The Great Girl Scout Cookie Shortage of World War II
In the early spring of 1943, Girl Scout Cookie chairwoman A.A. Rabe had some devastating news for residents of St. Petersburg, Florida, who were looking forward to getting their boxes of Girl Scout Cookies: There weren’t going to be enough.
In a crisis the likes of which American pantries had never seen, Rabe solemnly informed supporters of the venerable female troop that a war shortage of key ingredients had led to a dramatic supply issue with thousands of boxes of cookies. If a customer had ordered two, they would be lucky to get one. If they ordered one, it was anyone’s guess as to what would happen.
“Whereas before we have always worried about how we are going to sell all of the cookies and candy that we have to sell, this year we wonder how we can supply Girl Scouts with as many boxes as they have taken orders for,” Mrs. Sidney B. Miner, Commissioner of the Scouts, explained.
The message was repeated around the country: Hitler had cost America its favorite cookie.
Thrust in our faces by pint-sized salespeople, order forms for Girl Scout Cookies are a pervasive part of the winter season. Thanks to effective marketing—and plenty of doe-eyed guilt-tripping—the Girl Scouts of the USA manage to move around 200 million boxes of cookies during their annual fundraising drive, netting an estimated $500 million (after costs) for camping trips and other organizational costs. The more boxes ordered, the better. With contracts with major baking companies like Keebler and ABC Bakers, there’s rarely a time when they can’t fulfill demand.
The cookie hustle began in 1917, when the Muskogee, Oklahoma chapter of the then-5-year-old organization began selling baked goods out of high school cafeterias to raise money. In 1922, a recipe for a simple sugar cookie was published in the official Girl Scouts magazine, inciting many of the country’s 2000-plus squads to mobilize in the kitchen.
Business was brisk through the 1930s, with chocolate and vanilla cookies being bought and consumed for as little as 23 cents a box. But by 1943, a grim reality had set in: Due to the country’s entry into the Second World War, the various lards and sugars that made up the cookies were being diverted and rationed to the military. Honey, dried skim milk, salt, chocolate—all of it was in short supply and high demand. As delicious as they were, Girl Scout Cookies did not take priority.
In St. Petersburg, chapter leaders warned customers that only 8000 boxes of cookies and candy would be allocated for distribution in 1943, down from 11,000 the previous year. Brownies, the lowest class of Scout, would be given just 10 boxes to sell.
Indianapolis had it even worse. Orders were short by more than 25,000 boxes, slicing the number of packages due to buyers in half. The commercial bakers the Scouts had come to rely on once business grew were now busy baking for soldiers, thus reducing their available labor.
In total, it was estimated that more than 1 million cookies projected to enter Indianapolis residents' stomachs that year would never be baked.
If the Scouts were dismayed by the prospect of reduced revenue, they didn’t make a public show of it. Deprived of their sweet currency, Scouts took to alternative means of raising support for their ventures. Some troops collected and turned in scrap metal; others sold war bonds. A few hoarded cooking fat. The most pervasive strategy was to sell a Girl Scouts calendar.
The shortage continued through 1944 and 1945, with limited resources, depending on a troop’s location. Some, like Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania’s arm, had sugar benefactors who reserved ingredients specifically for their cookie efforts. In Miami, Oklahoma, troops gathered to bake specifically for wounded soldiers.
By 1946, the crisis had seemed to evaporate, and the cookies resumed their dominance among fundraising efforts. In 1948, an estimated 29 bakers were contracted to meet the demand, with a greater variety—like Thin Mints and peanut butter—soon added to the rotation.
Today, Girl Scout Cookies can be purchased in gluten-free and vegan varieties, with Scouts expected to fulfill as many orders as they can gather. But if circumstances should ever warrant another shortage, take heart: You can use the original 1922 recipe to bake your own.