After Franklin K. Mathiews’ polemic was published in The Outlook in November 1914, which led to the foundation of Children’s Book Week, there were other articles published to warn parents, teachers, and librarians of the reading they considered to be dangerous to boys and their imaginations.
Walter Prichard Eaton’s Critique of Boy’s Books
One interesting example was written by Walter Prichard Eaton (1878-1957) for the December 1915 issue of the Woman’s Home Companion called “Your Boy’s Christmas Books — Are they the old-time ‘nickel thrillers’ dressed up and sold for fifty cents?” It was reprinted in many newspapers.
Picking up on Mathiews’ theme from “Blowing Out the Boy’s Brains,” Eaton wrote that most of the series books were repackaged dime novels and nickel library volumes in cloth covers to gain a false sense of respectability. There were several series and publisher libraries where the stories were first published as a story paper serial or several dime novel stories. The volumes in the Street & Smith (later and more prolifically David McKay) Boys’ Own Library were edited from serials in story paper publications like Good News.
Stratemeyer and his Concern About Quality Stories
Edward Stratemeyer was involved in editing some of these stories for hardcover book publication as well as the thick pulp-paper softcovers that used the same printing plates. Some of his own “Winfield” and “Bonehill” stories for Good News were published as volumes in the Boys’ Own Library.
These book ad pages show the Stratemeyer titles published in this library.
The pernicious nature of dime novels and story papers varied by publisher, author, and series. Some stories, like the Frank Merriwell sports and adventure books, were conspicuously wholesome with its lead character who emphasized fair play and completely avoided alcohol and tobacco. Years later Stratemeyer was asked by Street & Smith editors to testify to this.
Stratemeyer made his testimony on January 14, 1908 in support of the Tip Top Weekly stories.
In January 1912, Street & Smith reprinted a short story by Stratemeyer in the Tip Top Weekly. To this, Edward registered a strong objection. He did not want to have his name appear on the pages of that publication. Street & Smith reminded him of his testimonial and his work on the Boys’ Own Library. Stratemeyer replied:
Now regarding your “Tip Top” stories. It is true that I edited some of the very first numbers of the “Tip Top Library” for book publication.
But it is likewise true that in those days the publication was of a different character from what it is now. It had one hero, Frank Merriwell, and he was a brave and clever schoolboy, doing schoolboy things and having schoolboy adventures. It is also true that I testified in your Post Office case, putting myself out a good deal to do it, to the affect [sic] that I thought the “Tip Top” “clean and of a good moral tone” and a publication that ought to have second-class entry. It can be all of that, and still not be such a publication as an author would care to contribute to under his own name. Mr. Gorse Payton can give good, clean shows for ten, twenty and thirty cents and yet have Frances Wilson and even George Cohan refuse to appear on his programme. Mr. Childs can offer good clean food for ten and twenty cents a meal and yet I doubt if you gentlemen would care to dine at any of his establishments.
All an author has to trade on is his name, and when he and his publishers spend many thousands of dollars to make that name valuable in the book world you cannot blame him when he tries to protect that name as much as possible. Your editor, if he knows the book world at all, must have known that to print an “Edward Stratemeyer” copyrighted story in the “Tip Top Weekly” would work great harm to the “Edward Stratemeyer” books, which for the past several years have been the best sellers among high-class books for boys.
I have no desire whatever to appear harsh in this matter, and I appreciate the sentiment expressed in your letter to the affect [sic] that you thought you were within your rights in republishing, but would not have availed of the privilege if you had supposed I would object. But I think it is on your shoulders to adjust this matter so as little harm will be done to my reputation and the sale of my books as possible, and for the future I must, and hereby do, positively forbid the publication of any “Edward Stratemeyer” story in any of your publications, excepting the stories that are under our agreements may be re-issued in the “Popular Magazine.” All rights in other “Edward Stratemeyer” stories were bought back by me from you, and transfers duly recorded at Washington, and nom-de-plume stories were sold under agreements stipulating that they should be “issued under such pen names, and in no other way.”
Would you be willing to issue a Card in the “Tip Top Weekly,” stating that the story, “Snow Lodge, by Edward Stratemeyer, the well-known author of so many popular books for boys, and had been written by him for the “Popular Magazine” and was published in “Tip Top” by mistake,” etc.? Such a card would be no more than fair, in my judgement, and might go a long way towards removing any damage done to my reputation.
— Edward Stratemeyer to Street & Smith, Jan. 18, 1912.
The Example of Tom Swift
Other publishers of dime novels and story papers emphasized violence, crime, and were worthy of criticism. However, it seems excessive to make a blanket judgement of an entire class of literature. Like anything else, there are good and bad examples and they deserve to be evaluated individually.
In the Eaton article for Woman’s Home Companion, he gave an example using passages from Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone (Grosset & Dunlap, 1914). Although the quotes are accurate, it is not correct to say that this story is a “nickel thriller dressed up and sold for fifty cents.” This story was completely new story that was ghostwritten by Howard R. Garis from Edward Stratemeyer’s outline under the aegis of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
In the effort to make an invention adventure story that appealed to boys of the day, Tom Swift is engaged, from volume to volume, in the kinds of devices and vehicles that were appearing in the newspapers and popular science publications of the day. Indeed, nearly all of the inventions described were based on descriptions in these publications.
As exotic as Photo Telephone seems to be, it was inspired by the pioneering efforts of Ernst Ruhmer (1878-1913) to transmit simple “images” over wires. He proposed building a more elaborate device for the 1909 International Exposition in Brussels if funding could be secured. Here is his proof of concept device that was described and shown in Hugo Gernsback’s Modern Electrics magazine.
Tom Swift’s age was not given in most stories. However, the outline for the first volume, Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle (1910), indicated to the ghostwriter (Garis) that Tom was sixteen years of age in that first volume. Of course, without reference to his age or the passage of time, the routine references to “young inventor” make it appear that no person could do all that he did at so young an age. Years later, the stories included slight references to indicate that Tom was young but in his twenties. The key was to avoid making the character seem too old and lose the connection with the readers aged 10 to 20 years.
Eaton’s Own Books
Walter Prichard Eaton was not an uninterested party critiquing this kind of literature. For several years before this article was published, he was the author of many books, including a series of realistic Boy Scout stories for W.A. Wilde of Boston.
Boy Scouts series by Walter Prichard Eaton
- Boy Scouts of the Berkshire (1912)
- Boy Scouts of the Dismal Swamp (1913)
- Boy Scouts in the White Mountains: The Story of a Long Hike (1914)
- Boy Scouts of the Wildcat Patrol: The Adventures of Peanut as a Young Scoutmaster (1915)
- Boy Scouts in Glacier Park: The Adventures of Two Young Easterners in the Heart of the High Rockies (1918)
- Boy Scouts at Crater Lake: A Story of Crater Lake National Park and High Cascades (1922)
- Boy Scouts on Katahdin: A Story of the Maine Woods (1924)
- Boy Scouts on the Green Mountain Trail: A Story of the Long Trail (1929)
- Boy Scouts at the Grand Canyon: A Story of Rainbow County (1932)
- Boy Scouts in Death Valley (1934)
None of the volumes in this series were reprinted in cheaper editions in the Boy Scouts of America-sponsored Every Boy’s Library that was published by Grosset & Dunlap as they did The Boy Scouts of Black Eagle Patrol by Leslie W. Quirk.
Perhaps Walter Prichard Eaton was hoping that they would pick up one or more of his volumes in this series.