This year, 2020, has been identified as the 90th anniversary of the origin of Nancy Drew as well as the passing of the Stratemeyer Syndicate founder, Edward Stratemeyer. The latter is an easy date to name because he died on May 10, 1930.
The Difficulty with Dates
The best date to associate with Nancy Drew is a bit harder to identify. Is it the date of the series proposal? the approval of the titles? the composition of the first outline? the date when Mildred A. Wirt first began to work on the story? the date when she turned it in? the date when the story was approved by Stratemeyer and the release sent?
These dates are not always known with precision and may have different values for commemoration. What is usually used for the birth date of Nancy Drew is the date when the stories were copyrighted, April 28, 1930. While there could be other considerations, it seems to be as good as any and has been accepted by the series book community as the date we use to celebrate.
This year is also the 115th anniversary of the formal foundation of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Here, too, an exact date is difficult to identify. We could consider the dates when stories were ordered under this organization’s name. However, it is appropriate to note that Edward Stratemeyer was engaging in activities that would lead to the Syndicate for several years.
For some further details on this, see my “Edward Stratemeyer, Author and Literary Agent, 1876-1906,” originally a 1999 presentation to the Popular Culture Association national conference and published on my Stratemeyer.org website. It details examples of Edward’s early writings on an amateur and professional basis and his purchase of book rights to stories for publication.
An important source of documentation for the history of the Syndicate is the collection of letters in the Stratemeyer Syndicate Records collection at New York Public Library. This collection is not complete and the organization is not always the most convenient to use. It provides a private record contemporary to the events chronicled. The details contained are often unavailable elsewhere.
What the Syndicate Letter Archive Tells Us
Most of the outgoing letters available at NYPL start in 1905. Incoming letters stretch back further, to 1891, though even here the collection feels far from a complete archive. We know of the existence of other correspondence from the 1993 Rutgers University history Ph.D. dissertation by Trudi Abel, A Man of Letters, A Man of Business: Edward Stratemeyer and the Adolescent Reader, 1890-1930. In it she relies heavily upon letters and materials held by the Stratemeyer family, not open to researchers.
One letter from Stratemeyer to Horatio Alger, Jr.’s sister, Olive Augusta Cheney from November 22, 1900 describes his methods and plans at that early date:
I have made up my mind to stick to juveniles, not only under my own name, but under my noms-de-plume, and I am studying that market in all of its conditions and am also studying the wants of the publishers, with a view to supplying the latter not alone with stories of my own, but also the stories of others, written under my directions, on subjects which I feel will attract sales.
Stratemeyer was loathe to produce books on speculation, not for his own writing and certainly not for the business enterprise he would call his Stratemeyer Syndicate. Instead, he worked to arrange contracts with publishers first and deliver the manuscript(s), either from his own typewriter or one of his hired writers.
Focusing on the letters of 1905, it is possible to observe steps that led to the first two books produced under the Stratemeyer Syndicate banner and methods, Ralph on the Engine (Mershon, 1906) and The Motor Boys (Cupples & Leon, 1906).
By January 1905, Stratemeyer’s more than seven-year association with Lee & Shepard had proven to be one of declining income per volume on the market. The $1.25 books they published were not affordable for many. While he generally believed in this sort of publishing, which earned him 12.5¢ per copy sold, sales in the hundreds or small thousands of copies were not adding up quickly.
Meanwhile, his books with Mershon, such as the Rover Boys, were selling many more copies. The lower retail prices were more than compensated by the larger numbers sold, generating more income. Stratemeyer tried to persuade Warren F. Gregory, the manager of Lee & Shepard, to issue some of the foundering single titles as cheaper editions with “popular prices” in the Stratemeyer Popular Series.
At this same time, William L. Mershon was taking steps to return to the portion of the business he preferred, printing and binding, and the titles he handled ware published under a new imprint, Stitt, headed by one of Mershon’s employees. Stratemeyer was trying to decide whether to issue most of his new Syndicate books with the new firm or to offer them to other publishers as well.
Stratemeyer was having difficulty with libraries, bibliographic magazines, biographical dictionaries, and copyright officials attaching his name to works published under pseudonyms. He wrote several letters to protest this. One of them was to Arthur E. Bostwick of NYPL on Feb. 24, 1905:
You perhaps did not understand clearly the statements made in my letter regarding the trade-mark pen names which have been my sole property for a number of years. These names are pieces of business property quite apart from my works as an author. In nearly all the contracts covering stories under these names it is stipulated that I can write the stories myself or in collaboration with others, or have them written on plots and ideas furnished by me, and it is further stipulated that my own name must not be attached to them in any shape or form.
This extended problem caused Stratemeyer to include stronger wording in his contracts with publishers to try to prevent them from advertising Syndicate works as his personal writings as noted this letter to the Librarian of Congress on March 14, 1905:
At first I used these names alone, but for some years have reserved the right to pen them in collaboration with authors under me, or have (in special cases) had the stories penned under my titles and ideas. Thus some are my work and others are not. Not to deceive the public I have stipulated in every contract that my name should not be used in any way, shape, or form on the stories or articles.
