The Boy Scout Handbook Through the Years

Each scout handbook since the original 1911 edition reflects its era, and the 1990 revision is today as sophisticated a guide as any to living the good, green life.

| September/October 1990

It is clear that our nation has never quite embraced the idealized image the Boy Scouts of America, who vow to be simultaneously trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Instead, we tend to feel more at home with a cynical vision of the khaki-clad, red-neckerchiefed lad—be he Tenderfoot or Eagle Scout—who every so often hacks away at one of the maples on Main Street with his official scout axe, leads his troopmates in cigarette-smoking…or worse.

Curiously, no one seems to know which of these images is closer to the truth. And for each of us non-scouts, our vision of the Boy Scouts of America typically depends on our own encounters with this largest of American youth groups—whether one of them has heroically saved us from fire or drowning (which they manage to do roughly 100 times a year), or whether a troop of them has utterly destroyed our backpacking trip into supposed solitude by swarming busily over the land like locusts.

But in search of the heart and soul of the American Boy Scout there is no surer place to begin than The Boy Scout Handbook, the organization's book of principles, pledges, crafts, knots and merit badges, all tied into one. For the handbook—which made its first appearance in 1911 and has been revised every decade or so, either by committee or by carefully chosen authors—sets not only the standards but the tone of what scouting is for a disparate collection of 46,790 scout troops and scoutmasters across the country. In the words of chief scout executive Ben Love, the handbook is the scout's "book of life."

Boy Scout Handbook Revisions

Predictably, each scout handbook reflects its era. The 1911 original, for example, contains only two single-page passages formally entitled Conservation. The first says, essentially, that trees and other natural resources are to be well-cared-for because they can be converted into Gross National Product; but the second "conservation" section consists of a stern, though highly euphemistic, lecture on a growing boy's need to conserve "the sex fluid,"whose unwarranted discharge comes at the cost of strength, health and character. Today, the newly revised, 1990 handbook, which most scout leaders feel is the best and most radical revision ever, includes several lengthy and sensitive sections on environmental conservation—with the message that nature has the right to exist for its own sake—and no mention whatsoever of the sex fluid.

The Boy Scouts, begun in Great Britain in 1907, three years before the group took hold in the United States, was founded by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, an army lieutenant-general and Boer War campaigner. The organization inevitably took on a military aura complete with salutes, uniforms, medals, flags, rankings and an excessive zeal and earnestness in its numerous codes of personal behavior—including the Scout Oath, the Scout Law, the Scout Motto and the Scout Slogan. These and other Boy Scout basics have persisted intact over the decades. But as reflected in the handbook, the organization has evolved in sophistication and world view. And the most visible of scout evolutions are those in the areas of camping and environmental sensitivity.

"We're seeing a real difference in the scouts in the past five or six or seven years," says Rod Replogle, environmental education coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service's southwestern region. "They're trying harder, and they're much more aware. 'No trace' and 'low-impact' have become buzzwords and, thank God, there's a turnaround. Now, if we can only get that message to hunters who insist on cutting poles to hang their elk on, and to parents who throw their Pampers all over…But yes, the handbooks have made a difference, and this new one is the best."

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