Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and pals all had the same dad


Smithsonian Magazine - October 1992

Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and pals all had the same dad
by Bruce Watson

On the loveliest of spring mornings in 1910, a middle-aged juvenile awoke in his peaceful New Jersey home and his dreams began. Showering, he outlined the lively scenario for another title in the "Dorothy Dale, A Girl of Today" series. Dressing in tight starched collar, suspenders and tweeds, he sent Jack Ranger and his chums in search of danger. Shaving, he chuckled over the haps and mishaps of two adorable pairs of twins at the seashore. And if he seemed distracted at breakfast, blame it on the lion he was stalking with his electric rifle.
"Tom's killed him with his electric rifle!" cried Mr. Damon. "Bless my dynamo! But that's a wonderful gun; it's as powerful as
a thunderbolt, or as gentle as summer shower."
On the train to Manhattan, his wire-rimmed glasses and Victorian demeanor might have labeled him deacon or a school-master. But in his own mind he was Baseball Joe pitching on a boarding-school nine. Walk-
ing up 25th Street, the author became a young sleuth bound for action and plenty of it! A block from his office, a speeding car went out of control and bolted straight for him! In a flash, the wide-awake de-tective leapt out of harm's way! That was close! But look! A runaway truck was bearing down on a woman and her two helpless children! With-out missing a beat the brave hero jumped into the cab! He slammed on the brakes and guided the hulking vehicle to a halt!
"What luck!" he remarked to himself.
By the time he reached his office his imagination was in fifth gear. He summoned his secretary and for the rest of the day, if anyone called, he was out on adventures. Who was the mysterious author? He was: Arthur M. Winfield, Captain Ralph Bonehill, Alice B. Emerson, Roy Rockwood, Margaret Penrose, Captain Quincy Allen, Laura Lee Hope, Jack Lancer and a host of others. But at 5 o'clock when he caught the train back home, he was himself again, Edward Stratemeyer.
Even to his readers, Edward Stratemeyer needs a lengthy intro-duction. Ask a librarian to name the most influential American author and the usual writers will he trotted out. But ask who, disguised as numerous mild-mannered scribes, dominated his genre as no other author before or since, and there are some bets to be won around the juvenile section of your local library.
Edward Stratemeyer was not a mere author; he was a literary
machine. Like the upwardly mobile characters of his early stories, he was an innocent in the promised land, a dime-novel writer who struck it rich. Between 1900 and 1930, he turned his uncanny sense of young readers tastes into an action and adventure factory that churned out more than 1,300 juvenile novels in 125 different series written under scores of distinct and slightly stilted pseudonyms.
From this one imagination came the fearless deep-sea diver Dave Fearless, the dashing aviator Dave Dashaway, and "manly, up-to-date" young men like the Rover Boys, the Darewell Churns and Don Sturdy. For girls, Stratemeyer created the first action heroines, including Ruth Fielding, the Outdoor Girls, and the Moving Picture Girls. And for younger children, he created syrupy gumdrops like Honey Bunch, and Bunny Brown and his Sister Sue, cute enough to raise your blood sugar in a single page.
Most of Stratemeyer's characters have passed with their times, but some have endured and adapted to become cliches in children's li-terature. Librarians may be surprised to know that there was no Victor Appleton, creator of Tom Swift. There was no Franklin W. Dixon, author of the Hardy Boys, no Laura Lee Hope of the Bobbsey Twins, not even a Carolyn Keene, creator of Nancy Drew. All these legendary creators and legendary characters were conceived by the adroit mind of Edward Stratemeyer.

