Learn about Girl Scout cookie history and the role that each box plays in helping girls develop life skills.
The Girl Scout Path to Empowerment Is Paved with Cookies
Selling cookies was, for me, one of the most fun and rewarding experiences in Girl Scouting. My “career” as a Girl Scout began when I was 11 years old, at my church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I started in Girl Scouts as a Junior and my involvement has continued into adulthood. The power of the Girl Scout Promise and Law live inside of me and has empowered me to pursue and achieve my goals and to be of service to others.
—Connie L. Lindsey
Former President, Girl Scouts of the USA (2008-2014)
Who doesn’t love Girl Scout cookies? Even that rare breed of man or woman born without a sweet tooth can’t say no to the breathless sales pitches of snaggletooth Brownies or the pleading eyes of Junior Scouts swathed in badges. Girl Scout cookies are as much of the American experience as hot dogs and baseball. As someone commented in an online blog, “If you don’t buy Girl Scout cookies—that’s un-American!”
While there are reported to be individuals who can resist small uniformed girls in khaki and green and the allure of Thin Mints, the majority of Americans cannot. We’re hooked on those little cookies. So much so that Girl Scout cookie business is big business—nearly 200 million boxes are sold every year. Priced at an average of $4.50 a box, the annual national gross sales of cookies is nearly $800 million. Cookie sales fund almost all of the educational programs and leadership activities for 112 regional Girl Scout councils and for 236,000+ individual troops and affiliated groups. And since Girl Scout cookies are only available for a few months every year, true fans put the cookie sales season on their foodie indulgence calendars along with Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
The idea to write about Girl Scout cookies came to me through a classroom writing exercise. The instructions were to figure out what kind of geek you were when you were growing up and write about it. It didn’t take me long to remember my geekiness— in the 60s and 70s when most kids my age were rebelling against the establishment, I was a Girl Scout. True, I was a stealth Scout—I didn’t wear my uniform to school—but I stayed active until my junior year of high school and probably would have gone on until the end if the other girls in my troop hadn’t dropped out. And while being a Scout didn’t necessarily make me popular, all of the kids in my school sought me out when it was time to buy Girl Scout cookies.
My love for Girl Scout cookies continued when I was a nineteen-year-old Girl Scout camp counselor. One day instead of the usual vanilla pudding or strawberry Jell-O, we were treated to a new kind of cookie for dessert—the Samoa. While I had indulged in classic Girl Scout cookies that you can never go wrong with—cool crisp Thin Mints and rich buttery Trefoils—the cookies of my youth were not nearly as scrumptious to me as this new variety. On top of the donut-shaped cookie was a thick layer of golden caramel and flaky coconut, topped with chocolate stripes. With each bite, the caramel stretched as it separated from the cookie base. The coconut provided a satisfying chewy sensation. The chocolate was rich and flavorful without overwhelming the other tastes. Under the trees of Camp May Flather, I’d found a passion that would outlast my love for disco and polyester bell bottoms. To have and to hold, from this day forward, forever and ever—let no man, woman, or child come between me and my Samoa cookies.
Earlier in my scouting days, my mother, who was also my Girl Scout leader, took on the added role of “Cookie Depot” Mom for a couple of years. The Cookie Depot was the place where the Cookie Moms from individual troops came to pick up their orders. With more than twenty troops in our area, our Cookie Depot was the site of a heck of a lot of cookies. For at least a few days every year, our family room was jam-packed with hundreds of cookie cartons. The cookies arrived by moving van and the guys who delivered them neatly stacked so many brown cardboard cartons up against the walls that our house looked like a cookie fortress. Inside of each carton were twelve boxes of peanut butter, vanilla shortbread, chocolate mint, or sandwich cookies. For that short while every year I lived in a cookie wonderland.
Selling cookies was nothing new to my mother, Gwendolyn Bacoats Johnson. In 1938, as a senior Girl Scout in Oklahoma, she sold shortbreads in one of the first national cookie drives. At that time, the significance of that sale was not something she thought about. Her source of pride centered on the fact that she had been chosen to be part of the first African American Girl Scout troop in Tulsa.
“Our leader, Miss Lithcott, the dean of women at George Washington Carver Junior High, had been selected to receive an official troop charter from the National Office,” my mother said. “You couldn’t be a real troop without a charter. Then she handpicked the girls that she wanted in Scouts. That was back in about 1936. Girl Scouts were ahead of the rest of the country when it came to including everyone.”
