The Girls Incorporated movement started in New England during the Industrial Revolution as a response to the needs of a new working class: young women who had migrated from rural communities in search of newly available job opportunities in textile mills and factories.
The oldest Girls Incorporated affiliate, formed in 1864 in Waterbury, Connecticut, provided programs not only for young working women but also for younger daughters of mill families who had no place to gather but in the city streets. Other early centers followed the same pattern, and girls flocked into their homelike atmospheres at a time when wages were low and wage earners had little to spend for recreation.
During the Depression, with fathers out of work and mothers leaving home to find part-time work so that they could eke out their slender budgets, Girls Incorporated centers were warm, friendly places where girls could forget their troubles, even though the world outside had fallen into chaos. Girls gave plays, made their own dresses and hats, danced and made lasting friendships. One early member of the Worcester, Massachusetts affiliate said: "I remember doing chores to earn my weekly five?cent fee so that I could attend the program. I went without candy, gum, ice cream and movies so that I could belong. Because I knew there was a place for me, and always felt as though the club wanted me."
In the middle thirties, Dora Dodge, executive director of the Worcester affiliate, published an article in a national magazine, which pointed out the growing needs of girls in the congested areas of American cities. Questions poured in from people who had been aware of the problems of girls in their own communities. So Ms. Dodge invited other directors of similar organizations in Pittsfield and Springfield to talk over common problems, discuss ways of bringing about better programs and facilities, and to create publicity that could strengthen all girls' organizations.
For ten years, this informal association ran deep, until through the women's continued efforts, representatives of 19 interested organizations met in Springfield on May 18, 1945 to form Girls Clubs of America. Total assets of the fledgling organization were $72.64, and its headquarters was the guestroom of the founding president, Rachel Harris Johnson of Worcester. From its beginning, the national organization had two major concerns — to exchange information on programs relevant to girls and to help communities establish new centers.
Programming in the early days was focused on recreation and on preparing girls for their future roles as wives and homemakers. Every local organization had courses in cooking, sewing, knitting; some offered dramatics and swimming. During the 1950s, even though many women did work outside the home, women's roles as wives and mothers were romanticized as the ultimate in femininity. Where a century earlier, women had fought for higher education, by the mid-1950's, 60 percent of female college students dropped out to marry, or because they were afraid too much education might reduce their chances for marriage.
In a sign of the times, the organization's first national award, established in 1952, was "Young Homemaker of the Year." And in 1955, John H. Breck, Inc. funded the publication of the Handbook of Charm. Topics included care of the hair, skin, eyes, hands and teeth, how to improve posture, and a charming wardrobe. Pointers on manners included: "Don't monopolize a conversation. Don't interrupt when others talk. When at any public gathering, conduct yourself in a ladylike, considerate manner … don't be conspicuous and call a lot of unnecessary attention to yourself."
It is interesting to note that Girls Incorporated maintained its traditional focus clear through the 1960s. The original statement of purpose and philosophy, written in 1937, was: "Little girls of today are the homemakers of the future, and the mothers of the next generation of citizens. Opportunities given to them now for cultural background, for building healthy minds and bodies, for training in homecraft and a basic knowledge of motherhood — these determine the standards of our future homes."
A document from the 20th Anniversary celebration in 1965 stated: "Let us simply rededicate ourselves continuously to those good old principles which have brought us in fairly good health to this day."
Those principles would soon change as Girls Incorporated responded to the changing times. But first it had to secure more financial stability.