A secretive author's Rx for happiness

A stream of series fiction, born out of his Stratemeyer Syndicate and mass-marketed at 50 cents a copy, boosted Stratemeyer's lifetime sales to more than 200 million copies, enough to circle the globe with action, adventure and exclamation points. But while he is counting his money, let us leave our hero and his inventions for a moment to recap his earlier deeds.
And so, while he is watching that awful plunge with the fear of impending death in his heart, it may be well for the benefit of those who have not read the preceding volumes of this series to tell who Ted Scott was and what his adventures had been up to the time this story opens.
There are as many mysteries in Stratemeyer's life as in his stories. Since no definitive biography of the straitlaced author has ever been written, deciphering his life is a task worthy of Frank and Joe Hardy, with a little help from Nancy Drew herself.
Joe murmured, "Funny he's so secretive about where he lives and works.'
Chet scoffed. "There you go again, making a mystery out of it."
Down the secret path of childhood, our first clue comes in a boy's reading. "As a boy... I had quite a library, including many of Optic's and Alger's books," Stratemeyer observed in a rare interview. "At seven or eight when I was reading them I said: 'If I could only write books like that I'd be the happiest person on earth.'"
In post-Civil War America the juvenile market was dominated by the dime novels, whose creators included Oliver Optic and Horatio Alger jr. While wide-eyed dreamers turned the pages of Ragged Dick, Tattered Tom, Do and Dare and Poor and Proud, ordinary boys rose from poverty to giddy success. Optic, Alger and other dime novelists churned out 100,000 words a month for magazines and book publishers, barely enough to satisfy the rags-to-riches fantasies of youths mired in the mean cities or stuck behind a plow. Growing up in the 1870s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, young Edward Stratemeyer, son of a German im-migrant who had ventured to California during the gold rush, read as many dime novels as he had dimes.
In both Alger and Optic, a meteoric rise depended on sheer re-sourcefulness, virtue and one pivotal moment when the hero took a chance, dared to be great - and the rest was myth. For Stratemeyer, the crossroads came in 1889.
He had got no further than the eighth grade. By the time he set out to make his fortune, enviable young boys were bound for prep schools. The 27-year-old Stratemeyer, working in his brother's tobacco store, could only imagine such adventure. One slow afternoon in this fateful year, he tore some brown wrapping paper from a roll behind the store counter and began to write a story. Stratemeyer sent "Victor Horton's Idea," on its original wrapping paper, to Golden Days, a boys' magazine in Philadelphia. A few weeks later he received a check for $75, six times his weekly wage.

Brains, luck, a dollop of pluck

By 1892, Stratemeyer was selling dozens of his sudden-success stories. Soon he was hired as an editor at Street&Smith, the prolific juvenile publisher. There he worked with Upton Sinclair, then known for the "True Blue" series and later famous for The Jungle and other muck-raking novels. Stratemeyer published 16 dime novels in three years. But he might have remained just another Walter Mitty with a pen had not luck intervened.
"Isn't she lucky? Wish I were in her shoes."
"Lucky? It's brains and pluck."
Brains, luck, a dollop of pluck, perhaps it was all three. In 1898, a few days after Commodore Dewey steamed into Manila Bay, Strat-emeyer had completed his adventure about two boys on a battleship. The Spanish-American War was front-page news, and the publisher asked Stratemeyer to change a few elements, such as the plot and setting, in his novel. Within a month, Under Dewey at Manilla or, The War Fortunes of a Castaway was on the newstands. The thrill-a-minute book went through four printings, and pub-lishers clamored for more.
Happy to oblige, Stratemeyer sent his boy heroes charging up San Juan Hill and fighting in the jungles, of Luzon. Soon his "Old Glory" series was selling like hotcakes. But like his own protagonists, Stratemeyer could not have dreamed of the adventures that lay ahead. In the late 19th century, dime-novel writers measured their success in thousands of copies. Stratemeyer would measure his in millions. His good fortune had as much to do with the market itself as with his own tactics, as our second clue to his achievements, found in an old his-tory book, suggests.
When Stratemeyer himself was a mere boy, children did not have time to be "teenagers." The harsh economics of an industrializing America turned most children into instant adults, working, competing, having children themselves. But by 1900, social consciousness and prosperity were beginning to prolong childhood, creating a new stage of life - adolescence.
From 1900 to 1930, Stratemeyer's golden years, adolescence came of age. Restrictive child labor laws ordained compulsory schooling until age 16. Even after mastering his lessons, the 13-year-old stu-dent had far more free time than his working counterpart of the pre-vious century. With no TV or radio, no George Lucas, no Elvis, no Hard Rock Cafes, young Americans looked elsewhere for adventure. They looked to fantasy and fiction.
In 1899, when nearly half the population was under 20, Strat-emeyer created the "Rover Boys Series for Young Americans." "To those who have read any of the previous volumes in this 'Rover Boys Series'" he wrote, "the three brothers will need no special introduction. For the benefit of new readers allow me to state that Dick was the oldest, fun-loving Tom next, and Sam the youngest. They were the sons of Anderson Rover, widower and rich mine owner . . ."
Unwittingly, or possibly by sheer resourcefulness, Stratemeyer had stumbled upon a formula that would define juvenile fiction for the next 50 years. In the first decade of the new century, airplanes, cars, radios and movies entered the public imagination. Peary reached the North Pole, miners flocked to the Alaskan frontier and American inventors, statesmen and athletes dominated the headlines. Suddenly, "rags-to-riches" was no longer the only dream. Adolescents trapped in a classroom, tenement or city yearned to journey to distant lands, go to college, toy with technology, play in the major leagues. And being adolescents, they wanted to do all this as if there were no such thing as parents.

