As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1
The history of organized youth has much to offer scholars interested in processes of knowledge formation and dissemination. This is particularly true of an organization as easily recognizable and widely influential as the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Popular culture in the United States is replete with images of cheerful Scouts roaming the woods or helping strangers in need. Among the more popular fictional representations are the Junior Woodchucks, which the Disney cartoonist Carl Barks created in 1951 to poke gentle fun at some aspects of Scouting. The Junior Woodchucks’ Guidebook, a satirical take on the BSA’s Handbook for Boys, appeared as a magical reservoir of knowledge that provided information on every conceivable subject, but was small enough to fit into a Junior Woodchuck’s backpack.
On this May Day, it is interesting to read a Progressive Era speech by Florence Kelley from December 1905 entitled “The Federal Government and the Working Children.” 1 Kelley was arguing for a federal solution to the dearth of accurate and timely data about child labor in the United States. The industrial and agricultural interests that objected to a federal role, she pointed out, were quick to band together when it came to demanding protection for their own commercial interests.
Never again can it be a matter of merely local concern what hours the children are working. They will be the Republic when we are dead, and we cannot leave it to the local legislators, here and there, to decide unobserved what sort of citizens shall be produced in this or that State, whether they shall be strong in body, mind and character, or whether they shall grow up enfeebled by overwork in early childhood.
Of course, compiling and disseminating the data would have political consequences.