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Bless My Collar Button, If It Isn’t Tom Swift
the world’s greatest inventor
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
The last half of the nineteenth century was a time of creative progress. Invention, especially the kind that was designed to improve the quality of life, had taken firm hold of the public imagination and would not let go for nearly a century. The average citizen, who would one dayswitch channels out of boredom during an astronaut’ moon walk, regarded such simple devices as flush-toilets and running water with openmouthed amazement. In those days laboratory breakthroughs were front page news. Inventors were heroic figures. By 1900, enthusiasts of all ages knew about Edison and his electric light, George Eastman and his wonderful camera, Marconi’s radio or Daimler’s self-propelling automobile. In 1903 men would leave the surface of the earth and fly in a heavier-than-air machine. Where, a fascinated public wanted to know, would it all end?
In a small, shabby office in downtown Manhattan, a man named Edward Stratemeyer, something of an inventor in his own right, kept a close watch on the trends of popular interest. Stratemeyer was a writer of juvenile literature, but to describe him simply as an author of children’s books would be a massive understatement. He was probably the most prolific author of successful juvenile books, or for that matter of books of any kind, in publishing history.
A kindly, serious man who wore rimless glasses and high collars that made him look like the avuncular gentlemen on the labels of patent-medicine bottles, Stratemeyer was the antithesis of the turn-of-the-century “bohemian” stereotype of the artistic or literary man. To him writing was business—big business. He worked hard at it, and in time it made him a millionaire.
During his lifetime Stratemeyer wrote, planned, and produced more than eight hundred books under his own name and sixty-two pseudonyms. Born in 1862, he began writing stories for boys and girls in his twenties and served a brief stint as a Street & Smith editor. In his spare time he wrote dime novels and serials. When Street & Smith’s star author, Horatio Alger, Jr., died, it was Stratemeyer who was chosen to assume his identity; he subsequently composed eleven posthumous books for the Rise in Life series under Alger’s name.
Stratemeyer arrived in the hard-cover world with the Old Glory series, in which he and his publishers, I.othrop, Lee & Shepard of Boston, produced simplified versions of real-life battlefield exploits, attaching two fictional teen-age heroes to the military or naval idols concerned. His imaginary boys sailed into Manila Bay with Admiral Dewey only a lew months after the admiral’s victory. They charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, marched into Santa Cruz with I^ivvton, and served in Luzon with MacArthur. By the end of the series they were second lieutenants. The readers loved it.
It made little difference to Stratemeyer whether the popular heroes by whose adventures he made his profits were real or fictional, or even if they had been created by someone else. In the twenties, when the Tarzan series was at its peak and Edgar Rice Bin-roughs could not write episodes fast enough to satisfy his avid readers, Stratemeyer skimmed off some of the surplus income with a series about Bomba, the Jungle Boy, a teen-ager of superhuman strength who wore a furry loincloth, swung through trees, and could speak to animals. Around the same time, he created the led Scott books about a lanky, taciturn young pilot who achieved international lame by flying the Atlantic alone in a light plane, thus earning the nickname “the Lone Eagle.”
Back in 1899 Stratemever, mindful of the success of the Frank Merriwell stories, written bv his Street & Smith colleague Gilbert Patten, decided to move into the school and college athletic hero area. Although he had never been to college, much less to a fashionable prep school, he was able to construct a creditable facsimile for his readers. The Rover Boys Series For Young Americans moved him into the big time. Before the series went out of print it sold six and a half million copies.
In 1904 Stratemeyer created the Bobbsey Twins, aimed at a much younger audience. This series, which is updated yearly, is still going strong, and to date has sold thirty million copies.
By 1906 the demand for Stratemeyer’s work was so great he could not fill it. He set up a kind of assembly-line writing factory, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, that would enable him to turn out a number of series books simultaneously. Working nine or ten hours a day, he wrote plot outlines, locales, chapter titles, character names and descriptions, and backgrounds, and turned them over to contract writers, usually unemployed newspapermen, who had a month to fill in gaps with suitable prose. Working under pseudonyms, the writers got $50 to $250 a book with no royalties or rights of any kind.