The Birth and Boyhood of Boys' Life
By Dr. John T. Dizer
If Murphy's Law had prevailed in 1910, today's BSA magazine for all boys might instead be a fiefdom of the vast Hearst publishing empire.
First, let's set the record straight. Some Scout histories record that the first copies of Boys' Life found themselves being delivered from the leather pouches of postmen in March of 1911. (Even Boys' Life itself marked its 75th anniversary with a special 32-page supplement in the March, 1986, issue.) However, those of us who have researched the history of the magazine know that its first appearance actually occurred in January of that year.
Some records also erroneously credit Joseph Lane, an 18-year-old Rhode Island Boy Scout, as the magazine's founder. They say the book was "journal size" (close to the dimensions of today's BL), 48 pages long, and that Lane called it "The Semi-Official Publication of the Boy Scouts of America."
In fact, we should honor George S. Barton, of Somerville, Mass., as founder, publisher, and first editor of Boys' Life. He served in those capacities from its beginning until he sold the magazine in 1912 to the BSA.
Barton called BL "The Boys' and Boy Scouts' Magazine." Legally, he could not label it as "The Semi-Official Publication" of the BSA because not only did he not belong to the BSA, he was active in a rival organization. (In fact, Joseph Lane didn't wear Boy Scout khaki at the time, either.)
As most Scouters know, 1910 marked the official beginning of the Boy Scouts of America. Many do not know, however, that the American Boy Scouts and the New England Boy Scouts also were formed that year.
While competing with each other, the three organizations shared the pains of growing, organizing, and recruiting leaders and members. None could afford to launch a national magazine.
In 1910, George S. Barton was in his 30's, an official with the American Boy Scouts. The ABS was sponsored by the California newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. In December, however, citing financial irregularities in the group, Hearst withdrew his support. A cadre from the ABS's New England Division also abandoned ship at that time, and formed the New England Boy Scouts.
Barton, Edwin Randolph Short, and E.W. Gay became officials of the New England organization. All three helped staff Boys' Life: Barton as editor, Short as assistant editor, and Gay as circulation manager. In March, Barton hired Joseph J. Lane, a non-BSA Scout from Rhode Island, as advertising manager and assistant editor. So it's true that the early Boys' Life staff were all "Scouters," although none was connected with the BSA.
The rare, original January, 1911, issue of Boys' Life makes interesting reading today. It had only eight large pages (10 2x14 inches, sometimes called "tabloid size") and cost five cents a copy, $1.25 a year.
In addition to several self-contained stories and a serial, it had features such as "The Work of Today's Scout" (about gold prospectors); "Things All Scouts Should Know" (haversack packing and making a drinking water filter); and "Maxims for Scouts."
That last feature included statements like "Peace Scouts...are strong and plucky, and ready to face any danger, and always keen to help each other." It was edited by "Gen. B. Powell" -- Retired British Army General Robert Baden-Powell, founder of world Scouting.
Barton listed two goals in starting BL: first, to furnish Scouts with a publication they could consider their own; and second, to place in the hands of all boys a paper "...Which they will not be afraid to have their parents see them reading."
BL's news section gave equal space to items about the ABS and the BSA, even mentioned the formation of New England Boy Scouts. The magazine also reprinted an article called "The Boy Scout Movement invites Union," which urged an "amalgamation" of the BSA with the American Boy Scouts.
Barton cherished high hopes for Boys' Life. At the end of the first issue he announced that the magazine would increase in size and quality. In the next two months he added to his staff and worked on changes. The second issue appeared on March 1 and is the issue often incorrectly identified as the first.
Barton included all the stories begun in the January issue.
But he drastically changed the format and reduced the magazine to about the size of today's Boys' Life. Essentially, Barton was starting over; it was this fact which prompted him to label the second issue, dated March 1, 1911, as "Vol. 1, No.1, First March Edition."
Circulation soared. After trying two issues a month, Barton settled in June on a monthly schedule. Among staff changes, Joseph Lane took over the "Boy Scout News and Notes." In July Jack Glenister, famous as the first man to swim the Niagara Rapids, became both the magazine's treasurer and swimming writer.
By August Boys' Life proved strong enough that Glenister offered common stock in the magazine at $10 a share. (There's no indication that the transaction caused any flurry of buying on Wall Street.)
News about ABS Scouters faded from the news pages. At the same time, BSA news increased as the organization became more and more successful. BL devoted a page to Dan Beard's "Message to the BSA" and to Arthur R. Eldred, the first Eagle Scout. The magazine commented regularly on BSA troop news and national Scouting activities. Advertisers, such as Sigmund Eisner, national uniform outfitter for the BSA, took full page ads.
By January, 1912, circulation had grown to 65,000. As it prospered, the magazine had moved its offices four times in 18 months. The last move was to Providence, R.I.
In June, faced with the possibility that the BSA would start its own magazine, Barton sold Boys' Life to the BSA. "It was considered wise to avoid confusion which might arise with two publications for Boy Scouts on the market," he explained in the July, 1912, issue.
Following his death in 1949, it was reported that Barton had regretted selling the magazine. But it is certain the BSA never regretted buying one of the nation's premier boys' magazines -- and for a mere $6,000.
Professor and dean emeritus of Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, N. Y., Silver Beaver Scouter John T. Dizer joined the BSA as a boy in 1933. He has made a study of boys' books (and Boys' Life) for 25 years.
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