Secret Philly

Thin Mints or Caramel deLites? Girl Scout cookie season got its start in Philadelphia

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Flickr Creative Commons / Marit and Toomas Hinnosaar
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The region has seen its share of cold, wind, and snow over the past few weeks, but a new marker of the season has begun to appear: Thin Mints, Peanut Butter Patties, Shortbreads, Caramel deLites… It’s not just winter anymore. It’s Girl Scout cookie szn.

Philadelphia has a special connection to this sweet time of year: about 90 years ago, area Girl Scouts played a significant role in starting the annual fundraiser as we know it today.

Jennifer Allebach is a third-generation scout whose mom (a Girl Scout at the time) and grandmother (a troop leader) were involved with the first mass Girl Scout cookie sales.

“Philly is the birthplace of so much,” said Allebach, who’s now chief mission delivery officer for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pa. “The country, Girl Scout cookies — It’s a really cool story.”

The first documentation of a troop baking and selling cookies to raise money was in Oklahoma in 1917, according to the national organization’s website, when the Mistletoe Troop in Muskogee made them in a high school cafeteria for a service project. In the 1920s, troops throughout the country baked sugar cookies and sold them door-to-door in sticker-sealed wax paper bags.

Philadelphia Girl Scouts made their mark on cookie history in the early 1930s. (The exact year isn’t clear: the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission’s website says 1932, the Girl Scouts website says 1933, and Allebach said her mom — born in 1920 — told her she was 14 at the time, which would’ve placed the sale during 1934.)

Whatever the year, it was then that the Girl Scouts of Greater Philadelphia Council first baked and sold sugar cookies in the windows of the Philadelphia Gas and Electric Company’s Arch Street location.

A scout whose parents worked for PGE had gotten permission to use the company’s ovens to bake for local children’s nurseries, according to ExplorePAHistory.com, and the smell drew passersby. The Girl Scouts sold the extras to the public, and the success of that sale was so massive that they returned the next year to bake and sell cookies again.

Allebach’s mother and grandmother took the trolley to the Arch Street storefront to sell the cookies, she said. The intention was to scale up the scouts’ typical cookie-selling ventures, according to the Allebach family’s oral history, taking it beyond simple home baking.

An official blue historical marker now stands at 1401 Arch St. commemorating the girls’ mark on local and scout history. Philadelphia Gas Works, which absorbed the location, even lists the landmark cookie sale on its website among the company’s other historical highlights.

Later in the 1930s, local scouts started selling commercially baked cookies as a fundraiser — the first council in the country to do so. In the following years, more scout councils around the country followed suit, and in 1936, the Girl Scouts national organization started licensing commercial bakers to produce cookies to be sold by girls across the country. By 1937, over 125 councils held cookie sales.

Over the years, a lot has changed. Allebach recalled there being four types of cookies when she became a scout — chocolate sandwich, mint, peanut butter sandwich, and shortbread. Now, troops in the region sell nine varieties (and people have very fierce opinions about their favorites).

The purpose of the program has also evolved. When Allebach was a scout, the main goal was to raise money to go to camp, she said. By the time she became a troop leader in the 1970s, the focus was on the entrepreneurial skills cookie-selling could build for young girls.

“It became a cookie program rather than a cookie sale,” Allebach said.

Prices have changed, too — modern cookies appear to be slightly less expensive! In the early 1930s, a box of 44 went for 23 cents, which is about $5 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars. A present-day package of Girl Scout cookies in Philadelphia will run you $4 (unless you want the gluten-free Caramel Chocolate Chip cookies — those are $5). The Shortbread cookies still come with around 40 cookies per box.

Ready to hand over your dough for some baked dough? Ask your friends or colleagues if they’ve got a Girl Scout hawking sweets, or use the online finder to locate a booth near you.

Want some more? Explore other Secret Philly stories.

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