Fiction full of slam-bang action

As his gift to juveniles, Stratemeyer created the teen,"wide- awake" boys and girls who could drive cars, fly airplanes, perform Houdini escapes, even quote Shakespeare. Orphaned or under the care of a single parent who was always out of town, Stratemeyer's superteens enjoyed unlimited freedom. In book after book, their mile-a-minute adventures sent them to camp, to the prairie, to college, to Mexico, the Pacific, the Rockies. Unlike the literature peddled by teachers, Stratemeyer's serial fiction was full of slam-bang action, cliff- hanging adventure.
Every red-blooded boy will enjoy the thrilling adventures of Don Sturdy. In company with his uncles, one a big game hunter, the other a noted scientist, he travels far and wide - into the jungles of South America, across the Sahara, deep into the African jungle, up where the Alaskan volcanoes spout, down among the head hunters of Borneo and many other places where there is danger and excitement.
The peripatetic Rover Boys quickly became the nation's best-
selling children's heroes. Several spin-offs followed. Stratemeyer's heroes were "lively, flesh-and-blood fellows." His heroines were career girls long before "having it all" became popular.
" There she is! That girl in the blue sweater is Ruth Fielding!"
"You mean the one giving orders through the megaphone? She looks too young to be a moving picture director."
By 1910, American youth was ready for outer space. That year
Stratemeyer created that hero of juvenile science fiction, Tom Swift. The "bright, ingenious youth quickly set about inventing an airship, a submarine, a phototelephone and a giant cannon to protect the Panama Canal. As Tom flew Red Cloud around the world, his sales soon sur-passed the Rover Boys'.
A third clue to the enigmatic author's accomplishments can be un-earthed deep in his psyche. Stratemeyer knew the juvenile mind because when he sat down to write, his was a juvenile mind. Living the ad-ventures that early hard work had denied him, he was Tom Swift stalking the lion. He was Sam Rover frantically mending a burst steam pipe on a riverboat. Sometimes, if a fellow writer was on hand, Stratemeyer would duck behind his desk and stage a mock shoot-out.
When the story was finished, edited, polished, Stratemeyer matured instantly and became the consummate businessman. He kept all rights to his books, even after publication. If a publisher balked, Stratemeyer found another, quick as a flash! In 1906, a few years before the Model T, he convinced one publisher to lower the price of his books from $1.25 a copy to 50 cents. Sales soared, and other publishers quickly followed suit.
Throughout his life, Stratemeyer also kept his domestic life serene, so that he could wander in his mind. At home in suburban New Jersey, while living the family life of a father of two, he bowled, rooted for Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants, and drove an automobile. At work he dreamed excitement aplenty, dictating 7,500 words from 9 to 5. But even at such a pace, how could one man produce 1,300 books bearing his name(s)?
Realizing that he had many more characters and plots than he could possibly work into full novels, in 1906 Stratemeyer came up with his most fruitful idea yet. He began fashioning story ideas into de-tailed three page outlines. He sent these sketches to aspiring authors whom he had lured through the classifieds. Within a month, each hired pen would flesh an outline into a full novel. Stratemeyer edited the final work, checked it for consistency with previous books and sent it to the publisher.
His writers earned from $50 to $250 per book, signed away all rights to the Stratemeyer Syndicate and agreed never to divulge their true identities. Stratemeyer also made certain, by staggering their appointments, that no two of his authors ever chanced to meet and compare pseudonyms. Thus, the syndicate's products came out under a flow of fictitious names.
Lester Chadwick penned "Baseball Joe." Roy Rockwood dashed off "Dave Dashaway," "Speedwell Boys" and "Bomba the Jungle Boy" series. Laura Lee Hope authored the "Moving Picture Girls," the "Outdoor Girls" and in her spare time, the "Bobbsey Twins." Each writer was a certified expert Lester Chadwick, the publisher's blurb noted, "has played on the diamond and on the gridiron himself." Margaret Penrose, author of the "Motor Girls" series, ''besides being an able writer, is an expert automobilist."

