Our Frontier is the World

An Imperial History of the Boy Scouts of America, 1910s-1960s

Mischa Honeck

American Boy Scouts en route to the 1929 World Jamboree in Birkenhead, England.
American Boy Scouts en route to the 1929 World Jamboree in Birkenhead, England.

My research project looks at the making and remaking of young imperial masculinities in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) from the Progressive Era to the early Cold War. Founded in 1910, the BSA grew rapidly to become one of the largest American youth organizations of the twentieth century. Its emphasis on character-building, patriotism, and faith in God, coupled with the promise to teach boys outdoor skills and responsible citizenship, made the organization extremely popular, especially among white, middle-class Americans. At the same time, membership restrictions around the issues of sexuality and religion, as well as accusations of militarism and cases of child abuse, have mired the BSA in controversy to this day.

The Boy Scouts may seem as American as apple pie, but the Scouting movement was at once global and national. It started in England and was eagerly adopted by Americans who feared that white, Anglo-Saxon masculinity was in decline. Devoted to remasculinizing their nation, the BSA created a web of regimented male youth that spanned the country's imperial centers, colonial peripheries, and ultimately extended throughout the world. In the first years of the organization's existence, Boy Scout troops sprang up in the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Panama Canal Zone. During the interwar period, the BSA joined the transnational bodies of global Scouting and routinely sent delegations to the world Scout jamborees, which were held almost every four years since 1920. After World War II, the BSA launched the Transatlantic and Far East Councils to make Scouting available to U.S. military families living on the front lines of the Cold War.

Our Frontier is the World makes two interrelated arguments: that the BSA's construction of young imperial masculinities functioned as an important auxiliary to America's global expansion in the twentieth century, and that global developments shaped and reshaped American ideas about youth and gender. My project illustrates how the frontiers of youth and manhood overlapped with the frontiers of empire, and how complex processes of nation-building and globalization worked not only on children but through them. In doing so, it invites reflection on the extent to which boyish narratives of fun and fellowship, rather than hard military or economic might, spurred the evolution of an American empire.