Scouting for Clues

The Boy Scouts of America has been in the news over the last week or so because of President Trump’s speech at the organization’s Jamboree in West Virginia; a speech he began by asking “who the hell wants to speak about politics … in front of the Boy Scouts?”[1]and continued by doing just that. As the Boy Scouts noted in their statements following the event, it has long been the organization’s tradition to invite the President to speak at the Jamboree, and, whether in person, through a surrogate, or by video, Presidents who have been in office at the time of the 4-yearly event have addressed Scouts.[2] 

In this sense, Trump was indeed continuing a long tradition, but the content of his address represented sharp departure from the norms of presidential speeches at the event. However, the speech, its ramifications, and the reactions it engendered among scouts – which included considerable anger from parents and troop leaders, a statement, and later a fuller apology, by the Boy Scouts of America, which was itself (somewhat bizarrely) followed by a statement refuting Trump’s claim that the organization had called him by phone to praise the speech[3] – have been covered in some depth by all branches of the media,[4] as well as by other political figures. 

Some commentators have called into question the claim by the Scouts organization that it is “apolitical,” and this is certainly a valid question to ask; given the Scouts’ history. Robert Baden-Powell, who is credited with founding the Scouting Movement, hoped the movement would advance British imperial interests, and project the kind of quasi-militaristic masculinity associated with it. Its military origins have persisted, as exemplified by the uniforms worn by Scouts, and may also be linked to the organization’s reticence to address LGBT and racial issues among boys, and the fact that merit badges reward Scouts for behavior befitting ideal citizens.

However, in this article I don’t wish to address the usual political debates around the Scouts, but instead focus on one of my favorite early Cold War artifacts, the August, 1957 edition of the scouting magazine, Boys’ Life, which addressed nuclear play, and tied in with the magazine’s broader encouragement of boys to embrace nuclear technology, ultimately codified in the introduction, in 1963, of a Nuclear Energy merit badge. Although the nuclear themes are of huge interest to me, that’s not what I’m writing about today.  Instead, I’ll focus on representation in the magazine and how that ties it, its contents, its producers and its readers into political narratives. 

This particular magazine edition is a favorite primarily because the cover features a wonderful image, depicting two scouts prospecting for uranium, with a Geiger counter. In the earth below them is a pair of gophers holding a wristwatch with radioluminescent dial features. Watches like this were painted with radium or tritium, and would have set off the Geiger counter.
boys life aug 1957

Inside the magazine, there is a wide variety of features, many of which aim to educate boys in outdoor pursuits; boys are taught swimming strokes, swimming rescue techniques, canoe games, wrestling moves, solar and other outdoor cookery, how to make fishing lures, how to differentiate frogs and toads, and how to organize a scouting excursion. These instructions are interspersed with cartoon strips, some of which are fun (Pee Wee Harris,) while others are instructional (Lives of Great Men,) or religious (Abraham and Lot,) and with exciting stories of boys’ escapades (A Lens for Trouble.) Among these features, there is a wealth of advertisements for products as diverse as Pepsi-Cola, the Red Wing Shoe Company, toy guns, and (perhaps strangely to twenty-first century eyes) pocket-money making schemes (notably greetings cards sales kits.)

Of the stories, one in particular stands out, because it directly reflects the cover image. The story, Boy on a Uranium Hunt, is about a 12-year old boy whose dad takes him adventuring in the Colorado Plateau, Utah, for an entire summer. The article is representative of the idealized form of masculinity expected and encouraged in Scouts, partly because it describes the pair doing outdoorsy and manly activities: rock climbing, fishing, killing wild animals to be cooked over a campfire, and so on. However, it also reinforces the very masculine ethos of the magazine, not least because (apart from an observational reference to female lions in the wild) it contains only one female character: the boy’s cocker spaniel, Shadow. Although Shadow has a starring role, her big turn is falling off a cliff, being presumed dead, and getting heroically rescued by the boy’s dad two days later.

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 18.37.50.png

This attitude to women is fairly prominent throughout boys’ toys and artifacts in the 1950s, with early 1950s bubblegum cards being exemplary: Bowman’s 1951 set, Jets, Rockets, Spacemen, contained 208 cards, not a single one of which featured a woman, while their Fight the Red Menace set only featured women insofar as they were objects of Communist terror, to be rescued by benevolent Americans.

The boy in the 1957 Boys’ Life story — like all the boys in the issue — is drawn as white, his dad is able to take the entire summer off to go camping with no financial repercussions, and activities and lessons described in the magazine all assume boys will have access to lakes, swimming pools, forests, and other open spaces.

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 18.40.35.png

From these features we can surmise that the target audience of the magazine (both real and imagined) was white. In the 1950s, redlining, GI Bill housing restrictions, and other practices excluded people of color from property ownership in the burgeoning new suburbs, widening a divide between urban, city environments, which were regarded as run down, dirty, and vice-and-poverty-ridden, and stereotypically associated with black and other minority groups, as against idyllic suburban or rural environments, populated by clean-living, affluent — and white — nuclear families.[5]

Therefore, despite the (purported) apolitical nature of Boy Scouts of America as an entity in itself, it is, in fact, impossible to extricate it from politics at a wider scale. Organizations like the Scouts may espouse no overt, partisan political views (which is probably as it should be, these organizations should not be in the business of overt indoctrination,) but they are inherently political enterprises. They — perhaps unintentionally, but inevitably — reflect the societal norms and structures within which they are embedded. Therefore, when we critique the organization for allowing Trump’s inflammatory speech to go ahead, and for being slow to respond to concerns expressed by members and parents after the Jamboree, it is vital to remember that politics are always involved. Organizations like this, and those of us who consider how a speech like Trump’s may have affected the boys within it, must be able to differentiate between the overt party politics with which most of us are very familiar, and the political backdrop within which we are all enmeshed.

This entails always questioning the things we take for granted, which are perhaps the most insidious precisely because we do: the omission of women and people of color from boys’ artifacts in the 1950s did not occur in a vacuum, it reflected wider ideas about the roles of women — who should prioritize taking care of offspring, like the lioness, or be helpless damsels, like Shadow, and about people of color — whose erasure from these artfiacts, reflects their marginalization in wider society.

I have a hard copy of the Boys’ Life issue, but it is in rather poor shape, so I have used images from the internet in this post. The entire issue is available to read at
[1] The White House Office of the Press Secretary. “Remarks by President Trump at 2017 National Scout Jamboree.” news release, July 24, 2017.
[2] Wendell, Bryan. “A Complete History of Presidential Visits at National Jamborees.” Scouting Magazine: Boy Scouts of America. July 21, 2017.
[3] Crary, David. “Boy Scouts Deny Trump’s Claim That Top Leader Called Him to Praise Speech.” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 2017.
[4] For instance, Mettler, Katie, and Derek Hawkins. “Trump’s Boy Scouts Speech Broke with 80 Years of Presidential Tradition.” The Washington Post, July 25, 2017.
Horsey, David. “Trump Subjects Boy Scouts to a Political Rant That Demeans the Presidency.” LA Times, July 26, 2017.
[5] A large number of scholars have written about the racial discrimination inherent in early suburban development. A particularly useful text is architectural historian Dianne Harris’ book, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2013.


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