On the same day, Stratemeyer wrote to a prospective ghostwriter, Willis E. Hurd:
Stories will be wanted of 60,000 to 65,000 words each, not less, to be written up on titles and outlines to be furnished, (in the rough). They will be published under pen names that are already established.
Hurd did not end up writing any stories for the Syndicate because he mostly focused on short stories. On March 17 he contacted a fellow story paper writer from the Chicago area, Weldon J. Cobb:
There is a project under foot to get out a line of good but cheap stories for boys in book form, stories about 60,000 to 65,000 words in length, to be issued under pen names already established by two well-known publishing houses.
The matter has been placed in my charge, and your name has been handed to me as that of a writer who might write just the stories wanted, and at a moderate price. The stories will be written especially for that line, on titles and general outlines to be furnished to the author.
One of these publishers was Stitt, the replacement for Mershon as an imprint for the books. Although there are not so many letters with Cupples & Leon from this period, dates on contracts and the letters that are present indicate that this is the other publisher to which he referred.
The First Usage of the “Stratemeyer Syndicate” in a letter
The earliest use of the name “Stratemeyer Syndicate” appeared in a letter to Bostwick of NYPL on March 23:
I am now issuing a general notice to all offending librarians and publishers, (wherever and whenever I can find them), calling attention to the fact that I own as pieces of business property certain trade-mark pen names but that the books under such names will hereafter be furnished largely by the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
Starting from this date, I positively forbid the use of my name in connection with any book, serial story or magazine article unless I am mentioned on the title page as the author, or unless I am named as the author in the application for copyright on file at Washington. This applies to both new and old works, and let me add that the application for copyright means the actual application and not any printed list.
I have been given to understand that you are an officer of the American Library Association and that this association prints certain lists of books. If that is so, the above notice must apply to the association as well as to the Public Library.
The First Stratemeyer Syndicate Books
Normally we consider the Stratemeyer Syndicate to be the business heading under which books were produced from Stratemeyer’s outlines by ghostwriters. However, he was not so specific when writing to his favorite illustrator of the time, Augustus Burnham Shute, on March 24:
Yours to hand and by this mail I am sending you a set of galley proofs of ‘The Rover Boys on the River,’ one of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books furnished to the Stitt Publishing Co.
On March 30 Stratemeyer replied to Cobb:
Since writing you last I have formed what I call the Stratemeyer Syndicate. I am the sole owner and the syndicate will make contracts with certain publishing houses to issue books under several trade-mark pen names which are my business property. In the past I have written many of the pen-name books myself, but the books under my own name now use up a great part of my time, and I am consequently reaching out for help on the others,—the stories to be written from ideas and titles to be furnished by me and edited by me, and in some cases I intend to start stories for other writers.
The prospect for writing appealed to Cobb. Stratemeyer gave detailed instructions to him for the first book in what would become the Ralph series for Mershon on April 3:
Yours of April 1st., to hand and contents noted. With this I send you the rough outline of a story meant to be the first in a railroad series. To an experienced writer I believe this will be all that is necessary. This outline will give you a general idea of what is wanted, but, of course, you haven’t got to follow it absolutely. Only keep the name Ralph Fairbanks and leave the story open for more volumes, taking Ralph as fireman, engineer, etc.
Regarding style of story I should prefer something of the ‘Golden Days’ order—bright, lively, but not too sensational, and not ‘too loud’ in the language used. This does not mean that we want anything wishy-washy.
I prefer a typewritten MS. on paper the size of this, for I can then make what changes I please and keep MS. looking alike. But this is of secondary consideration. Take as much time as you think necessary.
Since I wrote you last I have looked over some of your better class of stories and feel you can do the work wished if you will try. I cannot use anything, however, of the style of some stories in ‘Golden Hours.’ They are too jerky and sensational—the conversation too much of the detective library order. I want life and go, but want it manly and with real vigor, not froth. Perhaps it might be well for you to look over some of the published volumes of railroad stories and articles of railroad and roundhouse life published some time ago in ‘McClure’s Magazine.’ These things help a writer to get the real ‘flavor.’
The McClure’s Magazine series of articles were by Herbert E. Hamblen and published under the collective name “The Life of the Railroad Man.” This is a rare example where suggested source material was named.
In an April 17 letter to Cupples & Leon Stratemeyer specified a practice with this new firm that would be followed on most Syndicate books:
Yours just to hand about titles for other books. All books of other publishers mention exact title of next volume of series. However, if you prefer, I can run in something like this, in each book:
‘More adventures, however, were ahead for our heroes, as will be slated in the next volume of this XX Series, in which we shall learn ours concerning——’ etc. That will help keep boys on the watch for the series if not for a particular book.
On April 27, Cobb wrote that the manuscript would be delayed because he had moved and had some other problems. Stratemeyer replied that this would be O.K. so long as he received the manuscript no later than July 1st.
Stratemeyer did inquire about the status with Cobb on June 1. Cobb replied more than a week later, on June 10. Stratemeyer replied on June 12:
I am much surprised that you have not gone ahead with the story for the syndicate, and it will certainly cause some annoyance. I can, to a certain extent, appreciate your position,—but that does not help me out, as I wanted to go over the MS. myself and then pass to printer early in July.
