Girl Scout cookies, arguably the most delicious American delight, represent an equally delightful history of feminism.
Just a few years after the Girl Scouts tradition launched, troops began selling cookies to finance their endeavor. In 1922 the official Scouts magazine, The American Girl, published a recipe. Girls baked their own wares, and sales followed the girls who baked the best cookies.
During the butter and sugar rationing that came with World War II, young women sold calendars instead of cookies to keep their troops alive. Thus began a tradition of entrepreneurship, rather than baking expertise. When the War ended, cookies returned. In 1948, 29 American bakeries provided cookies for Scouts to sell.
Every year Girl Scouts find new methods and venues for selling their cookies. In the 1950’s the rise of the suburbs meant that girls resorted to hawking cookies in malls rather than knocking on neighbors’ doors. Thus the evolution of Girl Scout traditions traces not only social evolution, but also changing cultural mores. Through learning subtle changes in social norms, Scouting prepares girls to become adults sensitive to what society expects and, indeed, what the neighbors will buy.
Similarly the 1970’s proved another decade full of lessons for young women. With the rise of government intervention came Scouts’ understanding of economic strategy. In the late 70’s the Scouts limited bakeries licensed to bake Girl Scout cookies to only four. The Scouts’ rationale for this business decision was to “ensure lower prices and uniform quality, packaging, and distribution.”
In the 1990’s the Girl Scouts again honed the business end of their enterprise, focusing even further on saleswomanship rather than niceties, by cutting the number of licensed distributors again, this time to only two. Cookie varieties swelled to eight, including new low-fat and sugar-free options to reflect the tastes of the times.
This year Girl Scouts responded to recession sensibilities by shrinking box sizes on three cookie varieties. In these tough economic times, the thinking goes, Americans hardly need the extra centimeter of cookie goodness Scouts permitted in a more expansive era.
Indeed, economics lessons are only part of the benefit to salesmanship through cookie lore: cookie sales also expose American Girls to marketing and a debate that would pass them by were it not for the Do-Si-Do culture. This year Girl Scouts discover the Internet Age and negotiation with the growing intervention of Big Scouts.
When Girl Scouts attempted to sell cookies via YouTube, Girl Scouts headquarters cracked the whip on internet sales, while permitting “marketing” online unrelated to individualized sales. On its website, Girl Scouts formally bans Internet sales because “[t]he safety of our girls is always our chief concern.” Also, “Girl Scout Cookie activities are designed to be face-to-face learning experiences for the girls.”
Headquarters preserves the notion that girls should have to approach and learn to get along with neighbors in order to sell cookies. Disparaging Internet interaction makes sense for a group responsible for the well-being of very young women, while protecting them from evolving mores can only last so long.
Girl Scout cookie sales have long traced social development and, indeed, provide a microcosmic illustration for evolving feminism itself. This year while enjoying your frozen Thin Mints — the undisputed Queen of cookies — thank the Girl Scouts for teaching young women about entrepreneurship and social grace. Most of all, thank goodness that the evolving sense of womanhood allows young ladies to learn both social skills and salesmanship, all while promoting an annual learning tradition American cookie monsters have grown to love.