Rules for churning 'em out by the hundreds

Many of the actual writers were journalists who wrote a few books and then found more gainful employment. But a few rivaled Stratemeyer for productivity. Howard Garis, the real Victor Appleton of Tom Swift fame, also created his own popular Uncle Wiggily stories for children. His wife, Lillian, wrote many of the girls' series. But all of the characters, all of the plots, came from Stratemeyer himself, who also found time to dictate a book or two of his own every week.
In order to be present at the creation of more than 1,300 books written by a host of authors, Stratemeyer established rules for his writers. Rule No. 1: a series was to be introduced with three books. If these sold well, more followed. After seven titles, a series was said to be a "breeder." The more-successful series bred into the second generation. By the 1902s, the Rover Boys settled down, married their sweethearts and had roving sons whose adventures filled the last ten books of the series. In the 1950s, when the name Stratemeyer on the syndicate door belonged to the author's elder daughter, Harriet, Tom Swift begat Tom Swift jr., written by Victor Appleton II.
Rule No. 2: the previous books in the series were to be reviewed in the first chapter, thus telling readers what derring-do they had missed. Rule No. 3: the upcoming book would be previewed in the final chapter.
"Well, I suppose our good times and our adventures are over now," said Sam. But he was mistaken. Good times and strange adventures still awaited them, and what some of those were will be told in the next volume of this series to be entitled "The Rover Boys On the Farm; or, Last Days at Putnam Hall."
In between recap and preview, almost anything could happen. Early on, the Rover Boys developed a talent for having their luggage stolen. The Hardy Boys later proved adept at exploring claustrophobic spaces like caves, old forts and deserted cabins. Nancy Drew, though a skilled pilot, driver and motorboat captain, could never seem to find a vehicle without a jammed throttle, a flat tire, bum steering or faulty brakes.
Like other Stratemeyer hometowns, Nancy's River Heights was a quiet, peaceful glen teeming beneath the surface with smugglers, thieves, brazen teenagers and common folk who would hit you over the head and drag you into a closet at the first opportunity. As if that weren't bad enough, Stratemeyer hometowns were besieged daily by thunderstorms and torrential rains. But somehow the plucky pro-tagonists and their chums arrived home safely - home, where their parent or guardian gave full approval to their death-defying ad-ventures. Superteens one and all, they refused any reward, settling for lemonade or cookies.
"We owe you and the others a great deal."
"All of you are regular heroes."
"Heroes? Pooh!" sniffed Tom. "Nothing of the sort. We are just wide-awake American boys."
From conception to publication, a syndicate book was produced in 40 days. By 1912, luck, pluck and keen business acumen helped the Stratemeyer Syndicate keep 22 different series in progress, each accounting for three to five new adventures per year. Each book sold through several printings, and Stratemeyer took home $50,000 a year when $50,000 was real loot. Looking back on Stratemeyer's career, Fortune magazine summed up the production succinctly: "As oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer."
A business magazine might dare to call "Ralph of the Railroad" literature, but others were not so sure. Perhaps it was the stilted style. "Dick! Dick! Are you killed?" Sam Rover asks his wounded brother in one adventure. Maybe it was the Stratemeyer habit of never having his characters "say" anything. For page after page, characters suggest, smile, remark, mutter, reason, muse, murmur or ejaculate their words. Perhaps it was just jealousy. As series fiction by Stratemeyer and his numerous imitators flooded the market, critics with cultivated literary tastes raised eyebrows. Eventually they raised a fuss.
As adolescence matured in the public imagination of the early l900s, so did its flip side - juvenile delinquency. Every Stratemeyer work had a villain or two, a fallen teen or jealous rival lurking be-hind nefarious schemes in every part of the globe. Ingenuity and virtue conquered each within 250 pages. But many concerned educators and clergy blamed the emerging adolescent culture - and Stratemeyer. As Stratemeyer's syndicate flourished, some librarians banned series fiction from their shelves.
But while teachers pushed Robert Louis Stevenson, the nation's juveniles hid Dave Fearless behind the covers of Kidnapped. Every year more books, more series, came out. Teachers grumbled. Parents got to-gether. And into the thick rode the chief librarian of the Boy Scouts of America.

