Juliette Gordon Low, far left, poses in October 1925 with a troop that was awarded the “Founder’s Banner,” an annual prize for upholding the Girl Scout ideals.
Those without a merit badge in history may not know that the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA spent her youth far from campfires and cookie sales. Juliette Gordon Low, who created the scouts in 1912 at age 51, had a very different adolescence.
“She was a 19th-century debutante, born in Savannah, Ga., well-educated, well-traveled, married into a wealthy family,” says Claire Kelly, director of exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery, where the new show “Juliette Gordon Low & 100 Years of Girl Scouts” recently opened. “But she always wanted to do something more with her life.”
After ending an unhappy marriage in England in the early 1900s, Low met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the British Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. His work inspired Low to start her own, similar group back in the States, and she founded the Girl Guides of America with 18 members on March 12, 1912. Nearly a century later, her organization includes 3.2 million members.
The exhibit, arranged on one wall of the museum, contains artwork and memorabilia from the past century, including early photos and the original patent award certificate Low received for her trefoil design for membership pins (which is still used today). The exhibit’s centerpiece is an 1887 oil portrait of Low by English painter Edward Hughes. Posed in a cotton candy pink dress, Low appears every bit the high-society woman she was at age 27.
The Girl Scouts represented a “second life for Low,” Kelly says. “She wanted to give girls a path broader than the one she had.”
The gallery has also noted Low’s impact throughout its permanent collection, adding symbols to the labels of portraits of former Girl Scouts Hillary Rodham Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro and Ann Landers, among others.
“If you talked to these women, they would know who Juliette Gordon Low was,” says Kelly, who was also a Girl Scout. “[She] instilled values of honoring God and country, and helping people at all times. It becomes part of your character.”
National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F streets NW; through Jan. 6, 2013, free; 202-633-8300. (Gallery Place)