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Girl Scouts

The Great Girl Scout Cookie Shortage of World War II

Girl Scouts
Girl Scouts

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.

Girl Scouts

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.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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