On January 15th 1908, in English bookshops, a leaflet of about 70 pages was published with the title Scouting for boys. It was written and illustrated by Baden-Powell himself. It was the first of a series of 6 leaflets, published every fortnight between January and April 1908. They were sold 4 pence each (about 1,20 €). In May of that year, the leaflets were printed as a book, with the same title: Scouting for boys. Immediately, the six leaflets were a real success, and so they were published again several times. Later on, it was necessary to publish the book five times during the year 1908.
The cover of the leaflets was drawn by John Hassal, a famous artist at that time. On the first leaflet, he drew a boy with a hat and a stick, observing somebody on a beach, with a mysterious boat in the distance. The meaning was clear: by becoming a scout, the boy would no longer read adventure stories but he would live them really.
The reputation of the author, very famous in Great Britain since the episode of the siege of Mafeking, contributed certainly to make an excellent publicity to the book, but it is not enough to explain its success for decades. What has made this book so attractive and convincing for boys? With a rare talent, the author managed to captivate the natural cords of the boy, which remain unchanged, in spite of the modifications of tastes, technological innovations and changes of civilizations. The formula of the book had already been tested by the editor Pearson with other magazines meant for young readers. Besides, that way of writing, mixing stories, anecdotes and teachings, facilitated the reading because the boy could easily skip what was not interesting to him and go to what attracted him more. Indeed, contrarily to all texts of pedagogy, that book was not written for educators but it was addressed directly to the boys, which was extremely rare.
From the very beginning of the book, there is an atmosphere of adventure and implication. The reader’s imagination is stimulated by stories, the interpretation of clues, shadowing, the observation of prints, life in the open air, camping, pioneering, etc. Besides, there are suggestions for a lot of practical things to do: how to light a fire, to cook outside, to build a shelter, to observe wild animals, etc. So, the intelligence is stimulated. As a matter of fact, Baden-Powell did not encourage the boy only to observe carefully but he encouraged him to reflect upon what he had seen and to draw conclusions by using his intelligence. All this, lived like a Sherlock Holmes game, had a great value for the mental development of the boy.
The various chapters are called “Camp fire yarn”, which has been translated into French “Bivouac”. But literally “yarn” means thread, wool, rope. In a derived meaning, it also means a marvellous or fantastic story. This term comes from the British navy. On a sailing boat, sometimes there was no wind and the boat remained still. Then the sailors spent their time maintaining the ropes (seamanship), (yarn), by repairing them, making splices, etc. While the sailors were busy with these operations, one of them would tell them sailing stories and adventures, true or imaginary, hence the term of “yarn” to design in English marvellous or fantastic tales.
It was not so easy for Baden-Powell to publish Scouting for boys because he did not have enough financial resources to do it. So, he signed a contract with the editor Pearson, who committed himself to finance £ 1.000 (about 75.00 € nowadays) for a tour of conferences made by Baden-Powell throughout Great Britain. He also put at his disposal in London an office with some employees and he committed himself to publish the book that Baden-Powell was going to write (Scouting for boys). On the other hand, apart from the gains of the book, Pearson got the possibility of publishing a weekly magazine for boys, The Scout, which was published for the first time on April 1908, with Baden-Powell’s commitment to write an article every week; he did it until the end of his life.
But it was a commercial business and Baden-Powell did not like it so much, even if Cyril Arthur Pearson – apart from being a successful editor – was also a philanthropist who financed various initiatives for disadvantaged youth. Anyway, hardly one year later, Baden-Powell managed to recover his freedom and to become independent from Pearson, but he was taking a big risk because of his scarce personal resources: he created the British scout association, totally independent from any link.
The writing of the book
To write the book was not such an easy commitment, especially for a person like Baden-Powell, who had so many other commitments, with his military life (he resigned from the army in 1910 only) and with the activities due to his tour of conferences for the development of scouting, in about fifty towns throughout the United Kingdom.
Baden-Powell had a great faculty of concentration and he was able to write anywhere. But in order to write that book, he needed calm and time, if only to organize his ideas and the numerous materials that he had collected. So, he settled down in a cottage, a windmill near Wimbledon, where a plaque commemorates the event still now.
