The original cookie.
The original cookie. Chris Naka/Atlas Obscura

Girl Scout cookies come in a dizzying variety. Between cool Thin Mints and decadent Peanut Butter Patties, there’s a flavor that appeals to everyone. Which is helpful to the girls in the American youth organization, who sell the cookies to learn business skills and raise funds.

It’s a big operation, so much so that seemingly similar cookies differ across the United States. Since two commercial bakers provide the cookies to different parts of the country, one scout’s Peanut Butter Patty is another’s Tagalong. Even the recipes are slightly different. But all Girl Scout cookies have a common ancestor. Surprisingly, it was kind of boring.

It was an innocuous beginning for a glorious, cookie-filled century. The recipe for the original cookie was provided by local Scouting director Florence E. Neil and printed in the July 1922 issue of The American Girl Magazine (now defunct and unrelated to the current, doll-related American Girl magazine). It was very simple: a cup of butter (or “substitute”) mixed with sugar, eggs, vanilla, milk, and flour. Baking the mix in a “quick” oven produced super simple sugar cookies.

First Lady Grace Coolidge, eating a Girl Scout cookie in 1923.
First Lady Grace Coolidge, eating a Girl Scout cookie in 1923. Library of Congress/ LC-USZ62-131589

But simplicity was likely necessary, as the scouts baked the cookies themselves. According to the Girl Scouts, this recipe was distributed to 2,000 scouts in the Chicago area who likely needed something quick, simple, and inexpensive to sell. The ingredients for a batch of six to seven dozen cookies clocked in at 26 to 36 cents, which in today’s money is less than six dollars. The scouts could sell a dozen cookies for about the same amount, making a tidy profit.

The 1920s were the heyday of the homemade Girl Scout cookie. But in 1934, the Girl Scouts of Greater Philadelphia Council sold the first commercially baked cookies. New York’s Girl Scouts followed suit in 1935, and the home-baked cookie was soon history: The next year, the national Girl Scout organization began using commercial bakers.

The change took the baking process out of the girls’ hands, but it made them saleswomen of increasingly elaborate products that resemble today’s beloved staples. In 1938, Eleanor Roosevelt bought a box of vanilla and chocolate wafers at a Girl Scout cookie sale in New York.

A Girl Scout giving out cookies in the 1950s.
A Girl Scout giving out cookies in the 1950s. Library of Congress/LC-DIG-hec-40244

Cookie flavors came and went with the times. The first iteration of the still-popular Thin Mint (called a Cooky-Mint) appeared in 1939. Others, like Upside Down Frosted Oatmeal and Juliettes, are long gone. But the extinct cookies aren’t unworthy of attention. When I tried baking the original recipe (available here), I found that the cookies came together quickly and that the recipe made a lot of cookies out of not a lot of butter and flour. Those were some savvy Girl Scouts.

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
Sign up for our email, delivered twice a week.