Even people who enjoy cooking don’t usually like going to the grocery store. Parking is a mess, the lines are long, and the spices are never in the aisle you think they are.
There’s one thing, however, that can improve the whole experience: a Girl Scout troop next to the entrance, hawking cookies from behind a folding table.
Broccoli rabe or mustard greens? Forgotten. These uniformed angels are here with their Thin Mints and Samoas, their Tagalongs and Do-Si-Dos, and you’re not leaving without two or seven boxes.
Even if you’ve never been a Girl Scout or known one, you likely know that midwinter is cookie season. This is the genius of the Girl Scouts in action.
They’ve so effectively cornered that market that millions of cookie fiends instinctively know when it’s time to start asking around the office if anybody’s daughter is raising money for her troop. (It also doesn’t hurt that the cookies arrive in the unequivocal worst part of the year, when even the most optimistic people are clutching their SAD lamps for dear life.)
So, how did an organization founded more than a century ago, dedicated to teaching girls simple, practical skills, turn into the branded behemoth it is today?
It’s the story of a woman with a mission, America’s unending desire for sweets, and an impressive ability to adapt with changing tastes and times.
The Origin Story
Juliette Gordon Low, known to friends as Daisy, organized the first meeting of the Girl Scouts in 1912 in Savannah, Georgia, although they were initially called the Girl Guides. Low was born to an old Southern family in Savannah, but she later moved to Europe with her husband.
During one stay in England, she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of that other scouting organization—the Boy Scouts. Low was so impressed by the organization’s tenets—being prepared while having fun—that she decided to found her own scouting group upon her return to America.
The Girl Guides began as an offshoot of the Boy Scouts founded by Baden-Powell’s wife, but when Low brought the organization back to Georgia, it wasn’t the only game in town.
A similar group called the Camp Fire Girls had started in Vermont in 1910, and an Iowa woman named Clara Lisetor-Lane had founded the Girl Scouts of America that same year.
The two groups attempted a merger the year before Low started her Girl Guides, but the deal fell apart due to competing interests.
This is where Low succeeded where the other groups did not. She also tried to merge the Camp Fire Girls and the original Girl Scouts of America with her group, but they both rejected her. It didn’t matter, however, because she had social resources aplenty to grow her group without their help.
Within just over a decade, Low’s group, renamed the Girl Scouts in 1913, had more than 100,000 members. Lisetor-Lane’s faction, meanwhile, eventually died out.
When Low founded her original Girl Guide group, women in the United States didn’t even have the right to vote. But this environment is one of the reasons the organization became so popular so quickly. It gave girls an outlet for all the skills they couldn’t yet use at home or in the workplace.
Oftentimes, the Girl Scouts’ activities foretold societal shifts before they actually happened. Low incorporated the badge-earning process from the very beginning, and they often taught members lessons on independence that they might not have learned in school.
The early Civics badge, for example, taught girls about how the American government functions. When the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, the achievement was renamed the “Citizen” badge.
This ability to sense cultural changes continued well after Low’s death in 1927. During World War II, Girl Scouts grew victory gardens, sold defense bonds, and collected scrap metal to help the war effort.
Beginning in 1934, girls interested in nautical education could join the offshoot Mariner Scouts. And, in 1941, the Wing Scouts began offering aviation lessons for members who wanted to learn to fly.
Girl Scouts also didn’t shy away from participating in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Some troops actively worked for integration in their ranks, with no less than Martin Luther King Jr. calling the group a “force for desegregation” in 1956.
This put the organization on the right side of history, of course, but it was also a canny marketing move—the youth of America were supporting progressive causes, and the Girl Scouts had to appeal to the youth to survive.
Images via Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock, Anthony Camerano/AP/Shutterstock, Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, Barry Thumma/AP/Shutterstock, Leonard Mccombe/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock, and Robert W Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.
You can’t talk about the Girl Scouts without talking about the cookies, which date back much farther than you might think. Cookie sales first began in 1917, just five years after Low started her Savannah branch of the Girl Guides, but the operation was decidedly more low-tech than it is now.
Originally, girls baked the cookies themselves with moms volunteering as guides, with the proceeds going to fund troop activities like camping trips and supply purchases.
Within a decade, however, things had already started to advance. In the 1920s, cookies were wrapped in wax paper bags affixed with a Girl Scouts sticker to let buyers know exactly where they came from.
And, in the 1930s, the Philadelphia council broke a new marketing barrier by selling the desserts in the windows of the city’s gas and electric companies.
In 1935, the New York federation took things even further, hiring commercial bakers to make the cookies and stamping the words “Girl Scout Cookies” on the box. They also purchased a die in the shape of the organization’s trefoil logo, meaning even the cookies’ shapes were a reminder of who sold them. If the wax paper stickers were a wink, then these boxes were a full-on shove.
Since then, the only time Girl Scouts haven’t sold cookies was during World War II, when sugar and other ingredients were being rationed. Ever prepared, they just pivoted to selling calendars instead.
Girl Scout membership has declined in recent years, but cookie sales have not—especially since the 2014 advent of the Digital Cookie platform, which allows customers to order cookies online from their favorite scouts (and teach girls how to use the internet in the process).
Members sell about 200 million boxes of cookies every year, for a total of $800 million. Oreos, by comparison, sold $675 million worth of cookies in 2018, according to Fortune.
One food analyst has described the annual cookie sale as “a force of nature at the national level” and a “storm” that other food companies just have to weather.
A Willingness to Evolve
As times have changed, so too have the Girl Scouts. Every year, some enterprising troop in a legal-weed state makes headlines for setting up the cookie shop outside of a dispensary, but the organization has also taken more serious steps toward inclusion and diversity.
The Girl Scout Promise included a line about serving God for decades, but starting in 1993, girls could swap in Allah or phrases like “my faith” that better reflected their beliefs.
On the badge side of things, the Girl Scouts have made a big push toward STEM, offering twenty-four new science and technology badges in 2020 alone.
The group has also partnered with NASA, and companies including Lockheed Martin and AT&T, to encourage member interest in a field that remains stubbornly male-dominated.
Fashionable troop leaders, meanwhile, can buy Girl Scout–themed merch produced in collaboration with Diane Von Furstenberg, while younger scouts can dress up their Build-a-Bear stuffies in tiny replicas of their uniforms.
These last two things don’t benefit the troops quite the same way that the cookie sales do, but the end result is the same—a brand awareness that’s unrivaled by anyone.
Eat your heart out, Boy Scouts.