Juliette Gordon Low

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Do you recognize that name? If you’ve ever enjoyed a Thin Mint, Samoa, Do-Si-Do, or Shortbread cookie, you probably should!

Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon was born in Savannah, GA on October 31, 1860, into a well-to-do, prominent family on both sides of her lineage. Her parents married in 1857 and in 1860, welcomed their second daughter, Juliette, always known as Daisy.  Daisy may have been born into a world of privilege, but her timing was less fortunate. A mere week after her birth, Abraham Lincoln was elected U.S. president, an inflammatory event, in Southern eyes, that contributed to the April 1861 firing on Ft. Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War. “Daisy had family fighting on both sides of the war. Daisy’s father William Washington Gordon II served as a lieutenant for the Confederacy while her mother’s side of the family fought for the United States.” This could easily have proved disastrous for family unity, were it not for her mother, Nellie’s, attitude. She freely admitted her northern kinship and kept in touch with her Illinois kin, often traveling to visit, but also helped other Savannah women pack boxes of necessities for Confederate soldiers. “While Nellie always used “we” to refer to the Confederacy, her loyalties lay less with the South or the North than with her husband and family” (Cordery, p. 9).

Oil portrait of Daisy Low by Edward Hughes, 1887. Source: https://bit.ly/2O3lbBd

Oil portrait of Daisy Low by Edward Hughes, 1887. Source: https://bit.ly/2O3lbBd

The family stayed in Savannah during the war and, while they did suffer privation, managed to “hang tough.” In 1864, Sherman began his famous March to the Sea; Savannah surrendered in mid-December. Nellie, who had promised her husband not to leave, stayed until she was forced to go. In the interim she opened her house and offered hospitality to General Sherman, a man her family had long known.  On the other hand, she refused to take the oath of loyalty to the Union.  In March 1865, Nellie and her family traveled to Illinois, with escorts provided by Sherman—but only after she had demanded and been granted a Sherman-arranged rendezvous with her husband!

With the war finally over, the Gordon family slowly recovered its fortunes and life went on as per usual for a family of its stature. In 1886, Daisy married William Mackay Low, a Savannah native who lived in England, and they moved to the continent to lead an aristocratic life. “Her parents did not approve of William Low. Daisy’s father had always wanted his daughters to marry a man who was accustomed to hard work and not dependent on family wealth. William Low’s father was a trusted business partner of William Washington Gordon II, however, and so he could not outright refuse the match.” Daisy had been raised in a family that valued industriousness and making a difference in society, where loyalty and honor were important.  Her parents were in love and devoted to each other. A bit naïve, she soon found herself in a society that did not share her mores. Her husband associated with the Prince of Wales, a notorious dilettante. He and his crowd had prodigious appetites—they drank to excess, they gambled, they had mistresses—anything to stave off the dreaded boredom. “High society “did not like brains” and only understood how to spend, not make, money.  [They] considered the heads of historic houses who read serious works, encouraged scientists and the like very, very dull” (Cordery, p. 141).

The Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 and Daisy’s father was appointed by President McKinley as brigadier general of the Second Brigade, Second Division, Seventh Army Corps, USV. Daisy came home to stay with her mother, but the family soon ended up in Camp Miami, FL. It was known as “Camp Hell” for the deplorable conditions, and the Gordon’s and their daughter jumped head-first into caring for the soldiers, even spending their own money to open a convalescent hospital and purchase supplies.  As horrific and miserable as the situation was, Daisy had purpose in her life, and her self-confidence began to revive. Upon her return to England, she found she was no longer able to countenance her husband’s infidelity and began divorce proceedings. Proceedings were still under way when Low died in 1905.

Daisy found herself at loose ends and felt she was a failure. She was 45 years old, widowed, with no children. In the times in which she lived, childlessness reflected very poorly on a woman, who was not considered to have fulfilled her proper social role in providing an heir. In 1911, she found her calling in a chance meeting with Sir Robert Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell was a British war hero—a creative and brilliant man with an insatiable curiosity who authored several books about reconnaissance and scouting.  Returning home to England after the Boer War, he was amazed to see “that all across England, boys were emulating him by adapting information from his books.  They wore homemade uniforms and played tracking games.  Some groups of boys named themselves in his honor …” (Cordery, p. 185)  Baden-Powell, who had long been concerned that British youth were ill-prepared to face an emergency, jumped on his own bandwagon, as it were, and began to promote and refine the nascent organization. By the time Daisy met him in 1911, Baden-Powell had resigned from the army to devote himself full time to what became his greatest achievement—Boy Scouting.  Girls wanted to join, and soon Girl Guides was born.

