Birthplace of Juliette Low

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Leah Blair as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2017.

The Birthplace of Juliette Low historical marker was dedicated in 1955. View the Birthplace of Juliette Low historical marker listing.

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1. Juliette Gordon, Painting by Edward Hughes, 1880, Courtesy of Leah Blair

2. Juliette Gordon Low Wedding, Foltz Photography Studio, 1886, Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

3. Robert Baden-Powell, Gordon Family papers, 1911, Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

4. Girl Pioneers, New York Times, 1911, Courtesy of the New York Times.

5. Campfire Girls, New York Times, 1912, Courtesy of the New York Times.

6. Lisetor-Lane Accusation, New York Times, 1924, Courtesy of the New York Times.

7. Juliette Gordon Low stamp, 1948, Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

8. Re-imagined Library in the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, 2017, Courtesy of Leah Blair.

9. Daisy’s artwork, on display at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, Courtesy of Leah Blair.

10. Historical Marker, Savannah, GA, 2017, Courtesy of Leah Blair.

The following essay is by SCAD student Leah Blair, 2017.

Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon was born in Savannah, GA on October 31, 1860 to William Washington Gordon II and Elanore Kinzie Gordon, both members of prominent families. They had six children in total and gave them every advantage: boarding and finishing schools, summer in the country, and British tours.  Juliette Gordon (Figure 1), known as “Daisy” to friends and family, had a childhood full of imagination and play, which would shape her life.

Having completed schooling, Daisy was living abroad in Scotland and England where she called on a family acquaintance – William Mackay Low – who maintained a business and home in Savannah. After years of courting and disapproval from her parents, they wed in 1886 at Christ Church in Savannah with a reception at the Gordon’s home (Figure 2).[i] During the wedding procession, guests threw rice at the happy couple as they were departing. While on their honeymoon, as Daisy suffered intense earaches, a doctor had to remove a grain of rice lodged in her ear, and due to previous ailments, the result was almost total deafness.[ii]

More suffering was to follow when Daisy found out her beloved husband openly took on a mistress. William Low initiated a divorce after 19 years of marriage, but before anything could be finalized he unexpectedly died. At 46, Daisy was childless and a widow.[iii] She busied herself with travel and society events. She attended many luncheons, and one fateful afternoon in London on May 11, 1911, Daisy was serendipitously seated next to General Sir Robert Baden Powell (Figure 3) the founder of Boy Scouts. This meeting was life-changing.[iv]

That chance meeting with Baden-Powell gave her purpose, and Daisy began working with Robert Baden-Powell’s sister Agnes to form Girl Guide groups in Scotland and London.[v]  These groups offered a counterpart to the same principles of the Boy Scouts and aimed to empower and build character in young women.

Upon returning to the U.S., Daisy formed the first chapter of Girl Guides in Savannah, Georgia on March 12th, 1912 at the Louisa Porter Home. The former carriage house where Daisy lived during her adult life became the first headquarters for the organization.[vi]

By the time Daisy started her Girl Guide troop in Savannah there were three other girl scouting groups established. Figure 4 depicts a newspaper clipping declaring the merger of three groups: “Girl Scouts,” that had been organized in 1910 in Des Moines, Iowa, by Clara A. Lisetor-Lane, “Girl Guides,” that had been sponsored in 1910 by the Rev. David Ferry of Spokane, Washington, and Camp Fire Girls, which had been announced in April 1911 in New York (Figure 5).[vii]

The Gordon family letters housed in the Georgia Historical Society archives include correspondences showing Daisy’s work to fold in the other girl scouting groups. A letter from Daisy to the President of the Campfire Girls and Pioneer Girls written in 1912 describes the similarities of the Girl Guides and the Camp Fire Girls. In another letter from Robert Baden-Powell, he recommends Daisy suggest the Camp Fire Girls adopt the word “guide” to their organization. The response from the Camp Fire Girls president insists that Girl Guide Law cannot be mixed into their own laws. This battle for ownership continued as Clara Lisetor-Lane accused Low of stealing her idea and challenged her claim as founder of Girl Scouts (Figure 6). In fact, Lisetor-Lane of the Girls Scouts lacked the financial resources and social connections necessary to sustain a national movement, and her organization never grew beyond a few troops. The Girl Scouts of America withered, but Lisetor-Lane continued to pester officials at Girl Scout headquarters until her death in 1960.[viii]

Daisy knew there could only be one sister organization to the reputable Boy Scouts, and in the end her perseverance and connections paid off, as Robert Baden Powell backed her and used his influence to wield support of the Girl Guides.[ix] Daisy continued to expand the Girls Guides with a three-prong approach, including a name change from Guide to Scout, establishing a national headquarters, and securing patronage beyond Georgia. These were all achieved and at the time of Daisy’s death the Girl Scouts would continue to grow to 2,500,000 members.[x]  Juliette Gordon Low successfully secured her place in history, and in 1948 the United States Post Office released a three-cent stamp commemorating Juliette Gordon Low as the founder of Girl Scouts (Figure 7), which is just one of many honors awarded to her during her lifetime and posthumously.

