By E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra
In 1896, Ormond G. Smith of the Street and Smith publishing company in New York began to issue several new lines of nickel libraries and adult magazines. Following the lead of English cheap publishers, Smith wanted to make brightly colored covers a regular feature. About the size of Time magazine, these new weeklies sported wrappers printed in raw colors from halftone plates. Internally, they used a clear, legible typeface and generous margins, unlike the standard excruciatingly fine print crammed into three or four dense columns. They were a sensation, and rival firms scrambled to keep up.
The firm’s first experimental colored-cover weekly even sounded English: The Tip Top Library, its name inspired by Aldine’s alliterative Tip Top Tales. Tip Top Library featured the adventures of the most remarkable fictional American boy hero ever -- Frank Merriwell. It debuted on April 18, 1896. From the outset, the new character would emphasize progressive traits: clean-living, superhuman prowess at any athletic sport, personal nobility of character, academic excellence and reckless bravery. Two letters from Ormond Smith to one of his best authors of dime novels outlined the course of this project:
December 16, 1895
Gilbert Patten, Esq.,
Replying to your favor of December 13, at hand today, we beg to
state that the material of which we wrote you in our last letter is in-
tended for a library which we purpose issuing every week; something
in the line of the Jack Harkaway stories, Gay Dashleigh series which
we are running in Good News and the Island School Series, all of which
are expressed to you under separate cover, the idea being to issue a li-
brary containing a series of stories covering this class of incident, in all
of which will appear one prominent character surrounded by suitable
satellites. It would be an advantage to the series to have introduced the
Dutchman, the Negro, the Irishman, and any other dialect that you
are familiar with....
The essential idea of this series is to interest young readers in the
career of a young man at a boarding school, preferably a military or a
naval academy. The stories should differ from the Jack Harkaways in
being American and thoroughly up to date.…
When Patten submitted the sample "pilot" story, he received the following reply:
January 3, 1896,
Gilbert Patten, Esq.,
We have just finished reading your manuscript
story "Frank Merriwell; or. First Days at Fardale",
which you submitted in accordance with ours of the l6th
ult., to fill the want spoken of in that letter. We are
entirely satisfied with this story, and satisfied that
you can do the work we require….
You have selected a good name for the hero of the
story. It is understood that this name is to be one of
the firm copyrights and trade-marks, just as Nick Carter is.
Hoping that everything will be satisfactory and
that this will be the beginning of a long and favorable
connection, we remain
Street & Smith
The young baseball team manager and dime novelist who accepted the task was George William Patten (1866-1945) of Camden, Maine. He preferred being called William Gilbert Patten, or simply “Gil.” When he agreed to undertake the Merriwell series, he thought the job would occupy him a few days a week, but it would take up nearly all his time for the next twenty years! Under the name “Burt L. Standish,” Gil Patten created a superb role model for American youth. Not only was Merriwell forthright, happy and healthy, (Frank, Merry and Well), but he stood for fair play, kindness to animals and human beings of all races and beliefs. He opposed vice on strictly practical grounds. Smoking and drinking and late suppers prevented excellence in athletics, pure and simple. In the course of the series, Frank was obliged to face an array of villains who made Hitler’s S.S. goons look like pantywaists. Some low-life was always attempting to cripple, kidnap or drug Merriwell just before the crucial Harvard-Yale game. He always foiled the evildoers and led the Yale team to victory in the bottom of the ninth, or the last down. For years afterward, sportscasters would refer to any eleventh-hour sports upset as a “Frank Merriwell finish.”
Patten later recalled that
Having examined the English stories sent me by Street and Smith, I returned all of them. For I intended to devise my own incidents and plots and did not propose to use anything from the Island School series, as suggested by Mr. O.G. Smith. Nor did I at any time receive assistance from Mr. Smith or anybody connected with the firm in gathering material for “local color” or in carrying out the general plan of the Merriwell stories, other than that contained in Mr. Smith’s confidential letter. Doubtless the reason for this was that I did not ask it of them, and maybe I did not ask because I did not wish them to know how utterly unfamiliar I was with military school and college life.
...Maybe I should feel pleased by the fact that he seemed so real to a host of youthful readers that they imagined there must be a living person like him whom I knew. But there was no such person, and of course, as I pictured him, he was too perfect to have been a boy of flesh and blood. There was little of such perfection in my own nature, but I knew I would have chosen to be like Frank had fate made it possible...and so I depicted Frank as an ideal to emulate...
In spite of Patten’s disavowal, the influence of the English Jack Harkaway model is evident, especially in the first fifty or so weekly tales. Frank is of unknown parentage, goes to school, finds his long-lost father, Charles, plays pranks and travels around the world with a comic-relief tutor. Many of his enemies have names beginning with "H" -- Hodge, Harris, Harlow, Hartwick and Hammerswell -- recalling Harkaway’s durable foe, Harry Hunston. Like Jack, Frank is a ventriloquist, excels at sports, makes a brilliant academic career and flirts with pretty young ladies. Even the characters’ names -- JACK HARK-away and FRANK MER-riwell have the same rhythm and numbers of syllables (1/3), much as halfpenny sleuth “Sexton Blake” recapitulated “Sherlock Holmes” (2/1). Some of Jack’s Oxford classmates served Gilbert Patten as well. “Tom Carden,” a lad given to spoonerisms, became the model for Frank Merriwell’s tongue-tied roommate, “Harry Rattleton.” Harkaway’s varsity-level professional gamblers Gussie Kemp and Frank Davis were later turned into Merriwell foes “Rolf Harlow” and Cyril “Sport” Harris.
