Juliette Magill Gordon (called “Daisy” by her friends and family) was born in Savannah, Georgia, on the brink of the Civil War. Her father’s family had settled in Georgia before the War of 1812 and was now prominent in Savannah, and her mother came from a well-known family in Chicago.
In 1874, when she was 13, Daisy and her sister Eleanor began school at Virginia Female Institute (renamed Stuart Hall in 1907 to honor Mrs. General J.E.B. Stuart, who was principal 1880 -1899.) Daisy was rather impatient with the rules and regulations at VFI, and once wrote home to her mother, “Mama, I can’t keep all the rules. I’m too much like you. … I’ll keep clear of the big scrapes but the little ones I can’t avoid.” Daisy performed well academically, though, and won medals in English, French, piano, elocution, and drawing. Unfortunately, the medals read “Juliet Magill Gordon” — not Daisy, as she had requested (and they didn’t even spell her first name correctly).
Daisy spent two years at VFI before attending finishing school in New York City, making her debut in Savannah, and being presented to Queen Victoria. In 1886, she married Willy Low, the son of a wealthy cotton merchant. Willy was often gone on hunting trips, and Daisy turned to art to fill her time. She first tried sculpting and then discovered wrought iron, which made her arms so muscular that she could no longer wear her Paris dresses!
The Beginning of the Girl Scouts
Daisy and Willy separated in 1901, and Willy died four years later. Daisy grew restless again and began studying sculpture in Europe. She was living in Scotland when she met General Sir Robert Baden Powell, who encouraged her to become involved with the Girl Guides movement, which was developed from the Boy Scouts that had been started by General Powell. Daisy was very interested, and she formed a Girl Guides Patrol in Scotland, and then two in London. By March 1912, Daisy had moved back to Savannah and started the first American Girl Guides Patrols there. The same week, she sculpted the head of her niece, Daisy Gordon (Lawrence), who was enrolled as the first American Girl Scout.
One of the first things that Daisy taught the Girl Scouts was basketball, because she enjoyed playing it herself. Daisy also taught the Girl Scouts other unusual skills such as electrical work, farming, astronomy, and even “how to secure a burglar with eight inches of cord.”
The popularity of Girl Scouts grew quickly, through Daisy’s hard work — and also her eccentricity. Daisy would wear hats trimmed with carrots and parsley to fashionable luncheons. As the vegetables drooped, she would ask, “Oh, is my trimming sad? I can’t afford to have this hat done over — I have to save all my money for the Girl Scouts. You know about the Girl Scouts, don’t you?”
Not even the First World War prevented Daisy from working. Instead, it showed the value of instructing girls to participate in the war effort, and the Girl Scout movement became more widespread than ever.
Daisy died at her home in Savannah in 1927, at the age of 66. She was buried in her Girl Scout uniform with a telegram in one of the pockets that said, “You are not only the first Girl Scout, you are the best of them all.”
Stuart Hall in Daisy’s Time
Stuart Hall was still known as the Virginia Female Institute, and it operated on the “University of Virginia plan” where the courses were divided into separate “schools.” Students would receive a diploma and a medal for each school whose exams they passed. Some of the courses that students took were similar to today’s (English, history, math, etc.), but students also learned skills such as elocution and penmanship.
VFI had a boarding program, as Stuart Hall does today, and many of the basic rules for the boarding students have not changed. Students could not leave the school grounds without permission, visit other rooms after a certain hour, or leave their books lying around the halls. However, the manners of the students were more strictly observed. The first rule for students listed in the 1876 handbook is that they must use “lady-like conduct on all occasions.” One rule that has changed drastically is that students were not allowed to read novels.
On the whole, the Virginia Female Institute was a well-respected school, especially after General Robert E. Lee served on the Board of Trustees and sent two of his daughters there. He and two other parents wrote this testimonial to the school:
"We the undersigned have had daughters educated at the Virginia Female Institute in Staunton, Va., under the care of Rev. R. K. Phillips. They, therefore, know it to be an admirably conducted and superior Institution for Young Ladies, and they cordially recommend it to favor, even beyond its past extensive patronage."
R. E. Lee
Francis H. Smith
W. N. Pendleton
essay by Winsor Wood ’04