarian movements of the 20th century, many of them closely following the organization and activities of the Scouts. The ethos and values and the attitude toward the family of groups like the Hitler Youth, Italian Bailal, and Young Pioneers were quite different from the youth movements in the democratic countries.

Groups for girls

All of the early groups were boys' groups with separate groups subsequently founded for girls. The Hitler Youth included girls, but they were separated into different units with very different actuvities and goals. Only the Communist Young Pioneers included both boys and girls together. Many groups, especially in Britain and America, continue to separate boys and girls, but many European and other countries have combined membership. The future of uniformed youth groups is unclear. Scout membership still includes very large numbers of boys, but far below the levels of te 1950s, even weith larger populations. Modern children have far greater options for their free time from music and dance lessons, sports (school teams, Little League, soccer teams, ect.), a wide range of extracurricular activities at school, a panoply of electronic equipment at home, and many other options. The idea of the uniform is another question. Uniforms still appeal to the younger boys, but teenagers and, infact, many pre-teensin our modern society have become rather jadded products of our mass market world. Many are now very fashion conscious--often disliking uniforms, afraid that they might not look trendy and be teased by other boys. Even so, millions of boys continue to participate and find Scouting and the other groups a rewarding personal experience.

Social Trends in the Late 19th Century

It is no accident that uniformed youth organizations appeared at the end of the 19th century. We view youth crime and violence as a characteric of our modern day and look back longingly at the suposedly tranquil, placid era of the late 19th or early 20th century. Looking back realitically, we with our modern senasbilities can not help but be struck by the poverty of the era, but Victorians were in effect better off than ever before. Children while still horribly exploited had more and increasing disposable income than ever before in Europe. There was a significant population movement from tightly nit rural communities to the impersonal cities where burgeoning new industries offered jobs to people that before had been virtually outside the monnied economy. This combined with rising child and adolescent incomes meant that large numbers of young people were becoming roudy and undisciplined, or so it appeared to the pillars of society. As a result, the idea of organizing adolesents to provide positive acativites ocurred to many adults and several different groups were formed.

It is ironic that much of the attention paid to the alleged wrongdoings of youths was in large measure instigated by the youth organizations themselves. Those organizations, anxious to recruit and marshal the nation's youths, were concerned about those young men who slipped through their net, and were consequently keen to point out to the police and the local authorities whatever youthful shortcomings they saw at large. Church groups, youth organizations and voluntary associations lent their weight to campaigns to highlight and to remedy youthful failings and much of this agitation came from the younger members of the groups. There was, it is true, a positive and beneficial side; for example, this aroused conscience was largely responsible for the willingness to intervene on behalf of ill-treated or neglected children. But there was also, particularly among middle- and upper-class ladies who did volunteer work with children and youths, a zeal which often took the form of repressing - or at least highlighting - the shortcomings of the young. The NSPCC, youth clubs. Mothers' Unions, Sunday schools, the YMCA and the like were clearly anxious to assist local children and young people, but they were no less vigorous in campaigning against what they took to be the more unacceptable aspects of their behavior. Looked at in its wider context, the remarkable proliferation of organizations and voluntary activities for youths between 1880 and 1914 is itself a strong indication of the growing preoccupation with the problems of adolescence.

Figure 1.--The Boys' Brigade was the first uniformed youth group. Note the boys are wearing the military-like pill box caps and the adult leaders wearing Glengary caps.

Founding of Early Groups

The practical outcome of these efforts was quite remarkable. The Boys' Brigade, formed in Glasgow in 1883, had 35,000 members by 1894. The Church Lads' Brigade, established in London in 1891, had a peak of 70,000 members in 1908. And there were literally, dozens of local, often parochial, organizations, notably in London, catering for the idle hours of local youths. The most successful of all was the Boy Scout movement, founded in 1908 by Baden-Powell and inspired in large measure by the lessons of the Boer War. By 1913 there were some 152,000 Scouts throughout the UK. Local studies reveal even more graphically just how many boys and youths were attracted to such organizations. In Salford alone, between 1903 and 1908 about 2,000 joined local clubs, which organized regular meetings, music, libraries, indoor and outdoor games, theatricals and trips to the countryside and seaside. The Ancoats Lads' Club owned a weekend cottage, which was used by 900 boys in 1907. A year later 2,500 boys from eleven Manchester clubs went to camps in Wales. These treats were often criticized, but those who enjoyed them and benefited from them offered little but praise. One Oldham boy described his own trip away from home:

Tuesday myself and a friend resolved to spend in Llandudno so we started about 9.30, crossed the river Conway by the ferry, and walked through some splendid country to our destination. Here we spent the morning, donkey riding, 'bike riding, and sauntering about the Pier and Parade. After dinner we had a walk up Orme's Head, passing the Happy Valley on the way. Finding a nice piece of turf, we had a lie down and a look around ....

