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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
When the books began to sell in the millions, some of Stratemeyer’s hard-working authors anathematized him as a skinflint and an exploiter, but Stratemeyer was not without compassion for his hapless gnomes. Undoubtedly he saw the tragicomic possibilities of their plight. Imagine a starving ex-police reporter, suffering from the grandfather of all hangovers, staggering to his typewriter to begin an episode of Honey Bunch, Her First Day at School . When Stratemeyer died in 1930 he remembered his beleaguered writers in his will. The astonished ghosts were tracked down in remote corners of the world and informed that they would receive lump sums equal to 10 per cent of all wages they had received from the Syndicate. Of course a writer would have had to produce a hundred or more books to make the sum a significant one, but it was a noble gesture. It was Stratemeyer’s way of saying thank you, a rarity in his profession.
In 1910, with the Rover Boys leading the juvenile field, Stratemeyer sat down with his prolific assistant, Howard Garis, to plan a new series. They decided on a boy hero who would be a mechanical wizard, able to do wonders with exciting vehicles such as airplanes, speedboats, or motorcycles, tuning them up to win breathtaking, suspenseful races. The young marvel would have an action-oriented Anglo-Saxon name (as all Stratemeyer heroes did). He would be called Tom Swift, and he would be, as Tom himself was fond of saying in the books, “Swift by name and swift by nature.” Garis was told to drop other projects and begin a program of research.
In the world of Tom Swift fans there is a theory that Garis originated the series and wrote all the books, and that Stratemeyer robbed him of his just fame and financial reward. This is apocryphal. Garis was an assistant, nothing more. He suggested plot lines, and did the research on many of the inventions, filled in the prose gaps, and often created minor characters, but the books were Stratemeyer’s.
Some enthusiasts believe that Tom was a spin-off of the young Thomas Edison, but in fact he was nearly 100 per cent Stratemeyer’s own idol, Henry Ford. In 1910 Edison was a deaf old man in his sixties, and hardly a figure with whom a teen-ager could identify. Ford, on the other hand, was in his vigorous prime, and in the news almost every day. Boys could read about his thrilling association with the racing-car driver Barney Oldfield, and about Ford’s own auto-racing career. They could marvel at his Model T, introduced in 1908 and not unlike Tom Swift’s own “runabout,” and read of his involvement in the glamorous and highly publicized New York to Seattle race in 1909 to promote the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition.
The Tom Swift series also paralleled Ford’s distaste for labor unions; and Ford’s attacks on Jewish film makers in the Dearborn Independent were reflected in Tom’s problems with theatrical Jews. Stratemeyer made frequent derogatory references to Jews and blacks in his early books. He was not alone; many writers of children’s books used blacks and Jews for comedy. However, these references were later expunged in revised editions.
The new series was successful beyond Stratemeyer’s most grandiose dreams of glory. It made a rich man of him and a star of his pseudonymous author “Victor Appleton,” who had had onlv a moderate success earlier but would later be assigned as creator of the Don Sturdy series.
From 1910—when the young inventor made his debut in Tom Swift and his Motor-Cycle —until the late 1930’s, the Tom Swift series held center stage with the juvenile reading public. No one seems to have an accurate sales tally, but Tom’s publishers, Grosset & Dunlap, estimate his sales at about thirty million. The late Andrew E. Svenson, who helped manage the Stratemeyer Syndicate until 1975 in partnership with Mrs. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the founder’s daughter (and the “Carolyn Keene” who writes the durable Nancy Drew mystery series), guessed that sales were closer to fifteen million. Whatever the total, a very large segment of the juvenile population read and loved Tom Swift. In 1926, Tom’s sixteenth year of existence, a survey of 36,750 school children in thirty-four representative cities revealed that 98 per cent of them were reading Stratemeyer series books, and that most of them liked Tom Swift best.
Three years after the series was first issued, Tom had passed the Rover Boys in popularity. Although the Rover Boys series was Stratemeyer’s all-time favorite, the Tom Swift books are generally considered to be his best work. Young readers who felt uneasy with upper-middle-class Brill College and Putnam Hall Military Academy, where the Rovers were educated, could feel at home with the peppy young inventor who had never been to college but was able to build airplanes, army tanks, and submarines in his own back yard. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning popular culturist Russel B. Nye wrote, Tom’s inventions were “ almost plausible, just far enough around the corner to be visionary, not quite far enough to be absurd.”