Earlier this year, the 13th and latest edition of a rather familiar “face” began appearing in Scout shops around the country: the Boy Scout Handbook. For 105 years — with more than 40 million copies in print — this guide to life and adventure has helped shepherd millions of boys through the ranks of Scouting, and from childhood into early adulthood.
But before there could be a 13th edition, there had to be 12 others (actually, 13 previous editions, with 22 different covers, but more on that bit of trivia later) … How were these handbooks developed? What did they look like? In the coming weeks, we’ll be giving you a glimpse into the history of the books that have accompanied millions of American boys on countless adventures. (Be sure to check out our Instagram feed as we feature the cover artwork of each edition, as well as a few treasures from Scouting’s past — courtesy of the National Scouting Museum — as we work our way up to the 13th edition.)
The very first version of the Boy Scout Handbook was published rather hastily in 1910, the same year the BSA was officially incorporated. These were early days for the Scouting movement, with many rules, regulations, and standards still to be determined, so the National Council set out to create a temporary version of the handbook until the organization found its feet.
Ernest Thompson Seton, a naturalist and artist who was one of the BSA’s founders and early leaders, used a number of sources to compile the first “Handbook of Woodcraft, Scouting, and Life-craft.” The result — which is referred to as the Original Edition in recognition of its interim status, and the reason why there are really 14 editions — laid the groundwork for all future handbooks to come.
The oilcloth cover featured a line drawing by Scouting founder Sir Robert S.S. Baden-Powell of a Scout holding an American flag, while its 192 pages (by far the fewest of all editions) were packed with instruction on basic BSA organization, camping, signaling, and games meant to thrill (and exhaust) boys in the program.
Compared to more modern handbooks, however, there were some glaring gaps in content that is considered essential for today’s Scouts. There is no mention of reading maps, for example, or the use of knives and axes, while topics such as hiking and conservation are similarly left out.
In the next version of the handbook, referred to as the First Edition of The Official Handbook for Boys, the BSA took a stab at addressing a few of these omissions by forming an editorial board to guide the production of the book, and assigning subject matter experts to pen individual chapters.
The cover, by artist Gordon Grant, featured a line drawing of a uniformed Scout in front of a campsite, with his hat held high. Inside, a foreword by Seton summed up its goals: “We send out our ‘Official Handbook,’ therefore, with the earnest wish that many boys may find in it new methods for the proper use of their leisure time and fresh inspiration in their efforts to make their hours of recreation contribute to strong, noble manhood in the days to come.”
At a Glance: Original Edition, Boy Scouts of America Official Handbook and First Edition, The Official Handbook for Boys
- Published: Original Edition: 1910; First Edition: 1911
- Cover artwork: Original: Sir Robert S.S. Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting movement; First: Gordon Grant
- Author: Original: Ernest Thompson Seton, BSA co-founder, with contributions from Baden-Powell; First: Editorial committee
- Copies: Original: 68,900; First: 313,500
- Cost: 25 cents
- Trivia: Baden-Powell’s cover artwork on the Original Edition is virtually identical to the cover of the first British Scout handbook, “Scouting for Boys,” with one exception: an American flag is swapped for the Union Jack. For the First Edition, multiple colored covers (olive green and maroon) were used for the first time, signaling slight content differences.
Which edition of the handbook did you (or your son, brother, father, grandfather) carry as a Scout? Which is your personal favorite?