Are you Prepared for Children’s Book Week? — November 10-15 (1919)
“Safety First Juvenile Book Week” started in 1915 along the lines of “Safe and Sane Fourth of July.” Where one was concerned with injuries from fireworks, the other was obsessed with reading by boys. By 1919 this had evolved into Children’s Book Week. The November dates were designed to coincide with holiday purchases of books for young people. Eventually it shifted towards the late spring months of May to tie in with summer reading at the libraries. It was first suggested by Franklin K. Mathiews of Scotch Plains, New Jersey.
Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) established the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873. He succeeded in getting what is referred to as Comstock Laws passed in the U.S. Congress that made it illegal to send materials through the U.S. postal service that were “obscene, lewd, or lascivious.” However, as a U.S. Postal Inspector, the definition of these standards was left up to him. His group was allowed to carry and use guns on their raids of homes and businesses. They confiscated materials that they determined were in violation of the law. It is perhaps fitting that their logo includes a man throwing books into a bonfire.
Traps for the Young (Funk & Wagnalls, 1883) includes chapters on various forms of entertainment which might appeal to young people, including “Half Dime Novels and Story Papers.” Probably not coincidentally, many newspapers started to carry small anecdotal pieces about the lives of crime that were begun because of reading dime novels or nickel library stories. The articles do not seem to consider that people who are already prone to commit crimes might prefer “literature” that would glorify criminals. Not all dime novels did but some publishers were more likely to emphasize this than others. The entire genre was painted with the same brush, of course.
Franklin K. Mathiews, the Chief Scout Librarian for the Boy Scouts of America attempted to continue the crusade against “dangerous” reading by youth. Like Comstock, he was also from New Jersey and had associations with the Y.M.C.A. where he gave several series of talks to mothers and teachers about raising boys. The “boy problem,” as it was called then was one of the reasons for the establishment of the Boy Scouts of America. Mathiews mentioned the Scouts in some of his presentations. Several of these addressed the issue of the quality of reading material for boys. By the end of September 1912, Mathiews had become formally associated with the Boy Scouts of America as Chief Scout Librarian. Some of the early articles used phrases like “Consulting Book Physician” and “Chief Scout Bookworm.”
As a Baptist minister, it is perhaps not surprising that his best-known article for the November 18, 1914 issue of Outlook magazine, “Blowing Out the Boy’s Brains,” reads in part like a “fire and brimstone” sermon merged with the “perils of dime novels” articles from the newspapers following the publication of Traps for the Young. Comstock is not mentioned in Mathiews’ several articles and talks but the influence seems pretty clear.
“Blowing Out the Boy’s Brains” was reprinted fairly widely in both library journals as well as being reprinted in other magazines and newspapers. It was sufficiently well known to influence later articles, including the April 1934 feature on series books in Fortune magazine called “For It Was Indeed He” which primarily focused on the late Edward Stratemeyer and his Stratemeyer Syndicate productions.
In the article Mathiews raised the scourge of dime novels by stating that many of these hardcover juvenile books were simply repackaged from that form.
This was true for series like Frank Merriwell (a fairly wholesome sports and adventure series) and other volumes published in the Boys’ Own Library, a publisher’s library containing several kinds of stories which were bound similarly and advertised as a unit. Some of the stories were “fix ups” from dime novels, with 3 or 4 making up a book, while others were story paper serials from Good News from Street & Smith. Edward Stratemeyer was its associate editor for a year or more in the 1890s.
However, most series books were new productions so painting all of the inexpensive juvenile series books as repackaged dime novels was inaccurate and unfair.
Other areas of criticism by Mathiews concerned the unrealistic nature of the adventures in which the young protagonists engaged. His example is of a young naval officer of about 16 years of age who is put in charge of one of the U.S. Navy’s new submarines. This most likely refers to one of the Submarine Boys series (1909-1912) volumes published by Altemus. The byline is “Lieutenant Commander Victor G. Durham” which could be either the work of H. Irving Hancock (1868-1922) or Frank G. Patchin (1861-1925), both of whom were writing stories for Altemus at the time of a similar nature.
It is commonly supposed that “Blowing Out the Boy’s Brains” was an attack on Edward Stratemeyer and his Stratemeyer Syndicate method of producing juvenile series books because of this apt passage:
Mathiews did have contact with St. George Rathborne (1854-1939), a writer who was active both with the Stratemeyer Syndicate and working directly with publishers. Rathborne was willing to tell almost anyone in the industry about the books he was writing for several publishers. Stratemeyer warned him against this practice.
Rathborne found that working with Stratemeyer was more satisfactory since his payments were always punctual, upon completion of the manuscript. Many of the publishers he worked for delayed payment for months, often after publication.
Among Rathborne’s stories for publishers were many Boy Scout adventure tales, the very kind that would not have pleased Mathiews since they were likely to contain activities that almost no Boy Scout would do with his troop. Nonetheless, the publishers were happy to have a volume of material to offer to readers who were interested in the new movement.
A writer like John Henry Goldfrap (1879-1917) was nearly one-man juvenile book syndicate, writing several series for Hurst which were published under several pseudonyms. This included Boy Scout stories under the “Howard Payson” name.
The Balzac portion of the Mathiews quote is the part that seems to apply to Stratemeyer since it describes a man with ideas who has hired writers develop the stories from his outlines.