Clearly not every urban youth was able to enjoy similar treats; critics of the youth movement frequently alleged that those most urgently in need tended to be ignored. Nevertheless, the lives of many thousands of city boys and youths were greatly enhanced by their clubs' activities. They had somewhere to go, indoors, where they could meet their peers away from the material and social restrictions of home life and where they could sample a range of leisure activities which would otherwise have been beyond their reach.

The results of such youth work were not always reassuring. Youth workers often complained that the boys imported their 'bad' habits. Writing of Manchester boys, one observer noted with regret:

Outdoor games have only one meaning, and that is football, as played under the Association Code ... When leagues are formed for youths of a particular age it is a common practice for those of a higher age to lie and cheat in order to join, and so endeavour to make certain of winning whatever trophies may be offered. The play is frequently unfair, and too often foul and violent tactics take the place of strenuous play.
Whether these features were derived from professional soccer, as middle-class critics claimed, is uncertain. Nonetheless it was a fact of life denounced by leaders of the nation's youth.

Youth Groups and Social Class

The success of youth groups in servicing those most in need of their services, working class children, has been an enduring problem. The success of youth organizations in attracting ever more members was hard-won. Initially there was strong resistance among working-class boys to the idea of joining organizations which were controlled by their social superiors. Yet within twenty years that initial reluctance had been transformed into positive enthusiasm, largely, it seems, because of the remarkable range of activities available. It is important, however, to remember which groups of boys and youths we are dealing with here. Contemporaries were concerned lest the clubs' activities missed the real 'problem' areas. In the words of Booth, the clubs were catering for youths 'somewhat above the class for which they were originally intended. Youth workers found it difficult to recruit boys of the laboring poor, though their task was easier the higher they progressed up the working-class scale. Poor children sometimes joined solely for the treats, prizes or holidays, but some indication of the resistance shown by poor children can be seen in their hostile reaction to band parades: 'Wherever we marched, a horde of boys from the school marched abreast of the band, yelling ribald jeers at me. I got thumped at school on Mondays, but had I refused to march I would have been thumped more hellishly at home - so I tootled my little horn and cursed the Army. Even. within the clubs there were many boys and youths that proved unamenable to order and discipline and others were expelled for misbehavior.

The clubs were not, then, completely successful, but perhaps their greatest shortcoming was in failing to penetrate the poorest communities and to attract the very boys and youths most in need of help. In the minds of volunteers working in the clubs and, via their assiduous propaganda, to the reading public at large, there developed a distinction between their members and the rest; between the 'respectable' and the 'delinquents'. In contrast to the boys in the clubs, often in uniform, normally drilled in marching, generally clean and well ordered, there were the boys and youths loafing on the street corners, irreverent, dirty, crude and disrespectful. And it was against such street-corner youths that the police, voluntary organizations and respectable opinion railed. Indeed it seems likely that the success of the boys' organizations left the poorer, less amenable youths even more exposed and isolated as the objects of social concern.

When we look back, say to the 1850s, it is abundantly clear that the behavior of the young had in fact greatly improved. But the changes since about 1880 had left poor youths extremely exposed, and they came to be seen as the repository of much of the nation's unruliness. Thus while the behavior of the young in general had improved, it appeared, at least to their social superiors, that the behavior of youths had deteriorated. This 'juvenile delinquency' was not so much new as a residual survivor of the anti-social behavior, which had been general among poorer children before the coming of compulsory education.

The shortcomings of youths, however exaggerated, indicate that the schools were not altogether successful in instilling a sense of discipline in their pupils. More and more people came to realize that the schools alone could not purge the young of their anti-social and often illicit behavior. Voluntary youth organizations evolved to take up the challenge, but by 1914 adults active in youth clubs - many of who had emerged 'from the ranks' - had become reconciled to the idea that they too would be unable to reach all the nation's young people, particularly the very poor. But by then it had also become apparent that the problems posed by the youths were not on the scale imagined only a few years before.

Youth groups continue to have difficulties providing services to children of low-income families. Only Government supported groups like the Hitler Youth and Young Pioneers did not face this problem. Groups like the Scouts face many fdifficulties in opperating in the inner-city and other low income communities . First, children have less monet to participate to pay for dues, uniforms, trips, camps, ect. Second, the family structure is weaker providing less support to encourage the children and to provide support (money, transportation, ect.). Third, fewer adults have the time or money to serve as a adult leaders. There are Scour groups in low-income communities, but overall Scouting continues to be a white middle class movement.

