In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Boy Scouts/Girl Guides

  • Introduction
  • General Histories of Organizations for Youth
  • Founders of Boy Scouting Organizations
  • Continental Europe
  • Africa and Asia

Childhood Studies Boy Scouts/Girl Guides
Jay Mechling
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0078


The rise of organizations created by adults for children and youth was made possible by several historical forces in the second half of the 19th century. The advanced stages of industrial capitalism in Great Britain and the United States created the wealth and leisure for a middle class that did not need to put its children to work. Social movements protecting children (and animals) arose in those decades, aimed at protecting the weak from the ravages of industrialization and urbanization, while also educating them in elementary schools. Childhood had become a separate, protected stage in the life cycle, and with the publication of psychologist G. Stanley Hall’s two-volume study, Adolescence, in 1904, youth workers had a scientific concept for seeing adolescence as yet another special stage in the life cycle. In the United States, a class of social workers called “child savers” created all sorts of organizations meant to protect and nurture children and youth, from the development of separate Juvenile Courts to the creation of settlement houses. These Anglo-American organizations shared an ideology of “muscular Christianity,” which held that healthy bodies created through outdoor activities would strengthen the mental and moral fiber of a nation’s youth, an ideology that also led to an emphasis on organized sports for girls and boys in the late 19th century. The founders of these organizations also generally embraced Social Darwinism, believing that children and adolescents represent more primitive stages of human social evolution and that organizations for youth should take advantage of the instincts and drives of youth and channel them into safe and socially productive activities. In the United States and the United Kingdom, wildly fluctuating economic cycles, rising activism by women asking for equal rights, and immigration created what historians see as a crisis in masculinity that also fed the desire to create organizations to produce more manly men. In many ways, then, the organizations for children and youth were seen by adults as movements meant to revitalize their cultures, saving them from the debilitating effects of modernization. One symptom of this sensed loss was adult concern about “good character” as an important quality in both for both boys and girls. These movements aimed at building good character by building strong minds and bodies. Another factor was eugenics and concern about birth rate. As many of the continental European armies created mandatory drafts, they also heightened awareness of the importance of healthy girls (as mothers) and boys (as soldiers). This was true in British imperial literature as well.

General Histories of Organizations for Youth

Although Scouting organizations were founded early in the 20th century in England, then in the United States, the history of organizations for youth reaches back into the late 19th century, notably with the founding of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) by George Williams in London in 1844. Gustav-Wrathall 1998 recounts this history before moving on to the topic of same-sex relations at the YMCA. YMCA targets slightly older youth—another important organization is the Boys’ (and Girls’) Brigade. Macleod 1983 is the best and most comprehensive of these general histories. Mechling 1980 and Mechling 1989 explore the cultural meanings of two program strategies adopted by several of the movements—namely, collecting objects and reproducing American Indian lore. The essays in Block and Proctor 2009, many of which came from the 2008 conference at Johns Hopkins University marking the centennial of Baden-Powell’s founding of Scouting, are varied and have no single theme. However, the volume is important as critical scholarship among more celebratory centennial books approved by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).

  • Block, Nelson R., and Tammy M. Proctor, eds. Scouting Frontiers: Youth and the Scout Movement’s First Century. Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2009.

    This collection of essays includes scholarly examinations of the history of Scouting in several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and countries originally part of the British Empire.

  • Gustav-Wrathall, John D. Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

    Although the subtitle of this book announces a central theme of the book, the author provides a quite good and comprehensive history of the YMCA and the YWCA.

  • Honeck, Mischa. Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781501716201

    In keeping with the increased scholarly interest among historians and others in the contours and practices of American cultural imperialism, Honeck details the ways in which the Boy Scouts of America was a tool for exercising “soft power” in other countries.

  • Macleod, David I. Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870–1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

    Macleod’s carefully researched history is the best account of the social and cultural contexts that gave rise to the YMCA, Boy Scouts, and other organizations. Macleod provides detailed histories of the development of those organizations, with special attention to the BSA. Macleod shows in detail the social class constituency of the BSA.

  • Mechling, Jay. “‘Playing Indian’ and the Search for Authenticity in Modern White America.” Prospects: An Annual Review of American Cultural Studies 5 (1980): 17–33.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0361233300003100

    Examines the use of American Indian “lore” in the youth movements founded in the early 20th century, including Seton’s Woodcraft Indians, the Boy Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and the YMCA Indian Guides. The author offers a case study of the Koshare Indians, a troop of Boy Scouts in La Junta, Colorado. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Mechling, Jay. “The Collecting Self and American Youth Movements.” In Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America 1880–1920. Edited by Simon J. Bronner, 255–285. New York: Norton, 1989.

    The author shows how the consumption of goods became a key element in the programs of the organizations for youth founded in these years. Collecting things and even collecting badges for collecting things show up in the programs of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Girl Guides, and Camp Fire Girls.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.