The Nancy Drew

By | February 11, 2015

I was watching some early episodes of Seinfeld recently, which were first broadcast in 1991, and what struck me (aside from what a great show it was) was the fairly “archaic” communication technology they (we!) all used at the time. One episode centered around George’s trying to retrieve an answering machine cassette tape (a what?) from a woman he was dating. Another featured George getting annoyed at someone hogging a public pay phone (huh?). And Jerry does a standup bit about how he hates cordless phones because you can’t slam them the way you can corded phones (OK, there are still corded phones…for now). I would imagine that for anyone under 30, watching shows from the 90s is kind of like my generation watching Humphrey Bogart using those candlestick phones from the 1930s and 40s.

A few weeks ago, I was in Barnes & Noble shopping for my niece’s birthday, figuring she was just old enough to start reading Nancy Drew books. (When I was her age, I had been a Hardy Boys boy.) I was talking to the clerk in the children’s book section and she said that there was the original series, but there was also a newly revised and updated series of Nancy Drew books since, she told me, “kids today have no idea what a rotary dial phone or a phone booth is.” Fair point. And if you’re going to engage young readers, it makes sense to make the stories, characters, and settings reasonably contemporary. In fact, the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books were often updated over the years.

As everyone likely knows, there was no Carolyn Keene (the bylined author of all the classic Nancy Drew books) or Franklin W. Dixon (the Hardy Boys books). The Hardy Boys were conceived (as it were) in 1926 by Edward Stratemeyer, head of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which was the first book packager to specialize in children’s books. Stratemeyer developed a number of popular kids’ book series, including the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift, which were all immensely popular. (Indeed, the “Taser”—the name of the electric stun gun—is actually an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle,” named by the device’s inventor, NASA researcher Jack Cover, after his childhood hero from the Tom Swift books.)

The Stratemeyer Syndicate’s books were launched in 1899 with The Rover Boys, a series that chronicled the hijinks of a trio of adolescents at a military boarding school. The mystery-solving Hardy Boys were launched in 1927, and, noticing that many girls bought the Hardy Boys books, Stratemeyer launched girl sleuth Nancy Drew in 1930. All the books, though credited to a single author, were written by a revolving crew of ghostwriters, and sometimes even by Stratemeyer himself.

The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books were updated a few times over the decades to reflect not only changing technology (like the advent of cars, phones, etc.) but also—at the request of Grosset & Dunlap, the publisher—changing cultural attitudes. Specifically, to remove the racial and ethnic stereotypes that permeated the original editions.

Edward Stratemeyer was a prolific author, said to have penned more than 1,300 books in his lifetime. He got his start writing for a magazine called Good News, published by Street & Smith Publications, which specialized in pulp magazines and dime novels. The term “pulp magazines” or “pulp fiction” comes from the cheap wood pulp-based paper used to print the magazines (in contrast to the upmarket “slicks” which were printed on better paper), and given that these publications tended to include stories that were deemed inferior in quality to “literary fiction,” the term “pulp” came to refer to that kind of content—detective stories, murder mysteries, horror tales, science-fiction yarns, and so forth. Dime novels, as the term indicates, were novels that sold for—wait for it—ten cents (although sometimes more as the years wore on), and the term came to encompass all of what we would consider “mass market paperbacks” today.

What was the first dime novel? It can be traced to a frontier tale called Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, written by Ann S. Stephens. Published in 1860, it kicked off Beadle & Adams’ Beadle’s Dime Novels series of books. Stephens was herself a prolific author of dime novels and stories for magazines (she sometimes used the pseudonym Jonathan Slick). Based in Portland, Maine, she was also cofounder, publisher, and editor (with her husband, a printer named Edward Stephens) of Portland Magazine, a monthly collection of literary fiction.

Ann Stephens also contributed to many other publications, including Godey’s Lady’s Book, which—nicknamed “queen of the monthlies”—was the most widely circulated magazine in the pre-Civil War era. Launched by Louis Godey in 1830, a decade later its circulation had risen to 70,000 and, by 1860, had soared to 150,000. It was launched to capitalize on the then-popularity of what were called “gift books,” or literary annuals. Though published monthly, it featured poems, stories, engravings, and other items of interest largely to women. The magazine’s longtime editor was Sarah Josepha Hale, and she used her success as the editor of a successful magazine—she became quite the tastemaker—to champion several women’s causes. She was also a primary advocate for the establishment of the holiday of Thanksgiving, and as a New Englander (born in New Hampshire), she was also involved in the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument.

Today, we may not know the name of Sarah Josepha Hale, but she is known for one enduring work: she was the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

You can probably see where I’m going with this. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was of course the first thing that Thomas Edison recorded in 1877 on his brand new phonograph. (Whether Buddy Guy’s 1968 version could be considered a cover of Edison’s original is open to debate—well, OK, not really.)

Although the phonograph would have profound effects on modern music (and remember how well it helped the careers of people like Enrico Caruso), that really wasn’t what Edison was trying to do. Essentially, Edison was trying to invent a telephone answering machine.

Patented on March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell’s invention was the first practical telephone. Being so new, it could stand to use some improvements (heck, it still could), and who better than the “Wizard of Menlo Park” to tweak it? Edison set to work improving the microphone or transmitter, so callers wouldn’t have to bellow into the phone at the top of their lungs to be heard (where have you gone, Thomas Edison, a nation of cellphone users turns its lonely ears to you!). Whilst working on this, it occurred to Edison that when you received a phone call, you actually had to be present to get any message conveyed through it—unlike the telegraph, where messages were written down. So he began to think about how phone messages could be recorded and played back later. Noodling with a telephone diaphragm, he found that sound conveyed through the phone could make indentations on paraffin paper (and later tinfoil) that, when transmitted through a second telephone diaphragm, played the recorded sound—those indentations—back. Not exactly high-fidelity, but the fact that it worked at all surprised even Edison.

The idea of recording sound would eventually lead to the answering machine, although it would take until the advent of magnetic recording media for that to happen; the first working means of recording phone conversations was invented in 1898 by Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen. Of course, there weren’t an awful lot of phones in 1898, so hopefully Poulsen didn’t feel too bad about not getting a lot of messages. Anyway, that’s whom George Costanza can blame.

It occurs to me, I should really call my niece and see if she liked the Nancy Drew book….Dang, the call went to voicemail.

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