Figure 2.--The American Camp Fire Girls in the 1970s decided to admit boys, but the Boy and Girl Scouts in American have remained resolutely separate.

Boys and Girls

All of the early youth groups were boys' groups with separate organizations subsequently founded for girls. This followed attitudes of the era which felt that boys and girls should be dealt with differently and educated for separately for very different future roles. This was true of the Boys' Brigade and Scouts and later in the late 1920s the Hitler Youth. While the Boy and Girl Scouts were founded separately, the Girl Scouts proceeded to adopt a program very similar to the Boy Scouts and promoted the idea that girls could do what ever boys did. The Hitler Youth, however, following Hitler's view of the proper role for German women had a very diffeent program for it's girls unit than for the boys'. Many of the smaller groups that are largely unknown All of the early groups were boys' groups with separate groups subsequently founded for girls. Only the Communist Young Pioneers included both boys and girls together. Many groups, especially in Britain and America, continue to separate boys and girls, but many European and other countries have combined membership. Many groups, especially in Britain and America, continue to separate boys and girls, but many European and other countries have combined membership. it is interesting to note that in the America, the country where coeducation first gained a foothold and the women's movement is the strongest, the Boy and Girl Scout Associations have remained resolutely separate. Only the smaller Camp Fire Girls decides to asmit boys and, as a result, change its name.

Figure 3.--The idea that youth organizations should have uniforms was set in Britain during the late 19th cenury and early 20th century. Whether uniforms will continue into the 21st century remains to be seen.


Most of the youth groups popular with boys during the 20th century have required uniforms. The most obvious youth group is of course the Boy Scouts and related grous like Tiger, Cub, and Explorer Scouts. The Scouts while by far the largest group in America and many European countries, is not the only group, nor was it the first. One of the earlist groups was the Boys' Brigade with its strong Christian connection. America also has Camp Fire, a coed scout-like group. All of the modern totalitarian states had their youth groups like Hitler Youth and the Pioneers. The sinister nature of NAZI ideolgy leads us to recoil at images of the Hitler Youth. Less is known of the Communist Pioneer Movement. Now that the great totalitarian states have disappeared, except in China, these groups have all been suplanted by the Scoting movement. Scoting in America and England, however, has declined a ranks are only a fraction of the 2 million American boys who once participated. The other groups like Camp Fire and the Boys' brigade are much smaller. It is unclear what has caused the decline. Certainly boys today have many more options for their free time. The cost of uniforns and dues discourages others. Recruiting sufficently commited adult leaders is another problem. he Scoting Movement has attemted to reinvent itself, with modernized merit badges incliding computers and rocketry. The future of Scoting and other groups remains to be seen

Youth Movement Pages

Here is some summary information on these groups. Much more detailed information is available about these groups on the Historic Boys' Uniform website.

Boy Scouts

Scouting is of course the best knowm biys' uniformed group.

Boys' Brigade

The Boys' Brigade was the first boys' uniformed group, preceeding Scouting by two decades.

Camp Fire

Camp Fire was founded as a girls group and competed with the Girl Scouts. It is now a coed group w ith ared, white, and blue uniform.

Nationalist groups

Nationalist groups were especially prevalent in the 1920s, 30s, and eraly 40s. Only a few sych groups exist today.


The Young Pioneers was the Communist answer to Scouting. The group has only been sucessful when supported by Gocernment financing. It still exists in Cuba amd the Asian Communist countries.


The Rangers are a American. Scout-like group supported by churches and emphasing relegion more tyan the Scouts.

Other groups

HBU has noted several uniformed groups of interest about which we have been able to find little information. In some cases even the identity of these groups is unknown. Please let us know if you have information about these groups.

Historic Boys' Uniformed Website

The subject of boys' uniformed groups is treated in great detail in a separate section. A wide variety of youth groups in the 20th century have adopted a great diversity of uniforms. Some of these organizations have achieved enormous renouwn for the positive, character building experiences they have provided boys. The first group, the Boys' Brigade, was founded at the end of the 19th century and had a central Christian focus. The most significant was the Scouts which was founded after the turn of the century. Comparable organizations were founded for girls. Many of these organizations were founded in Britain and the British penchant for uniforms have greatly influenced the adoption of uniforms for the boys. Uniforms came to be a key element for these groups. Many other organizations were founded , some with sinister histories like the Hitler Youth. This web site seeks to provide a historical background on these organizations and a look at the uniforms worn by the boys over time.


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Created: July 25, 1998
Last update: November 7, 2003