The highest rank a Boy Scout can achieve began as a sort of “super merit badge” for Scouts who earned 21 other merit badges, five of them required.
Say “Eagle Scout” and the mind’s eye instantly sees a youth who exemplifies being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, and all those other good things in the Scout Law. Eagle Scouts are such well-known symbols of Scouting’s finest that it’s hard to believe they haven’t always been around.
In fact, in the beginning of the Boy Scouts of America, the Eagle Scout Award did not exist. Wolf Scout was the highest award, based on the Silver Wolf award in the advancement plan of Robert S. S. Baden-Powell, the British founder of worldwide Scouting.
No Wolf Scout badge was ever given out, though, because the BSA’s founding fathers had second thoughts about a wolf as top dog among Scouts. Several leaders who previewed the first proof copies of the 1911 Handbook for Boys asked: “Why a wolf? Why not an American eagle?”
THE TOP MERIT BADGE
Why not indeed? So the highest merit badge became an Eagle. Yes, you read that right—the Eagle Scout Award was born as a merit badge, albeit the top merit badge, representing “the all-round perfect Scout.”
The award was given to any First Class Scout who earned 21 other merit badges, including First Aid, Athletics, Lifesaving, Personal Health, and Public Health. (En route to Eagle, the Scout received the Life Scout badge after earning the five merit badges required for Eagle and the Star Scout badge for five more. In 1924, the Life-Star order was reversed, presumably because the five-pointed Star could be associated with the five merit badges required to earn it.)
The first Eagle badge was awarded to Arthur R. Eldred, a 17-year-old member of Troop 1 in Oceanside, Long Island, N.Y., on Labor Day 1912, more than a year and a half after the BSA’s birth.
Eldred had undergone what was arguably the most rigorous board of review in Scouting history. His work was reviewed by the BSA’s three top leaders—Chief Scout Executive James E. West, Chief Scout Ernest Thompson Seton, and National Scout Commissioner Daniel Carter Beard.
By the end of 1912, 22 more Scouts had earned the Eagle Scout Award. And seven decades later, in 1982, 13-year-old Alexander Holsinger, of Normal, Ill., was recognized as the one millionth Eagle Scout. To date, more than one and a half million Scouts have achieved Scouting’s highest rank.
THE IMPORTANT SERVICE PROJECT
Over time, many changes have been made in the merit badges required for Eagle. From the original five, only First Aid and Lifesaving are among the 12 specific merit badges that must be earned today (and candidates have the option of earning Emergency Preparedness instead of Lifesaving).
The most significant change, however, is this requirement: “While a Life Scout, plan, develop, and give leadership to others in a service project helpful to any religious institution, any school, or your community.”
The consideration of a Scout’s “record of satisfactory service” with his troop was first added to the Eagle requirements in 1927. In 1952, this was changed to a vague statement to “do your best to help in your home, school, church or synagogue, and community.” A more specific “plan, develop, and carry out a service project” was added in 1965, and in 1972, the additional stipulation “give leadership to others” was included.
The service project requirement has been the bane of many a Life Scout ever since. It has also undoubtedly been an important factor in raising the public’s perception of not only an individual Scout who is showing leadership in community service but of the Scouting movement as a whole.
Even before the service project requirement was added, a young man who had earned Eagle was widely recognized as someone special. Most people assumed that he would live up to high principles, have leadership skills, show initiative, and be at home outdoors.
Any résumé listing Eagle Scout among an applicant’s accomplishments often went to the top of the pile in college admissions offices, job applications, and military schools.
THE CHANGING EAGLE BADGE
The first BSA Scout manual, the Handbook for Boys, published in 1911, showed a drawing of a medal with an eagle in flight on a ribbon as the award for an Eagle Scout. But when Arthur R. Eldred received the very first Eagle Scout badge on Labor Day 1912, it was quite similar to today’s medal, although the bird was rather scrawny and poorly finished.
In 1923, an Eagle Scout could wear a cloth patch on his uniform shirt’s left pocket, a miniature medal for his Smoky Bear hat, and an Eagle Scout ring, as well as an Eagle medal.
In 1927 Eagle palms were authorized for Eagle Scouts who continued to earn merit badges—a bronze palm for five more badges, gold for 10, and silver for 15.