Eagle award history
It is more than a medal.
You have a chance to be a part of history.
Now, it is your time to seize the day and write Scouting’s next chapter.
Americans from all walks of life know that being an Eagle Scout is a great honor, even if they don’t know just what the badge means.
The award is more than a badge. It’s a state of being. You are an Eagle Scout – never were. You may receive the badge as a young person, but you earn it every day as an adult. In the words of the Eagle Scout Promise, you do your best each day to make your training and example, your rank and your influence count strongly for better Scouting and for better citizenship in your troop, in your community, and in your contacts with other people. And to this you will pledge your sacred honor.
Genesis of the Eagle Scout Award | The First Eagle Scout | The Eagle Scout Award’s First Decade | Roaring Into the Twenties | Through the Depression and War | New Requirements for a New Decade | Emphasizing Leadership and Service | Making Scouting Relevant | Back to the Basics | Moving Into the Future
Genesis of the Eagle Scout award
Given the Eagle Scout rank’s prominence, it might be surprising that it had no place in the original Boy Scout advancement program. Scouting for Boys, Robert Baden-Powell’s 1908 Scout handbook, included just three classes of Scouts—Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class—along with the Wolf badge, which was “a reward for very special distinction.” This badge was so significant that no more than one would be granted each year.
The wolf seemed an appropriate symbol. In 1896, when B-P was fighting in what is now Zimbabwe, Matabele tribesmen nicknamed him Impeesa, meaning “the wolf that never sleeps.” Ernest Thompson Seton, whose Woodcraft Indians program helped inspire the creation of Scouting, called himself Black Wolf.
After the Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910, Seton created a proof edition of the American Handbook for Boys that combined material from Scouting for Boys and his own Birch-Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians. The handbook incorporated Baden-Powell’s advancement scheme—but with a twist. The Silver Wolf Award would go to any First Class Scout who earned all 14 “badges of merit”: Ambulance, Clerk, Cyclist, Electrician, Fireman, Gardener, Horseman, Pioneer, Marksman, Master-at-Arms, Musician, Signaller, Seaman, and Stalker.
At first, Life, Star, and Eagle were not considered ranks. Instead, they were special awards for earning merit badges—roughly equivalent to today’s Eagle Palms. The Life Scout badge went to First Class Scouts who earned five specific merit badges: First Aid, Athletics, Lifesaving, Personal Health, and Public Health. (Note how all five relate to life in some way.) The Star Scout badge required another five elective merit badges. The Eagle Scout badge—which the handbook called “the highest scout merit badge”— required a total of 21 merit badges.
In 1911, Scouts had 57 merit badges to choose from. Like today, these badges covered basic Scouting skills (Camping, Cooking, Swimming), trades and careers (Business, Firemanship, Poultry Farming), science and nature (Chemistry, Conservation, Ornithology), and hobbies (Angling, Handicraft, Music). The Aviation merit badge demanded a working knowledge of “aeroplanes, balloons, and dirigibles.” Invention required the Scout to obtain a patent. The requirements for one badge, Scholarship, hadn’t been determined when the book went to press.
That wasn’t the only thing that hadn’t been determined at press time. Page 43 of the Handbook for Boys described the Eagle Scout badge as “an eagle’s head in silver,” but the same page showed a very different (and, to modern eyes, very unfamiliar) medal: an eagle in flight suspended from a broad, single-color ribbon.
The first Eagle Scout
The Eagle Scout award’s first decade
Roaring into the twenties
Through the depression and war
New requirements for a new decade
The 1948 requirements also spelled out in more detail what else an Eagle Scout candidate had to do. Rather than just having a six-month record of “satisfactory service” as a Life Scout, he now had to work actively as a leader in his troop’s meetings, outdoor activities, and projects; do his best to help in his home, school, place of worship, and community; and take care of things that belonged to him and respect the property of others. These seemingly innocuous changes, which remained in place throughout the 1950s, foreshadowed the next major step in the Eagle Scout Award’s evolution.
