THE EARLIEST MENTION of a cookie sale in the Girl Scouts' archives dates to 1917 - just five years after the organization was founded - when the Mistletoe Troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma, baked cookies and sold them in the high school cafeteria as a service project. Those girls wouldn't recognize today's cookie sale.

What was a simple snack back then must now take into consideration such contemporary concerns as free-trade chocolate, kosher certification, trans fat, union labor, and American-made ingredients and packaging - issues that are all addressed on the official Girl Scouts website (www.girlscouts.org).

Instead of the home-baked goodies of 90 years ago, the cookies that today's Scouts sell are made by two commercial bakers licensed by the national Girl Scouts office: Little Brownie Bakers and ABC Bakers. These companies may have cutesy images and names, but they're actually subsidiaries of industry giants Keebler and Interbake Foods, respectively. They compete for business, in part, by providing a wide array of marketing materials, from cookie costumes to car magnets to Going Places with Cookies Sales, a career-exploration web tool offered by ABC Bakers to help older Scouts translate cookie-sale skills into career goals.

The bakers provide the all-important cookie slate (see "How the Cookie Crumbles," below) and national marketing themes each year, but all other aspects of the sale are determined by the 300-plus councils, the regional bodies that govern groups of 600 to 65,000 members. Each council independently sets its sales period (usually January through March) and the per-box sales price. That's why the Thin Mints that Victoria sells for $4 in Coronado cost only $3 in St. Louis.

Whatever the sales price, local Scouts, troops, and councils receive 100 percent of the proceeds, which are used to maintain camp facilities, train volunteers, and put on programs. Every penny is prized and long planned for.