The History of the Eagle Scout Award

The Eagle Scout Award. It’s Scouting’s highest rank and among its most familiar icons. Men who have earned it count it among their most treasured possessions. Those who missed it by a whisker remember exactly which requirement they didn’t complete. Americans from all walks of life know that being an Eagle Scout is a great honor, even if they don’t know just what the badge means.

The award is more than a badge. It’s a state of being. You are an Eagle Scout—never were. You may have received the badge as a boy, but you earn it every day as a man. In the words of the Eagle Scout Promise, you do your best each day to make your training and example, your rank and your influence count strongly for better Scouting and for better citizenship in your troop, in your community, and in your contacts with other people. And to this you pledge your sacred honor.

 

The Genesis of the Eagle Scout Award

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Given the Eagle Scout rank’s prominence, it might be surprising that it had no place in the original Boy Scout advancement program. Scouting for Boys, Robert Baden-Powell’s 1908 Scout handbook, included just three classes of Scouts—Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class—along with the Wolf badge, which was “a reward for very special distinction.” This badge was so significant that no more than one would be granted each year.

The wolf seemed an appropriate symbol. In 1896, when Baden-Powell was fighting in what is now Zimbabwe, Matabele tribesmen nicknamed him Impeesa, meaning “the wolf that never sleeps.” Ernest Thompson Seton, whose Woodcraft Indians program helped inspire the creation of Scouting, called himself Black Wolf.

After the Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910, Seton created a proof edition of the American Handbook for Boys that combined material from Scouting for Boys and his own Birch-Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians. The handbook incorporated Baden-Powell’s advancement scheme—but with a twist.

The Silver Wolf Award would go to any First Class Scout who earned all 14 “badges of merit”: Ambulance, Clerk, Cyclist, Electrician, Fireman, Gardener, Horseman, Pioneer, Marksman, Master-at-Arms, Musician, Signaller, Seaman, and Stalker.

The Silver Wolf and the badges of merit were never produced. People who reviewed the proof handbook suggested that—founders’ nicknames notwithstanding—America’s national bird should grace Scouting’s highest award. The 1911 Handbook for Boys, the first publicly available edition, introduced the Eagle Scout Award, as well as two lesser awards: Life Scout and Star Scout.

At first, Life, Star, and Eagle were not considered ranks. Instead, they were special awards for earning merit badges—roughly equivalent to today’s Eagle Palms. The Life Scout badge went to First Class Scouts who earned five specific merit badges: First Aid, Athletics, Lifesaving, Personal Health, and Public Health. (Note how all five relate to life in some way.)

The Star Scout badge required another five elective merit badges. The Eagle Scout badge—which the handbook called “the highest scout merit badge”— required a total of 21 merit badges.

In 1911, Scouts had 57 merit badges to choose from. Like today, these badges covered basic Scouting skills (Camping, Cooking, Swimming), trades and careers (Business, Firemanship, Poultry Farming), science and nature (Chemistry, Conservation, Ornithology), and hobbies (Angling, Handicraft, Music). The Aviation merit badge demanded a working knowledge of “aeroplanes, balloons, and dirigibles.” Invention required the Scout to obtain a patent. The requirements for one badge, Scholarship, hadn’t been determined when the book went to press.

That wasn’t the only thing that hadn’t been determined at press time. Page 43 of the Handbook for Boys described the Eagle Scout badge as “an eagle’s head in silver,” but the same page showed a very different (and, to modern eyes, very unfamiliar) medal: an eagle in flight suspended from a broad, single-color ribbon.

The confusion over the Eagle badge’s design lingered into 1912. In fact, the first badge wasn’t produced until the first Scout had already earned it. That Scout, Arthur Rose Eldred, was a member of Troop 1 in Oceanside, New York, a troop his brother Hubert had founded in November 1910. The younger Eldred earned his 21st merit badge in April 1912 at the age of 16. All that remained was an appearance before a board of review (then called a court of honor).

Since there were no provisions for local reviews in those early days, Eldred was examined by perhaps the most exalted and intimidating board of review in Scouting history: Chief Scout Executive James E. West, Chief Scout Ernest Thompson Seton, National Scout Commissioner Daniel Carter Beard (another BSA founder), and Wilbert E. Longfellow of the U.S. Volunteer Life Saving Corps, who had written the Handbook’s sections on swimming and lifesaving.

Eldred survived his high-powered grilling. On August 21, 1912, West notified him that he was the BSA’s first Eagle Scout. However, he would have to wait until Labor Day to receive his badge because the dies for making the metal badge hadn’t been created yet.

Eldred’s Eagle medal, now on display at the National Scouting Museum, was rather crudely modeled, and the silver coating easily wore off the bronze scroll and pendant. Nevertheless, the medal had an impressive and dignified look that’s been retained, with only minor variations, for nearly 100 years.

 

Posted by i7MEDIA Support Monday, April 25, 2016 11:35:00 AM Categories: Eagle Scout History

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