The Brownie Story

Where Did Brownies Get Their Name?

Have you ever wondered how Brownies got their name? One of our staffers reminded us about a story she’d heard as a little girl as part of her investiture ceremony when she joined her Brownie troop. This made us curious what else we could find out, and we wanted to share with you! If you’re looking for Brownies in the delicious chocolate sense, the best we can do is point you here. But since we’re talking Girl Scout Brownies, we thought it’d make our search easier, if slightly less yummy! Since we knew that Girl Scout Daisies were named after Juliette Gordon Low’s nickname as a child (Daisy), we thought tracking down the Brownie origin would be an adventure, plus we’d learn something.

Brownie Origins

Once upon a time, the level of Girl Scouting we know as Brownies was called Rosebuds. But the girls who were Rosebuds didn’t like their name, so they asked Lord Baden-Powell (the founder of Boy Scouting, which later inspired Juliette Gordon Low to create Girl Scouting) to come up with a new name. Back to Brownies. Now here’s where there’s a little mystery involved. Most people believe Lord Baden-Powell named the Brownies after Juliana Horatia Ewing’s 1870’s story, The Brownies, about a couple of helpful Brownie children. But did you know that Brownies existed in folklore before that? There are some people who believe that Lord Baden-Powell heard about Brownies in folk tales when he was a child, and that he used the Brownies from those stories as inspiration.

So what were Brownies like in folk tales? They were described as small, good-natured spirits or goblins (sometimes called “magical little people”) that would appear during the night and do good deeds around the house, without ever having to be asked to help. They never let the people see them at work, but those who caught glimpses of them described them as very small, with brown hair and skin. And sometimes the Brownies weren’t so nice, they’d set up pranks on the houses they visited! Of course, these pranks were harmless and mostly silly, so nobody minded too much. There are even rumors that a Ukrainian man has opened up a museum all about Brownies!

The Brownie Story

Though there are some great stories about Brownies in folk tales, we love Juliana’s story and the way she talks about Brownies. You can read her whole story here, but we also found this version which is much shorter and simple enough for even the youngest kids. This quick read is not only fun, but easy to remember so you can share with others!

The cottage on the edge of the wood was in an awful mess. There were dishes to be washed, clothes to be ironed and toys scattered all over the floor. Tommy and Betty didn’t care. They hated boring old housework. “What I am going to do?” their mother sighed. “I can’t keep the cottage tidy. If only we had a Brownie!”

“What’s a Brownie?” asked Tommy. “A Brownie is a magical little creature, which slips into houses very early before anyone is awake. It tidies toys, irons clothes, washes dishes and does all sorts of helpful things in secret,” replied his mother.

“That’s great! How can we get one?” wondered Betty. “The Wise Owl in the wood would know I suppose,” her mother said.

Late that night, Tommy and Betty crept out of the cottage into the wood. It was cold and dark and full of shadows. Or were they ghosts? “We can’t go back. We’ve got to find the Wise Owl,” said Betty firmly. “Twitt twoo. How do you do?” a voice hooted at them from a nearby tree. “The Wise Owl!” Tommy hugged Betty in relief.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Libertygrace0

And soon the children were seated on a branch snuggling close to the big bird’s feathers. They explained they were looking for a Brownie. “Do you know where we could find one?” asked Betty. “Indeed I do” hooted the Owl, and, placing her beak close to Betty’s ear, she explained.

“Tommy, imagine!” exclaimed Betty. “There’s a Brownie in that pool over there. I’ve got to go to the pool over there. I’ve got to turn round three times and say:

“Twist me and turn me and show me the elf, I looked in the water and there saw…”. “Who? Who? Who?” hooted the Owl. “Look into the water and you’ll find your Brownie looking back at you. Her name will finish the rhyme.

The children raced over to the pool. Betty did exactly as the Owl had said: “Twist me and turn me and show me the elf, I looked in the water and there saw…” She looked into the pool. “Well, can you see it? Can you see a Brownie?” yelled Tommy, hopping from foot to foot in excitement. “No,” said Betty, All I can see is my own reflection.”

Tommy and Betty were so tired and disappointed that by the time they reached the tree again, they were in tears. “Boo, hoo, hoo. What’s the matter with you two?” hooted the Owl, offering them a hanky. “We didn’t find a Brownie,” sniffed Betty. “I saw no one in the water but myself.” “Well, well” said the Owl. “Let’s see if that fits the rhyme.” “Twist me and turn me and show me the elf, I looked in the water and there saw…” “Myself!” finished Betty. “But I’m not a Brownie!” “Too true, too true,” hooted the Owl. “But you could act like one for a change and so could Tommy. It would be fun.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Libertygrace0

Tommy and Betty returned thoughtfully to the cottage. If you had passed that way very early next morning, you would have seen a lamp burning in the kitchen window and two figures busily scurrying about inside. And when the children’s mother came down for breakfast, she couldn’t believe her eyes. There wasn’t a toy in sight. Everything was clean and tidy. “Why, a Brownie has been here. How wonderful!” she gasped.

From that day to this, the cottage has been a different place. And Tommy and Betty have been like different children. They never get bored now; they are too busy planning their secret good turns. Of course, their mother has discovered the truth. She thinks she is very lucky to have such helpful children. And Tommy and Betty have discovered how right the Wise Owl was: being human Brownies is FUN!

We hope you now understand why our Brownie leaders are called Owls and where the name Brownies comes from. When we make our promise we go through the woods (the other Brownies pretend to be the trees) and to the pool at the centre of our Brownie ring, where we say the same rhyme that Betty did.

You may be interested to know that make believe Brownies were supposed to dance around toadstools, which is why some packs have a toadstool at the centre of the ring.

Have you heard this story before? Did you grow up with folk tales about the other kind of Brownies instead?

7 Responses

  1. Having our first Brownie meeting ! Our girls will love this brownie story, thanks!
    St. Peter’s Girl Scouts
    Covington, LA
    Troop 30173

  2. i found the story of the fairy story fascinating.thanks for assuring I found it online. thanks for sharing knowledge it seems so true to the understanding of child like memories.

  3. So much of what I recall about the Brownies experience seems steaped in tradition and lour. I find it hard to believe that the details and wording of the ceremony could be coincidence, Especially considering that many ancient fairy tails are rooted in the brocken and reworked memories of cultures lost to time,
    It is a pity that someone made up this new tail reshaping Brownies as a modern children’s thing. It’s a worthy ceremony story. I just hat that it has been classified as the original Brownie story. It has certainly blocked my search for the historical origins.

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