In 1953, now officially called the Girl Scouts of the USA, the organization fundraised to buy their founder’s birthplace, the Gordon house in Savannah, GA. In the Directors letter of 1955, Dorothy Stratton outlines the fundraising efforts of the troops to renovate the home. In this letter she also stresses the importance of paying reverence to an important woman in history, and explains the intent to purchase the home:

Although the house itself is interesting as an example of Regency Architecture, it is not primarily for its historic interest that the Girl Scouts have bought it… We are interested in restoring it in order to help the citizens of our country, and particularly present future Girl Scouts, in hopes they catch a bit of the fire and spirit and determination of the young girl who began life within its walls and whose character was largely formed during her life there.[xi]

Since the purchase of what is now known as the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, it has functioned mainly as a historic home open to the public where Girl Scouts can tour and learn about their founder. In 1965, the U.S department of the Interior designated the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace a National Historic Landmark.[xii]

In 2016, a new exhibit in the birthplace was introduced, sparking outcry from family descendants and historians.[xiii] The library was revamped and the bookcases containing books from the era of Daisy’s life were replaced with original prints of the Girl Scout’s American Girl magazines and books on Daisy and other female leaders. Furniture was removed and interactive activities, including an iPad station with information on other notable women through history, are now the main attraction (Figure 8). This was done in an effort to stay relevant to the modern girl that comes through the house and to fulfill the mission of the Girl Scouts: to develop courage, confidence and character to make the world a better place. (The controversy centered on the debate that the room is no longer solely architecturally representative of its historic era.)[xiv]

Lisa Junkin Lopez, current director of the Birthplace museum, has conducted several evaluations and has received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the new library’s interactive displays. The Birthplace is restructuring its programming and moving away from docent-led tours to offer experiential opportunities. In the last few years they have been stripping away the prop artifacts and layers of myth in an effort to return to the essential facts of history that carry the story forward. The curatorial team is reimagining how Daisy’s possessions, including her own artwork (Figure 9), tell the story of her life and ultimately recount the development of the Girl Scouts. Lopez commented, “some of the old programing was problematic, not empowering, and did not promote critical exploration. The challenge is connecting the old to the new and educate as well as empower those that visit the Birthplace.”[xv] The revamped library does just that. Girls Writing the World: A Library, Reimagined, an installation at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah, Georgia, was awarded a National Recognition from the American Alliance of Museums for “Excellence in Exhibition” for “Creating Big Change in a Small Package.” This tremendous honor places Girl Scouts of the USA in the company of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Center, among other recipients of the 2017 prize.[xvi] Today the Girls Scouts and Girls Guides internationally have 2.6 million active members, and honor their founder Juliette Gordon Low by telling her story.[xvii]

[i] Betty Christiansen, Girl Scouts: A Celebration of 100 Trailblazing Years. New York: Abrams, 2011, 16-19.

[ii] Ginger Wadsworth, First Girl Scout: the Life of Juliette Gordon Low. Boston: Clarion Books, 2012, 60-66.

[iii] Ibid., 87-89.

[iv] Ibid., 99.

[v] Ibid., 106.

[vi] Stacy A. Cordery, Juliette Gordon Low: the Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts. New York: Penguin Books, 2013, 207.

[vii] Alice Marie Beard, “Historical Origins of Campfire Girls.” Historical Origins of Camp Fire. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2017. <http://alicemariebeard.com/campfire/history.htm.>

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Cordery, 215-17.

[x] Ibid., 221.

[xi] Stratton, Dorothy C. “Director’s Letter.” Girl Scout of America Newsletter, New York, 1955.

[xii] Christiansen, 138.

[xiii] Mary Carr Mayle, “Defending the Birthplace: Descendants of Girl Scouts Founder Cry

Foul over Library.” Savannahnow.com. N.p., 10 July 2016. Web. 14 May 2017.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Lisa Junkin Lopez (Director of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace) in discussion with the Leah Blair, May 2017.

[xvi]  Cindi Malineck, “Celebrating Our Success: A National Award for the Library at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace!” Girl Scout Blog. May 10, 2017. Accessed May 11, 2017. http://blog.girlscouts.org/2017/05/celebrating-our-success-national-award.html

[xvi] Girl Scouts of America, “Who We Are.” Girls Scouts of America. N.p. Accessed May 24th 2017. http://www.girlscouts.org/en/about-girl-scouts/who-we-are.html.

Beard, Alice Marie. “Historical Origins of Campfire Girls.” Historical Origins of Camp

Fire. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2017 http://alicemariebeard.com/campfire/history.htm.

 

Cordery, Stacy A. Juliette Gordon Low: the Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts. New

York: Penguin Books, 2013.

 

Girl Scouts of America. “Who We Are.” Girls Scouts of America. N.p. Accessed May

24th, 2017. http://www.girlscouts.org/en/about-girl-scouts/who-we-are.html.

 

Mayle, Mary Carr. “Defending the Birthplace’: Descendants of Girl Scouts Founder Cry

Foul over Library.” Savannahnow.com. N.p., 10 July 2016. Web. 14 May 2017.

 

Malineck, Cindi. Celebrating Our Success: A National Award for the Library at the

Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace!” Girl Scout Blog. May 10, 2017. Accessed May

11, 2017. http://blog.girlscouts.org/2017/05/celebrating-our-success-national-

award.html.

 

Marshall, Edward. “Girls take up the Boy Scout idea and band up,” New York Times,

Mar. 17, 1912.

 

Robert Baden-Powell, letter to Juliette Gordon Low, March, 15th, 1912. Georgia

Historical Society, Low Family Letters.

 

Stratton, Dorothy C. “Directors Letter.” Girl Scout of America Newsletter, New York,

1955.

 

Wadsworth, Ginger. First Girl Scout: the Life of Juliette Gordon Low. Boston: Clarion

Books, 2012.