Ever since its debut in 1904, the Olympic gold medal has represented the pinnacle of athletic achievement.
But if gold signifies the best in sports, why does the Boy Scouts of America use silver to represent its top awards?
Take the Eagle Palms, introduced in 1927, as an example. An Eagle Scout who earns five merit badges beyond the minimum amount (and meets other requirements) will receive a Bronze Palm. He’ll get a Gold Palm for 10 extra merit badges and a Silver Palm for 15.
And what does the BSA call its top national-level award for volunteers? It’s the Silver Buffalo. There’s no Gold Buffalo Award.
It’s because BSA recognition originally was based around the military model, where silver is higher than gold, as in a First Lieutenant with a silver bar outranks a Second Lieutenant with a gold bar.
But why did the military choose this order to begin with?
The Institute of Heraldry has the explanation. From the beginning, the Army used silver stars to indicate a general’s grade. The generals wore these stars on gold epaulettes, so the stars were silver for maximum visibility.
As the Institute explains, epaulettes and insignia evolved over the years, making design and color changes necessary to distinguish ranks.
Since generals already had silver stars, silver was considered established for higher ranks.
The practice of using silver for officer ranks continued until shortly after the start of World War I, when a need arose for metal insignia to represent Second Lieutenants, who rank right below First Lieutenants.
The problem was that the U.S. already used a single silver bar for First Lieutenants, and officials didn’t want the hassle or expense of changing the policy for all officers. So rather than overhauling everything, they chose the single gold bar for Second Lieutenant. At that point, the practice of silver outranking gold was established once and for all.
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