Kindly return the outline, etc., at once.
When you are fully straightened out, and can go ahead with a MS. then and there finish same in a month, let me know, as I may have something for you. But don’t do anything again until you are in a position to put it right through.
It is not clear if Cobb complied and returned the outline or sent a letter asking for more time. However Stratemeyer allowed him to continue on June 30 with a new deadline of August 1:
Up to the present time I have been so busy I have not had time to take up your last letter to me, nor have I had time to look around for another author to take up the railroad stories. Had one writer in mind, but he is, just now, busy with a special order for library ‘yarns.’
If you are still of a mind to go ahead, and can get out a first MS. by August 1st., let me know. But it must be a good boys’ tale, of 65,000 words and typewritten. After that, if satisfactory, you could write a second and a third, and then go on to the other series I mentioned. I know you can do good work if you will settle down to it—hence this letter. The syndicate matters look very promising.
Stratemeyer had expected to have Ralph of the Roundhouse published by Stitt in 1905 along with several manuscripts he supplied to them. His July 1 letter to William Stitt, Jr. expressed his progress and troubles:
Regarding the artist, Mr. Shute now has two stories on hand to illustrated, both set up, viz, Alger’s ‘From Farm to Fortune,’ and Rockwood’s ‘Rival Ocean Divers.’ You now have, so far, from my syndicate,
Two new Algers.
New Rover Boys.
‘Rival Ocean Divers.’
Two old Wessels books. Making six all ready to put out.
I expected to send you ‘Ralph of the Roundhouse’ but have been disappointed. However, hope to send it by August 1st. The ‘Putnam Hall Cadets’ will come along in perhaps two weeks. The other two, ‘Pioneer Boys’ and ‘Bobbsey Twins’ must come later. As you know I lost some time in moving, and another author, whom I though I could depend upon, did not come up to the mark. Let me tell you that writers of really good juveniles are scarce.
Meanwhile, Cobb wrote with some enthusiasm on July 8 at the prospects of writing several books for the Syndicate. Stratemeyer replied on July 10. In it, he expresses the wish that Cobb would turn in typed manuscripts, something he would insist upon in the future from other writers.
Yours of the 8th. to hand and contents noted. I am glad you are in shape for literary work for my syndicate. Everything looks promising.
The first story I want,—and desire it before Sept. 1st. if you can put it through—is the railroad tale, to be based on the enclosed outline. Make it a good strong story for boys, such as ‘Golden Days’ might use. It is for book publication.
Regarding the future, if this story proves satisfactory, I can give you without delay an order for a second railroad tale, to follow this, and then a story of a treasure ship, the second of a series of such stories. After that we might try the historical stories. Next year it may be possible that I can work in a series under your own name if you wish it, although I must keep up the series not inaugurated. Each series of stories will run at least six books, in the ‘Optic’ and ‘Castlemon’ style. In all cases I shall make payments upon acceptance of MS. and surrender of all rights by the author. The Syndicate had [sic] now six names of strong commercial value, and if we can make the stories pay shall, of course, be willing to pay more for material after we once get firmly established.
I should think you would prefer using a typewriter, as it is so much more convenient. It is but 3 P.M., yet I have just finished on this machine a day’s work of 6,500 words, three chapters, of a book. I could not do half of that in handwriting. Typewriting is also better because one can judge at once how the matter will look in print, and I have always contended that a story must look well as well as read well. (The last sentence sounds all right but won’t do for print, a practical illustration.)
Kindly go to work on first story at once, and if you can send in by August 15 or 20, please do so.
Stratemeyer wrote to Cobb to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript on September 8, several months after the initial outline was sent. He sent a release to be signed by Cobb, transferring rights for the book to him. Upon receipt of this, he sent a check for the $75 payment for the story.
First Books Accepted, Stratemeyer Plans for the Future
On October 7 Stratemeyer wrote to Cobb again about prospects for the future:
It will interest you to learn that the railroad story has been laid away until next season. It came so late that both the publishers and myself concluded it would not do for this season, as we wanted good plates made, also first-class pictures, and artists are rushed and proverbially slow. But it will be O.K. for next year. I have read enough of it to see that you have caught the spirit, although the first few chapters are a bit stiff and will have to be revised, and I may tame down a few of the ‘thrilling’ scenes. Putting that railroad fire in the front of the story, makes what follows directly after a trifle tame. But I know you can do all right when you get into the swing again.
At present the syndicate is negotiating for 3 stories for one publisher, 8 for another, and several for others. Please let me know when you can, how many first-class MSS. you could turn out between Dec. 1st. this year and Sept. 1st. next, if we are lucky enough to get the contracts. If I know I can depend on several good authors to aid the syndicate I am going out for all the contracts in sight. At present I have on hand over 100 ideas for stories and a number of publishers have written to learn what I can furnish.
Of course, you understand that if you write for the syndicate you’ll not attempt to hurt the syndicate’s business by applying direct to such publishers as use the syndicate matter. You can write what you please under your own name or under your noms. for other houses.
As he predicted, the future for the Stratemeyer Syndicate was bright indeed.