However, when Matheiws wrote to Stratemeyer in March 1915, several months after the famous Outlook article was published, he did not seem to know that Stratemeyer was anything more than a writer of books for boys. He later figured this out and wrote about it. However, it suggests that Mathiews had someone else in mind at the time or that he wasn’t fully informed about the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
Stratemeyer replied to Mathiews on April 10, explaining the delay as due to an illness and travel to the seashore to recuperate. If Stratemeyer had any frustration with Mathiews or the Boy Scouts after “Blowing Out the Boy’s Brains” was published in Outlook and other publications, it is completely absent in this letter.
Stratemeyer did want the Boy Scout audience to be aware of his publications and perhaps purchase and read them. Part of his reply to Mathiews was:
As you must know, we are now issuing through eight large publishing houses the best books for boys and girls to be had, bright and lively as well as up-to- date, but devoid of mere sensationalism, and we want folks, even Boy Scouts, to know it.
Mathiews had inquired about the booklet called Safe and Sane Books for Boys and Girls by “John Tupper Brownell.” This booklet was an advertising vehicle for Stratemeyer Syndicate series volumes. He wrote the text in January 1911, years before Mathiews’ campaign for quality boys’ reading. Stratemeyer had been sending out catalogs of the books he owned from several publishers to families in the days after Thanksgiving each year to encourage holiday sales of his books. This was a more innovative variation. In the preface to the catalog was a quote by “Brownell” that would have found a kindred spirit in Mathiews:
In the last few years, I am sorry to say, a great number of books for young people have been issued that are not worth the paper on which they are printed. Issued by houses of no standing in the publishing trade, they are put out merely to catch the dollar of the purchaser, or the twenty-five cent piece, as the case may be. Many of these books are written by authors who formerly made a specialty of dime and half-dime novels, and the stories are of that order, or worse. These books are filled with hair-raising and impossible situations, and will invariably do more harm than good.
Stratemeyer felt that his stories were far removed from the dime novel class of story and that he was putting something wholesome and of value on the market. While the Syndicate books can be criticized using modern presentism, they were far better, on average, than many other examples of the period on several counts, including some by the authors of whom the Boy Scouts of America approved.
It was not long after communicating with Stratemeyer that Mathiews correctly concluded that “Brownell” was Stratemeyer. One of his lesser-known articles made reference to this.
I don’t know, but I am willing to hazard a guess that this product was manufactured in the fiction factory of that literary genius who some time ago found it best served his purpose to sign himself “John Tupper Brownell.”
By singling out authors and series to avoid (stopping short of suggesting that they be banned), Mathiews put himself up as a target of a lawsuit from a publisher or person like Stratemeyer who felt that this might hurt the sales of the books. If there was any impact, it was apparently minimal.
Instead of continuing to take on Stratemeyer directly, Mathiews and the Boy Scouts of America took a safer approach by finding books they could recommend for boys’ reading.
Books Boys Like Best was first offered to libraries in 1915 and additional copies could be obtained from the Boy Scouts of America for a small fee. They encouraged quantity purchases, of course. The 32-page content was also published in Publishers’ Weekly in the Oct. 23, 1915 issue in anticipation of Christmas orders by booksellers.
The books listed were almost universally from the high-class expensive publishers whose books were often $1. and up compared with the “popular” juvenile series books which retailed for 25¢ to 75¢.
Rather than reflecting a popularity contest among boys as the title might imply, it was instead the recommendations of Mathiews and his colleagues as he was fulfilling his role as “Consulting Book Physician” for the Boy Scouts of America.
The high retail price of the recommended books was an obstacle to their success, however. To address this, Mathiews negotiated with authors and publishers to allow the electrotype printing plates to be used by Grosset & Dunlap, the same publisher used for many Stratemeyer series, in cheaper “popularly priced” editions to compete directly with the Syndicate and other series books.
The Every Boy’s Library was a collection of reprints of these expensive volumes. Sometimes they were the first books in a series from one of these expensive publishers. Most formats featured a large version of the Boy Scouts of America logo on the front cover. They even had the Handbook for Boys published in that form in hardcover. It was normally a paperback.
Other volumes published were classic fiction, including works by Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London. There were also short story collections in the publisher’s library.
The Every Boy’s Library, as a series, was a good seller but it did not have nearly as many copies sold overall as the total number of Rover Boys or Tom Swift series sold based on counts given in George T. Dunlap’s memoir, The Fleeting Years (privately printed, 1937). Of course, since there were more volumes, the numbers sold of any particular title were fewer still.
It was a source of income for the Boy Scouts of America and was one way for them to put their preferred stories out there. If readers wanted more from a series or author sampled in the Every Boy’s Library, they’d have to buy the full-priced editions from the original publishers. This was a benefit to those publishers.
The Books Boys Like Best catalog was expanded in later years to include stories for girls and younger readers. Mathiews continued to curate the list of boys’ stories but other librarians, like Clara Whitehill Hunt, worked on the other sections.
Not long after it was established, the Boy Scouts of America had less and less to do with Children’s Book Week.
For more details on the feud or non-feud between librarians, the Boy Scouts of America and the Stratemeyer Syndicate, see my 2005 presentation to the Popular Culture Association conference “Edward Stratemeyer Responds to Critics: Was There Really a Feud with the Boy Scouts of America?“