Emphasizing leadership and service
Perhaps the most far-reaching changes appeared in the Star, Life, and Eagle rank requirements. Each rank, including the lower ranks, now required a personal conference with the Scoutmaster to discuss Scouting ideals and the Scout’s future plans. Each rank now required the Scout to serve as a “troop warrant officer”—patrol leader, senior patrol leader, quartermaster, etc. In addition, each rank now required participation in service projects.
Star and Life candidates had to participate in two projects for each rank: a conservation project and a more general community service project. Eagle candidates had to do just one, but it was a special project that would become synonymous with the Eagle Scout Award in years to come. In the words of the 1965 handbook, the Scout had to “plan, develop, and carry out a service project helpful to [his] church or synagogue, school, or community approved in advance by [his] Scoutmaster.” The Eagle Scout leadership service project had been born.
Despite the stiffened requirements, Scouts by the thousands continued to earn Scouting’s highest rank. In 1963, 27,000 Eagle badges were awarded. By the end of the decade, that number had topped 30,000. But more changes were on the horizon.
Making scouting relevant
To earn Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class, Scouts no longer completed specific requirements (take a hike, sharpen an ax, describe the American flag, etc.). Instead, they chose eight of 12 skill awards—belt loops in specific subjects—of which only Citizenship and First Aid were specified. Tenure requirements were also added for each rank.
The Star, Life, and Eagle requirements looked much as they had before, but the list of Eagle-required merit badges was significantly different. In keeping with the Improved Scouting Program, the list deemphasized some traditional skills. Gone were the Camping, Cooking, and Nature merit badges. Swimming and Lifesaving were still on the list, but Scouts could take Personal Fitness or Sports instead of Swimming and Emergency Preparedness instead of Lifesaving. To the chagrin of many longtime Scout leaders, a boy could, in theory, become an Eagle Scout without ever going camping, hiking, or swimming.
Back to the basics
The Improved Scouting Program turned out to be a short-lived experiment. The 1979 Official Boy Scout Handbook—written by Baden Powell protégé Bill Hillcourt—retained the skill awards program but specified that Scouts had to earn the awards for Citizenship, Hiking, First Aid, Camping, and Cooking. The number of Eagle-required merit badges returned to 21, and the list reemphasized core skills (although recent innovations weren’t completely abandoned). Scouts now had to earn First Aid, Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, Citizenship in the World, Communications, Safety, Emergency Preparedness or Lifesaving, Environmental Science, Personal Management, Personal Fitness or Swimming or Sports, and Camping.
It was during this time that the BSA reached a major milestone. In 1982, Alexander Holsinger of Normal, Illinois, became the one-millionth Eagle Scout. Holsinger was one of 25,573 Scouts who became Eagles that year.
Moving into the future
More Scouts than ever—more than 50,000—now earn the Eagle Scout Award each year with the two-millionth Eagle Scout named in 2009.
Now, Scouting is striving toward its three-millionth Eagle Scout. Will you join the ranks of Arthur Eldred and Alexander Holsinger, or Gerald R. Ford and Neil Armstrong—and become an Eagle Scout and repeat the Eagle the Eagle Scout Pledge?
By the time the next handbook appeared, in 1990, skill awards had gone the way of berets, and the Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class requirements looked much as they had a generation before. To become a First Class Scout, a boy again had to master basic skills in camping, cooking, first aid, swimming, and nature study.
The only changes since 1990 have been relatively minor. A workbook to document the Eagle Scout candidate’s leadership service project has been required since 1991, and district or council approval is now part of the process. Family Life became a required merit badge in 1994, just three years after its introduction. In 1999, the list of required badges changed slightly again when Hiking and Cycling were added, Safety and Sports were dropped, and Personal Fitness again became mandatory. As of 2008, the list included these badges: First Aid, Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, Citizenship in the World, Communications, Personal Fitness, Emergency Preparedness or Lifesaving, Environmental Science, Personal Management, Swimming or Hiking or Cycling, Camping, and Family Life.
Eagle Scout Pledge
I reaffirm my allegiance To the three promises of the Scout Oath. I thoughtfully recognize And take upon myself The obligations and responsibilities Of an Eagle Scout. On my honor I will do my best To make my training and example, My rank and my influence Count strongly for better Scouting And for better citizenship In my troop, In my community, And in my contacts with other people. To this I pledge my sacred honor.