Review of “Selling America: The Boy Scouts of America in the Progressive Era, 1910-1921”

University of Maine graduate student John Phillips wrote this examination of B.S.A. Inc.’s history of self-conscious commercialism at its founding, which corresponded with the Progressive Era.  He brings many facts, trends and anecdotes to B.S.A.’s self-induced implosion, the result of abandoning the very middle-class values it championed from the start.

Download it here and read the whole thing:

Phillips, John, “Selling America: The Boy Scouts of America in the Progressive Era, 1910-1921” (2001). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 205.


Created in 1910 during the Progressive Era the Boy Scouts of America was a civic reform, middle-class, professional organization intent on building the characters of America’s juvenile boys, believing that America’s transformation from a rural and small town culture to an ban society had removed some of the traditional character building opportunities from the boy’s normal daily routine. The BSA was mass-oriented and commercial in nature, utilizing a sophisticated advertising program through which it sold itself as the nation’s premiere patriotic character building organization and communicated a nationalistic political mythology. The BSA’s emphasis on advertising, not just as a method of promotion but as an important segment of scout training, as well as the interest the business community took in the BSA, combined to give the organization a commercial makeup. This paper will show that the BSA was a commercial effort created to deal with the problems of twentieth-century urbanization.


This paper has examined the BSA as a commercial Progressive Era character building agency designed to counter the ill effects of urbanization, which itself was a symptom of the corporate capitalist restructuring of America’s economy and culture.

The BSA’s program was one of many Progressive Era reform efforts that sought to allay some of the discontent brought on by corporate capitalism. The BSA was a modem civic reform organization, middle-class and professional. The agency utilized scientific management and aimed its message at a mass audience with the intention of creating a
national community of boys. The BSA was officially non-partisan yet embraced conservative politics. In this vein, the BSA favored Americanization and communicated a propagandistic political mythology to its scouts and scouters. Conceived with a pacifist orientation, the BSA, after a brief expression of anti-war protest, quickly switched to a position of support for the Wilson Administration. As a way to take its middle-class message into the working-class, the BSA developed an ambiguous relationship with the A.F. L. wherein the labor organization sometimes spoke highly of the BSA but never gave up its official position that labor should be wary of the BSA for its potential to promote militarism and work against strikes. The BSA was effective at its work, forging a large and complex national organization and demonstrating its skill at uniting public and private institutions into coalitions working for a common cause, as was demonstrated by Children’s Book Week.

The BSA was in large measure one part of a larger national corporate advertising campaign designed to adjust and train Americans to live in the new, corporate-capitalist, twentieth-century, urbanized United States. BSA leaders admired corporations and their ways of doing business. In the June 15, 1916 Scouting Milton A. McRae, BSA Vice President, McRae pointed out that America “has proven through several dissimilar institutions the wonderfbl and effective power of organization.” He named Standard Oil as a corporate paradigm “primarily . . . because of its scientific organization” but neglected to mention Standard Oil’s predatory way of doing business. McCrae declared “Tammany, the most powerfd political organization we have . . . because of its splendid organizatioq” ignoring this political machine’s corruption. By 191 6 progressive
reformers had publicly exposed both Standard Oil and Tammany as vicious and venal.

Despite the BSA’s high profile role as an agency of morality, a leading BSA executive seemed to eliminate morality from his definition of organizational efficiency. McCrae redeemed himself somewhat when he also cited the YMCA and the Roman Catholic Church as two other good examples of organizational structure.’ The BSA was willing
to ignore questionable business practices in its support for American business institutions. In its use of commercial techniques for managing the organization, the BSA ended up selling a character building product that had commerce as its essential moral value.

Author: Renegade Scouter

Boy Scouting is for boys -- Help Renegade Patrol save BSA from itself. Do it for your sons. Do it for your daughters. America needs you. Answer the call to duty.

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