Daisy was enchanted with the practicalities as well as the fun the organization provided, plus it gave her a sense of purpose again. She was living in Scotland at the time and started a Girl Guides group there.  These girls “were from very poor families and expected to leave home at a very young age to begin earning money.  Daisy taught the girls to raise poultry and spin yarn so that they could earn money for their families without leaving home.  In just a few months, Daisy had made a difference” (Hent, p. 48).  She was eager to bring Girls Guides to America, and in March 1912 she returned to Savannah. “Upon returning to Savannah, Juliette made her now famous call to the future Girl Scout commissioner of Savannah Miss Nina Pape.  In the call Juliette exclaimed “Come right over. I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it to-night.”  On March 12, 1912 Juliette Gordon Low registered eighteen girls into the United States first troop of Girl Guides. After establishing the first troop in Savannah, Juliette left them in the capable hands of her cousin Miss Pape.  Juliette traveled between England and the United States spreading the word about the Girl Guides and calling upon all the friends she had made as a young woman to grow the movement. In 1913, the Girl Guides in the United States officially changed their name to the Girl Scouts.

2. Girl Scouts

Photograph of Girls School Troop 1. From the Ann Mintz collection of Girl Scouts Troup 1 records, MS 2351, Georgia Historical Society. Source: https://bit.ly/2RZTVof

With the Girls Scouts now established, let’s take a brief step back to look at what might be a little-known fact about Daisy and how it demonstrates her character. Upon arrival in Chicago after evacuation from Savannah, the Gordon’s were thin and malnourished, and Daisy, unable to fight off infection, succumbed to what was called brain fever. It’s unclear exactly what this malady was—possibly encephalitis, meningitis, or another dire illness. Despite fears for her life, she eventually rallied and recovered, but the illness left her with chronic ear infections and excruciating earaches. In 1885, in the throes of an earache, she visited a doctor who treated it with silver nitrate, which caused her “tremendous agony and set in motion a series of complications from which she would never fully recover.  By the time the soreness finally subsided, Daisy Gordon’s hearing was significantly impaired” (Cordery, p. 92). Silver nitrate had been used to treat ear infections, but it is extremely caustic and must be used with great care. It’s not clear if the physician used too much silver nitrate or if this was an unfortunate occurrence.  Eventually the perforated eardrum did heal and some hearing returned. As if to add insult to injury, in 1886, as Daisy and her new husband embarked on their honeymoon, a piece of rice thrown by guests managed to lodge itself in her good ear. After returning from her honeymoon with a painful ear infection underway, her husband took her to a doctor in Atlanta. He removed the grain of rice, but in the process her eardrum was punctured, causing her to lose all hearing in that ear.

Deafness was not uncommon in Victorian times, due to infectious diseases and loud noises compounded by a lack of treatment options and lack of medical knowledge about the inner workings of the ear.  Daisy learned to cope.  Because she was not born deaf and thus had known what it was to hear, she became a skilled lipreader.  Her own speech was unimpaired to the extent that her hearing challenges weren’t always obvious.  And if she did misunderstand and thus respond inappropriately? Well, her social status protected her. “Eccentricities among elites were accepted among peers and across class lines. Daisy’s hearing loss might have exacerbated what companions—especially family who knew her before she lost her hearing—called her “craziness,” but her circle of friends tolerated irregular behavior” (Cordery, p. 108). Indeed, she learned to use her deafness to her advantage—when receiving a rejection of her request for volunteering with or donating to Girls Scouts, she simply pretended not to understand!

3. Juliette Gordon Low

Juliette Gordon Low, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2RFa4kh

Back to the beginnings of Girl Scouting in America in Savannah—”The first Girl Scouts got to know Daisy personally, and they thought of her as a quirky, funny fairy godmother type of person who would stand on her head at meetings and tell spooky stories around the campfire. Daisy liked to ask the girls what they thought and what they wanted to do, rather than telling them. From the beginning, Daisy wanted the Girl Scouts to be inclusive, meaning that it would be open to girls of any race, background or financial situation. The girls would be encouraged to be independent, to make their own choices and to develop their talents and skills. They would also be challenged to learn new things. Daisy thought it was important for the girls to spend time outdoors, so camping, swimming and playing sports such as basketball were early activities.

