Bless My Collar Button, If It Isn’t Tom Swift

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Stratemeyer and Garis worked out a foolproof formula. They combined the magic of machines and tinkering, fascinating to boys of all ages, with the American dream of commercial reward. By the 1930’s Tom’s back-yard innovations had made him a millionaire. Each book contained one major invention and a number of minor ones. There was always a hell-for-leather chase and a race, either impromptu or sponsored by some international organization devoted to speed, with a valuable prize to be won at the finish. There were always villains intent on stealing Tom’s thunder or preventing his success. Best of all, there was a pert, pretty, warmhearted girl, Tom’s sweetheart, Mary Nestor, waiting to reward him with a kiss or a few words of doting praise.

 

The technical jargon in the books, if somewhat inaccurate, sounded genuine. A teen-ager could reel it off to his schoolmates and win prestige for being conversant with the mysterious world of science. As Tom explained the workings of his electric locomotive to his chum Ned, a non-inventor:

I have only had rigged here one trolley wire. There must be two attached alternately to the catenary cable. Such a form of twin conductor trolley will permit the collection of a heavy current through the twin contact of the pantagraph with the two trolley wires, and should assure a sparkless collection of the current at any speed. You noticed that when I took the sharper curves there was an aerial exhibition. I want to do away with the fireworks.

For the most part, anyone trying to duplicate one of Tom’s simple-sounding innovations would be doomed to failure, though a few were valid enough. In some cases research was sketchy, as when Tom was able to cruise at fourteen thousand feet without pressurization or oxygen and experience no discomfort, but felt dizzy at three thousand.

To make the young readers keep going, Stratemeyer used the dime-novel device of ending each chapter with a holding point, a scream, an explosion, or a character in mortal danger.

As Tom opened the door there was a click, followed at once by a blinding flash of blasting fire. Then a dull explosion shook the building. Tom had no chance to leap back. The force of the blast hurled him forward, across the corridor and out through a wire-screened window into the yard. He fell heavily, uttered an inarticulate cry, and then seemed to be sinking down into a pit of dense blackness.

No boy could close his book and go off to bed after a paragraph like that one. He’d have to turn the page and read another chapter. And in every volume there was a tantalizing hint of exciting things to come in the next book of the series.

The dashing young inventor was depicted on the stamped bindings in an oval medallion, wearing a striped blazer and a snap-brim fedora turned up on one side like an Australian infantryman’s. He had on a high collar and a narrow tie, and sported a bright red band on his hat. In some of the jacket pictures the fedora was replaced with a tweed cap, large and floppy. In the earlier books he was in his teens, still attending “lessons.” By 1918 he was engaged to be married, and in the later books, when he had important business and financial decisions to make, Stratemeyer was careful to point out that he was twenty-one.

The Stratemeyer books usually avoided physical description because too much detail inhibited reader identification. Save for the sketch on the jacket there was little indication of what Tom looked like, except that in the first book of the series he is described as “a muscular lad and no lightweight.” Other descriptions are general, such as that Tom was a “bright-looking young fellow with an alert air and a rather humorous smile”.” It was not until 1926 that readers were told he was “tall.”

Tom’s home base, where most of the action took place, was the mythical town of Shopton, New York, near enough to New York City for easy access, and at the same time close to the New Jersey shore so that Tom could keep his seagoing inventions there. The Swift house was large and comfortable, with a roomy front porch and plenty of acreage. A wide back yard sloped down to the shore of Lake Carlopa, scene of Tom’s motorboat races. The Swifts maintained a boathouse there.

The back yard contained a few outbuildings and workshops at first. Later it would be the location of the Swift Construction Company, Tom’s great conglomerate of industries, “broadly known not alone through the United States, but in several foreign countries.”

From some of the tall chimneys faint clouds of smoke arose, for certain of the industries carried on by the Swift Construction Company required that furnaces be kept going day and night. “A great plant—a wonderful plant!” mused Tom. It gave him a certain sense of pleasure to dwell thus in introspection on the accomplishments of his father and himself.