The railroad tracks that divided north from south Tulsa also marked the line of segregation in the city. Black residents lived in the north and white residents lived in the southern part of the city. And the two did not mix or interact. Ever. That unspoken rule had been agreed upon back in 1921 when Tulsa experienced what many historians call the worst race riot of the twentieth century. Before the race riot, Tulsa was already segregated but without the undercurrent of animosity that existed afterward. So the girls in my mother’s troop sold as many cookies as they could on their side of tracks.
In 1938, talking anyone into buying cookies wasn’t easy—it was at the end of the Great Depression. “We wrote down our orders in a book, so people had to order their cookies in advance,” my mother recalls. “Then, a month or so later, we went back to deliver them. Sometimes when we went back to deliver the cookies, people would say, ‘Sorry, I can’t afford them anymore.’ I guess my mother bought all of the cookies that I couldn’t sell. I was lucky that we had the money to buy them. Those were hard times.”
Selling cookies not only allowed my mother to help raise funds for her troop’s activities, but it also gave her a better sense of the world that she otherwise wouldn’t have known. The personal growth she experienced and the ability to empathize and recognize inequities is as much of what scouting is about now as it was when my mother was a Girl Scout and when Juliette Gordon Low founded the organization in 1912.
Juliette Low, or Daisy, as Girl Scouts remember her, was a visionary who appreciated and advocated for women to stretch themselves far beyond the limited roles they were assigned in the early twentieth century. By the time women finally got the right to vote in 1920, Low’s Girl Scouts were ready for almost any challenge. The first Girl Scout Handbook gave girls concrete information about a then taboo subject, menstruation, explained Morse Code, offered recipes for beef stew, and gave instructions on how to identify mad dogs and poisonous snakes. Low’s American girls were smart and prepared, then and now. Girl Scout Founders Day is celebrated on October 31, Low’s birthday. Halloween also happens to be my birthday. While I think I would have chosen to write about this subject without our sharing a birthday, it is one more connection that I feel with Girl Scouts.
Whenever I read a book, I wonder what made the author choose to write about that subject. After all, it takes years to complete researching and writing a book. So to maintain the quality of the story and the interest of the readers, the author must feel passion for the subject matter. When I first chose to write a social/cultural history of Girl Scout cookies and their iconic value, I thought I would simply write about the cookies. Without a doubt, I felt passionate about Samoas.
A bit into the writing process, after getting to know some junior high and high school age Girl Scouts and by trying to remember my own adolescence, I realized that the story I wanted to tell had more depth than the cookies themselves. Then it came to me why cookies and scouting meant so much to me. Besides helping me to sharpen fundamental leadership skills, scouting also provided support for me at a critical time. When I was fifteen, after a long illness, my father died. Looking back, I realize that Girl Scouts and its traditions provided me with an emotional anchor at a time when both my family and school life were dizzying. So my Thin Mint Memories are about more than cookie sales. Many of these memories are an appreciative nod to the ways that Girl Scouts touched and formed me.
The first three chapters of this book are meant to relay historical information. Then I present the council-level view. Chapter 6-10 allow the reader to experience the girl/troop perspective, and finally the last two chapters have a national focus. While every sales season brings new challenges and rewards to troops in the many Girl Scout councils, I hope that the universal events presented here will provide more understanding to those who have never experienced selling Girl Scout cookies and bring a sense of recognition to those who have.
Selling cookies was one of the ways I learned the importance of financial discipline. While it was not evident then, I was developing leadership skills and financial acumen every time I delivered a box of cookies to a satisfied customer. I learned the importance of goal setting and the power of persuasion and public speaking. Today, the Girl Scout cookie program is the largest girl-led business in the country—to a tune of [nearly $800 million a year in revenue for our girls and communities nationwide. I’m proud to have been—and still be—a part of this wonderful program. We teach our girls the merits of financial literacy—millions of girls now learn their economic ABCs in Girl Scouts: setting goals, budgeting, and saving. Furthermore, no university has produced as many female business owners as has the Girl Scout cookie program!
—Connie L. Lindsey
“Every cookie has a mission.” So began a public service announcement on YouTube that was created a few years ago for the Girl Scout cookie program. The video explains how selling cookies is more than a money-making venture for the girls. Using animated cookies, the video furthers its message this way: “This cookie helps train girls in CPR. This cookie cheers up our soldiers around the world. This cookie teaches girls how to set goals and manage money. Every cookie has a mission!”
When I thought about the major themes of this work, a mental image came to mind. It was similar to the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz, but this path was made out of Girl Scout cookies—Thin Mints, Samoas, Do-Si-Dos, Trefoils—all of the favorites. Skipping down that path was the long green line of Girl Scouts through the ages. Those girls, past and present, were guided by “cookies on a mission” toward life skills for empowerment—blended with friendship and fun—for them all.