Boy Scout California merit Badge sash layout

BSA Merit Badge Samples
Gardening, (centre)
Fish & Wildlife Management, (upper right)
Citizenship In The Home, (lower right)
Collections, (lower left)
Camping, (upper left)

The history of merit badges in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has been tracked by categorizing them into a series of merit badge types. In addition to the Boy Scouts of America, many other Scouting and Scouting-like organizations around the world, such as Pathfinders, Baden-Powell Scouts and Royal Rangers, issue merit badges or their equivalent; though they are sometimes called honours or proficiency badges. Other organizations, such as fire brigades, issue badges or awards that they refer to as merit badges, but that are in some respects different from the badges awarded by the BSA.

Merit badges have been an integral part of the Scouting program since the start of the movement in the United Kingdom on August 1, 1907. Scouting came to the United States in 1910; the BSA quickly issued an initial list of just 14 merit badges, but did not produce or award them. In 1911, the BSA manufactured the first official 57 merit badges and began awarding them. The number of badges available has been as high as 140 and, as of 2006, is 121. Merit badge types are identifiable by the cloth and manufacturing process used to make them. The classification of badges into types came about as a way for collectors to categorize and classify their collections. Merit badge collectors often collect other Scouting memorabilia as well.

Purpose of merit badges

Merit badges exist to encourage Scouts to explore areas that interest them and to teach them valuable skills in Scoutcraft. The award of merit badges sometimes leads to careers and lifelong hobbies. Scouts earn a merit badge by satisfying specified criteria; a Court of Honour is then held to present the badge. Scouts can earn badges at any point in their Scouting career, although this was not always the case — in the 1960s, Scouts first had to earn the rank of Second Class Scout before being allowed to work on and earn badges. The higher ranks of Star, Life Scout and Eagle require merit badges be earned. Certain badges are mandatory to receive these higher ranks. For a few years during the 1980s and 90s, " First Aid" merit badge was a requirement for the First Class Scout rank. Other mandatory badges include "Citizenship in the Community" and "Environmental Science" (see full list). The number of merit badges required for each of these higher ranks has varied historically, as has the ratio of mandatory merit badges and non-mandatory badges for those ranks. As of 2005, Scouts must earn a total of 21 merit badges for the Eagle Scout rank, 12 of which must be from the mandatory list. Once Scouts attain the Eagle rank, they can earn Eagle Palms, a core requirement of which is earning more merit badges.

Badge history

The BSA changes the design, name, and availability of merit badges depending on various factors such as their popularity, shifts in the focus of the Scouting program, and changes in society. Of the original 57 merit badges from 1911, only 11 are still available that also still have the same basic design motif (Architecture, Art, Athletics, Chemistry, First Aid, Lifesaving, Music, Plumbing, Public Health, Scholarship, and Surveying). Of those 11, only five were made available in each "generation" of the 10 merit badge types (these are Architecture, Art, Chemistry, Plumbing, and Public Health). The remaining six were not reproduced in a short lived "generation" of merit badges.

Examples of merit badge change due to the degree of popularity/interest in a subject include " Interpreting", which only existed from 1911-1952, when it was dropped; and "Genealogy" which was added in 1972 when great interest in that subject arose.

A good example of merit badges reflecting changes in the focus of the Scouting program is " Civics", which was originally the only citizenship-related merit badge. In 1952, the BSA placed more emphasis on this area by splitting "Civics" into four separate badges, which were in turn modified several times. Since 1991, the badges in this group are "Citizenship in the Community", "Citizenship in the Nation", "Citizenship in the World", and "Family Life", all of which are currently on the mandatory list for Eagle Scout.

The "First Aid to Animals" and "Plant Science" merit badges have both evolved due to societal changes. "First Aid to Animals" was one of the original merit badges in 1911 but was dropped because of its agricultural focus in 1972. It was resurrected as "Veterinary Science" in 1973 with a focus on small pet-type animals vs. farm animals. It was renamed " Veterinary Medicine" in 1995. Merging of merit badges can be seen in "Plant Science", into which all crop growing merit badges were merged in 1972 because America had changed from an agrarian society into and an urban/ suburban society since the founding of the BSA.

Sometimes the design of or requirements for a merit badge seem to change for no apparent reason. An example of this is "Personal Health", which was an original 1911 merit badge with a heart motif. In 1952 it became "Personal Fitness". In 1969 it was redesigned, displaying a youth in gym gear doing what looks like a jumping jack exercise. Currently, the BSA is "field testing" a Hunting merit badge, but it has not yet been released on a national basis.

The merit badges on the mandatory list for Eagle rank have changed several times; however, "First Aid" is the only merit badge that has always been on the mandatory list for Eagle. In 1969, the BSA began manufacturing those merit badges that are required in order to obtain the rank of Eagle Scout with a silver border vice the green border.

Types of merit badges

As of 2005 and as described in Merit Badge Field Guide, there are 10 major types of merit badges: Types A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J.

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