The perils of "cheap reading"

"The red blooded boy, the boy in his early teens, must have his thrill," wrote Franklin K. Mathiews in 1913, "He craves excitement, has a passion for action . . . and in nothing is this more true than in his reading." All books had thrills, Mathiews wrote, but in sub-versive works like the "Rover Boys," "no effort is made to confine or control these highly explosive elements. The result is that, as some boys read such books, their imaginations are literally 'blown out,' and they go into life as terribly crippled as though by some material explosion they had lost a hand or foot," Mathiews' widely read article, "Blowing Out The Boy's Brains," closed by citing a letter from a parent of a runaway. "He has a good home, and his parents seem quiet but thrifty. The only possible clue I can find is 'cheap reading'"
Mathiews' call to arms led women in Portland, Oregon, to the bookstores, where they urged boys not to buy bombshells like Tommy Tiptop and his Baseball Nine. Some booksellers returned their Tom Swifts. Despite the criticism, Stratemeyer's books continued to sell more than four million copies annually. "Any writer who has the young for an audience," he said, "Can snap his fingers at all the other critics." By 1926, when librarians surveyed young readers' tastes, they found to their disgust that Tom Swift was on 98 per-cent of their students' reading lists.
Stratemeyer had risen from pulp to riches He was a millionaire and a million-selling author many times over. Yet even by the late 1920s, he remained largely unknown to the public. Given that few knew of him then and even fewer now, why was daughter Harriet praised by feminist critics and given honorary degrees from several universities? A final clue comes from a young girl's bookshelf.
"Girls! It's Nancy Drew!" she exclaimed joyfully and made introductions.
As with all series, Stratemeyer himself wrote the first three Nancy Drew mysteries. They were cut in the familiar mold but without the sophomoric humor that often slowed the earlier action tales. These were detective stories whose active "young sleuth'' kept the reader turning pages and reading book after book after book after book after . . .
In her 1930 debut, Nancy Drew drives a convertible, pilots a speedboat, fixes a sprained ankle, repairs a motor, quotes Archimedes and finds a missing will in an old clock. Such expertise quickly made the adventure series of this superteen the best-selling Stratemeyer work of all time, topping the Rover Boys, topping Tom Swift. The equally clever Hardy Boys, created in 1927 just after the Rovers retired, took second place. The two series continue to sell. Through more than 60 mysteries translated into 14 languages, Nancy's sales now top 80 million copies; the Hardys have sold 50 million. In 1978 they even teamed up to meet Dracula in a TV series. Both Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene would be proud - if they existed.
When Stratemeyer died suddenly in May 1930, "the publishers were aghast that the empire might crumble," Harriet Stratemeyer Adams explained in an interview. "They begged my sister and me to continue" Harriet had frequently asked her father for a chance to write, but he had refused. Nancy Drew might have a career, but real women belonged at home, he said. Complying with his dictate about home, Adams moved the syndicate office to her hometown of East Orange, New Jersey. There she began running the Syndicate much as her father had.
Throughout the 1930s and '40s, the number of series gradually declined. But Adams hired writers to keep the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift and the Bobbsey Twins alive. In the 1950s she supervised rewrites of earlier works, updating the technology and eliminating the ethnic stereotypes and dialect, (They continue to be updated, sometimes for the worse, as writer Cullen Murphy recently observed in the Atlantic) She created the successful Dana Girls and Kay Tracey stories. Above all, until her death in 1982 at age 89, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams was the real Carolyn Keene.
A hundred years after Edward Stratemeyer turned brown wrapping paper into gold, his syndicate sells more than two million books per year In a world of Heavy Metal and Ninja Turtles, adolescence seems embattled, a reckless stage of life that strikes at an earlier age these days, lasts longer, baffles doctors and parents alike. But it is still cured only by independence and dreams of omnipotence. No one ever understood this better than Edward Stratemeyer, the prim,
Victorian man-child in his world of thrills, danger and a million
exclamation points.