To help and support him, the editor Pearson sent him Percy Everett, who had taken part in the camp of Brownsea and who had been so seduced by scouting and by Baden-Powell himself that he became later on one of his main collaborators.
Later, Percy Everett told how he was fascinated by Baden-Powell’s capacity to write and to draw with his right hand as well as with his left hand, because Baden-Powell was ambidextrous, and he could write or draw indifferently and as well with one hand as with the other one.
The reception of the book
The reception of the book by the English press was rather dull. The Times published an article in two columns, describing it as a booklet for life in the open air. The Spectator identified the book by wondering whether such a text could capture the attention of young leaders. Only the Daily Graphic, with which Baden-Powell collaborated for so many years by sending articles and schetches of India and Africa, made a favourable inventory; it planned that scouting launched by the book would quickly become an organisation attracting numerous boys and that, like a snowball, it would expand to become an avalanche to which it would no longer be possible to resist.
Anyway, the opposition to scouting was quite abundant. On the one hand, some people accused it to be a militaristic movement, whereas on the other hand the new movement was accused of pacifism. According to Baden-Powell, these two accusations cancelled each other out.
Besides, contrarily to what Baden-Powell expected, few already existing associations included scout activities into their program. By contrast, boys were immediately enthusiastic about that new proposal. But they did not want to belong to other movements. They wanted to have their own movement, allowing them to be scouts and nothing else. Hardly one year after the publication of the first leaflet of Scouting for boys, scouts were already more than 100.000, in the United Kingdom alone.
The various editions
Right from the first edition of 1908, Baden-Powell divided Scouting for boys into 28 “Yarns”. In the following years, he went on reviewing his book and bringing some little changes to it. It was published more than 20 times until he died in 1941. But the number of “Yarns” always remained 28.
In 1944, only three years after Baden-Powell’s death, the World Scout Bureau published a new edition of the book, the “World Brotherhood Edition”, revised by William Hillcourt, a leader of the Boy Scouts of America, who made big and important cuts in texts that, on the contrary, Baden-Powell had not changed at all until he passed away. Hillcourt eliminated all references to Great Britain and to the British Empire, as well as the law, the promise, the class tests. Out of the last three Yarns, he made only one and he eliminated quite a lot of passages. For instance, he suppressed the passage in which Baden-Powell quoted the speech of thanks of an old British leader to king Edwin for bringing Christianity to the population; he eliminated the passage in which Baden-Powell affirmed: “Among all sorts of governments existing in the world, ours is the most accessible and the fairest towards all” and he explained why he affirmed that. And so on for various other passages.
According to the author, all that was done “in the style that Baden-Powell himself would have wished”. But Baden-Powell had never thought such a thing, although he had disposed of more than 30 years, from 1908 to 1941, as well as more than 20 publications. It is rather strange “to interpret » the thought of someone who has passed away!
The idea of launching a new movement for boys thanks to a fortnightly journal was not new but it was original. The book was genial, it has been translated into almost all languages of the world and, according to one of Baden-Powell’s biographs, after the Bible, the Koran and Mao’s Little Red Book, it is the book that has been most sold during the 20th century. Boys were immediately fascinated by that book because Baden-Powell encouraged them to do things fitting completely with their deepest wishes: to light a fire and to cook in the open air, to sleep under canvas, to play the detective by interpreting the meaning of prints and signs, to take part in games requiring strength and skilfulness, to help weak and defenceless people, etc.
Many boys were attracted by scouting because they were fascinated by independent life in nature, others because it let their imagination go free, others because it represented an escape from the tyrannical world of school. The secret society, the gang of the village or of the neighbourhood, became the patrol; and furthermore, what really surprised young people was that scouting was appreciated and praised by grownups instead of being contested as it was the case for most of their initiatives.
Scouting was in 1908 and goes on being nowadays the answer to the burning desire of adventure that dwells in each boy and that no organisation had been able to satisfy. This is one of the main reasons of success that it knew at the beginning and that it has had without stop until now; and the merit of conceiving it is only due to Baden-Powell.