Innocent Ignorance: Whitewashing an Empire with the Boy Scouts of America

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.

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Sources: Child Labor in the United States

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.

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