Daisy continued to travel between England and America, promoting Girl Scouting.  In 1914, World War I broke out, and she and her sister volunteered with the Belgian Red Cross.  America maintained its neutral stance for several more years until President Woodrow Wilson’s hand was forced in 1917 and he declared war. Almost immediately, Girls Scouts offered to help with the war effort. “The Girl Scout movement seemed to blossom overnight in response to the United States’ entry into the war. Girls all over the country tended to victory gardens, volunteered as ambulance drivers for the Red Cross, relieved overworked nurses during the Spanish Influenza epidemic, sold war bonds, and gathered units at Red Cross sewing rooms. Suddenly, girls were putting to use the skills they learned to use in the pursuit of badges. Important figures began to recognize the girls’ hard work. Future President and then Secretary of the U.S. Food Administration Herbert Hoover wrote to Juliette Gordon Low on two separate occasions to thank the Girl Scouts for their great work in food conservation. Mrs. Woodrow Wilson accepted the title of honorary president of the Girl Scouts as would all future first ladies including Michelle Obama.

4. Gordon Family Papers

From the Gordon Family papers, MS 318, Georgia Historical Society. Source: https://bit.ly/38M8JO6

For the rest of her life, Daisy worked tirelessly to promote the Girls Scouts, both in this country and internationally. “After the war ended in 1918, Low returned to England to continue her work with the Girl Guides and to revive their connection with the American Girl Scouts. Olave Baden-Powell spearheaded an International Council of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in 1919. Low was in London at that time and acted as the American representative on the Council. Its aim was to expand the work of the girls’ organizations throughout the world. During the 1920s, this International Council of Girl Guides created troops in many parts of the globe, including South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and China.  For her extensive and continued work for the Girl Guides, Low was awarded the organization’s Silver Fish by Olave Baden-Powell in 1919, its highest honor. Low is one of the few Americans to have received this award. The following year, Low stepped down as President of the Girl Scouts of America and focused more of her attention on promoting the organization internationally. The organization established Low’s birthday, October 31, as Girl Scouts’ Founder’s Day in 1920.”  At the time Low stepped down from the presidency and became known as Founder, there were 70,000 Girls Scouts; in the next seven years, that figured more than doubled to 168,000.

Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon Low died January 17, 1927 after a long and private struggle with breast cancer. From a sickly child who suffered through the Civil War, a madcap girl who loved to stand on her head, a childless woman who was a failure, in her eyes, as a wife, and a deaf individual in a time when disabilities were stigmatizing, Daisy persevered to become a beloved figure and founder of a movement that far outlived her.  As of 2018, there were 2.6 million Girls Scouts in the U.S. alone, with over 50 million alums. Every time you enjoy a Girl Scout cookie, sales of which began in 1917, her legacy continues.

In 2019, UASC received a collection of materials from the Girls Scouts of Southwestern Indiana, a regional council serving 11 counties.  This collection includes uniforms, cookie tins, dolls, toys, badges, photographs, and scrapbooks, dating as far back as 1923.  This collection is here on a temporary basis—at such time as Girls Scouts of Southwestern Indiana settles into its new location, it will make a decision about reclaiming the items or making the donation permanent. Here are a couple of the more interesting items from this collection.

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Resources Consulted

About Daisy.  Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace.

Cordery, Stacy A.  Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts.  New York: Viking, 2012.   HS3268.2.L68 C67 2012

Gambino, Megan. The Very First Troop Leader.  Smithsonian.com  March 7, 2012.

Juliette Gordon Low.  Georgia Historical Society website.

Juliette Gordon Low.  Girl Scouts of the United States website.

Kent, Deborah.  Extraordinary People with Disabilities.  New York: Children’s Press, 1996.  HV1552.3 .K45 1996

Kleiber, Shannon Henry.  Juliette Gordon Low, who had no children of her own, started Girl Scouts in 1912.   Washington Post online, March 9, 2012.

Spring, Kelly A.  Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927)  National Women’s History Museum online, 2017.

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