I am an Eagle Scout, and I was given this history of it by my scoutmaster after I got the rank.
History of the Eagle Scout Rank
The early advancement program of the Boy Scouts of America was patterned directly after Baden-Powell's English system, using the same three basic classes of Scouts-Tenderfoot, Second and First Class. By 1911, however, when the first American Handbook for Boys was produced, three categories were added beyond First Class to signify the earning of specified numbers of merit badges. While the English system had "All Round Scout" and "King Scout'; the BSA. Handbook listed "Life Scout"; "Star Scout"; and "Eagle Scout": These titles seem not to have been regarded as ranks or classes, but as "merit badges" themselves, since they are listed without special subtitle under the merit badges. Further, the Eagle is described as "the highest Scout Merit Badge".
As is usual with a fledgling organization there was some early confusion about the design of the Eagle Badge. The Handbook of 1911 shows a drawing quite different from the Eagle we are familiar with, in fact, when Arthur Eldred was certified by a Board of Review on August 21,1912, there was no die for the medal. He did receive the award on Labor Day in a form essentially the same as it is now, though the quality of modeling was very poor.
By 1915, 96 boys earned the Eagle badge, but the number of Scouts annually earning this honor was growing steadily, until 1922 over 2,000 Eagle badges were awarded.
In the early part of the 1920's the list of merit badges required for Eagle included First Aid, Life Saving, Personal Health, Public Hearth, Civics, Cooking, Camping, Bird Study, Pathfinding, Pioneering, and Athletics or Physical Development, with 10 badges left to the individual's choice. Around 1923, Swimming was added to the list, reducing the elective badges to 9 out of 21. The same year saw authorization of three new types of insignia for Eagles-a cloth badge to be worn on the uniform pocket; a metal miniature for use on the Scout hat; and an Eagle Scout ring.
In 1924, Life and Star ranks were reversed so that Star was earned before Life. Since more than 3,200 boys earned the Eagle rank that year, serious thought was given to creating another award beyond the Eagle. Current thinking then was that any such award should be based on "civic service-'participating citizenship'-rather than merely on merit badges".
The resulting plan was finally adopted in 1926 and appeared in the new 1927 edition of the Scout Handbook. There had been a compromise, however, in which the Eagle award was retained as the highest rank but palms could be added to it for earning additional merit badges-bronze palm for 5, gold for 10, and silver for 15. But the Eagle rank itself was changed to incorporate an emphasis on continual implementation of the Scout Oath and Law, the motto, and the daily Good Turn. The Scout's record of service with the troop would be taken into account and a minimum time line of one year was imposed from the time the First Class badge was earned until the Eagle Award could be attained.
When the new requirements appeared in 1927, the annual rate for Eagles was at 4,500 and increasing at about 1,000 per year. In the meantime, 50 years in advance, an event had occurred which foreshadowed today's National Eagle Scout Association: the formation in April 1925 of the "Knights of Dunamis" by a service-oriented group of young Eagles under the guidance of the then Scout Executive of San Francisco, Raymond O. Hansen. This nucleus grew through the years, spreading across America. It is its record of service, coupled with that of other more local Eagle Scout associations, which NESA is now expanding and improving.
In 1932 9,200 Eagle Scout badges were awarded. For the next six years the number fluctuated around 7,000 annually, probably because of the economic situation of the Depression, although in 1939 the number jumped up to 10,000 Eagle awards in 1 year. The military draft and World War II wreaked havoc with Scouting's leadership of the 1940's and the number began to fluctuate again.
The Boy Scout Handbook, in the first printing of its fifth edition in 1948, listed 12 required merit badges for the Eagle rank: First Aid, Lifesaving, Personal Health, Public Health, Cooking, Camping, Civics, Bird Study, Pathfinding, Safety, Pioneering, and Athletics or Physical Development. A total of 8,016 boys earned each of those 12 merit badges and 9 others to become Eagle Scouts in 1948. Their advancement program differed little from that of every previous Eagle since 1931, when Safety had been added and Swimming temporarily dropped as required merit badges.
By the mid-1950's, however, with over 14,000 Eagles awards earned annually, the whole requirement system was undergoing revision.
Similarly, the Eagle medal itself underwent major revision. The shape and detail of the bird were greatly improved and the back was made flat instead of feathered. The letters "BSA", however, were still left off the front.
In the early 1960's the requirements for all Scouting's ranks underwent another major revision, and Eagle was no exception. By 1963, with over 27,000 Eagles awarded that year, the Eagle requirements became more specific, and less options were offered.
The Improved Scouting Program of the early 1970's was, in many ways, a reaction to the changes undergone by our society in the preceding decades. The aim was to make the Scouting movement including its highest rank, more relevant and meaningful in a modern world. As presented in the first issues of the eighth edition of the Scout Handbook, printed in 1972, the Eagle rank now requires 21 merit badges-the first increase since 1912 when the initial Eagle badge was awarded.
Throughout the years that the Eagle award has been the topmost achievement in Scouting's advancement program, over 1,000,000 boys and men have earned the right to wear the badge. Many changes have been seen in the requirements for the award, the procedures for earning it, and even the shape and design of the badge. One thing has remained constant, however, and that is the quality of the character the award represents. Wearers of the badge bear the mark of their achievement for the rest of their lives.