The stories were set in a dizzying array of global locales and concerned a wide variety of topics. Sports featured prominently in many of the plots and included such activities as rowing, bowling, billiards, swimming, sailing, horseracing, skating, iceboating, target shooting, hunting, fencing, hockey, polo, automobile racing, wrestling and a host of others, in addition to baseball, football and basketball. Periodically, the weekly’s appearance underwent a makeover, striving for an up-to-date aura to attract a new generation of readers. Artist Stacy Burch, who went on to illustrate the hardcover Rover Boys series, did the earliest cover art, using a bright palette. Subsequent illustrators were anonymous, but most of the covers were innovative, eyecatching and action-packed.
Not only did Ormond Smith pick a winning combination of design, author, characters and plot formula, he laid out a complex strategy for marketing, repackaging and re-marketing as well. Thirteen issues could be stapled together, wrapped in a new cover, and sold as Tip Top Quarterly. Reprints had a full color Quarterly cover and monochrome red or blue covers on individual weeklies. Each individual Tip Top Library contained about twenty-five pages of double-columned story text, in addition to features, columns and correspondence. The trick was to plan the weekly installments so that they could be complete stories, and not cliffhangers, or arbitrary divisions of a longer serial, yet thematically unified in groups of four. Thus, Frank attends Fardale Academy for exactly twelve issues, leaves for his trip west to find his father in issue 13, travels the Americas from issues 14 through 26, visits foreign lands for the next thirteen issues, and so on. With issue forty-six, Tip Top Library became Tip Top Weekly on February 27, 1897.
As the series progressed, each group of three was reissued in “thick book” format in the catchall ten cent Medal Library, measuring 5 x 7 inches, and about 3/4 of an inch thickness. It reprinted three stories for the price of two Tip Tops, if the reader didn’t mind waiting a year or two. In 1906, the series was increased to fifteen cents and was renamed New Medal Library. These reprinted four weeklies. Instead of keeping all the back weekly numbers in print, the “thick books” were more economical for Street and Smith to produce from stereotype plates. When the series grew long enough, the Medal Library plates were reused to print the Merriwell Series, and later, the Burt L. Standish Library and Merriwell Library, well into the 1930s. Twenty-four volumes also appeared in hardcover editions, first under the Street and Smith imprint and later by the David McKay Company of Philadelphia, around 1910. These hardcover books roused the ire of Franklin K. Mathiews, Chief Scout Librarian, Boy Scouts of America, who fulminated in a 1914 article that foisting off “cheap dime novels” in respectable plumage was an outrageous swindle. Obviously, Mr. Mathiews never read a Merriwell story, most of which preached the same ideals supposedly held sacred by the Boy Scout organization.
Patten was a remarkable storyteller. If his prose often lacked subtlety, it was grammatical and readable. “Boys don’t want fine writing,” said juvenile writer “Harry Castlemon” (Charles Austin Fosdick), “they want action.” (The Writer, January, 1896.) Yet his plots and construction were careful and generally quite clever. His swarming cast of characters included distinct individuals, and some of them were three-dimensional. Bart Hodge, initially the bully of Fardale Military Academy, reforms through Frank’s influence and becomes his loyal sidekick, although plagued by self-doubt and a perpetual need for anger management therapy. Throughout the long series, a number of sworn enemies are converted into members of Merriwell’s “flock.” The ones who fail to reform generally meet an unpleasant fate.
The first fifty Tip Tops are the most “dime-novelish” of the eventual 986 weekly installments published between 1896 and 1915. Frank’s mother is dead and he has been told that his father died after being shot over a game of cards out west. He attends Fardale Military Academy, makes friends and enemies and finds romance. In the first issue, Frank rescues his future wife, the brunette Inza Burrage, from a mad dog, and later from a runaway horse. In issue twelve, he rescues blonde Elsie Bellwood and her sea captain father from the wreck of Capt. Bellwood’s ship. The resulting love triangle would provide tension for years, both for the fictional characters and for loyal readers.
In issue thirteen, his uncle dies and leaves Frank his fortune, with the stipulation that he choose a guardian and travel the United States and the world, accompanied by one school chum at a time. He does so, experiencing wild and wonderful adventures, until he enters Yale University in issue forty. The influence exerted by this series on Yale’s attendance is impossible to ascertain, but it helped many boys to make their college decision. Merriwell’s Yale joined Harkaway’s Oxford in the pantheon of mythical places.
Gil Patten succeeded in breaking out of the Harkaway mould and infusing his books with strong characterization, compassion, moral values and local color, which far surpassed the English model which had inspired Ormond Smith. He dealt with a complex array of moral dilemmas that faced his youthful readers in daily life without becoming too "preachy." And always there was action and wild adventure. Week after exciting week, Merriwell battled school bullies, sports gamblers, hired thugs, exotic European villains and various bomb-throwing anarchists. He and his friends cross America on bicycles, encountering remnants of the Mormon Danites, or “Avenging Angels,” and supernatural happenings in the Utah deserts, where Frank discovers a treasure. The lads tangle with Kentucky moonshiners and feudists, save an abused child from a circus, defeat a few old enemies from Yale, and break up a band of California counterfeiters in their spare time.
Frank Merriwell juggled the affections of feisty, dark-haired Inza Burrage and shy, demure, blonde Elsie Bellwood for a decade, besides brief -- but chaste -- romances with other damsels whom he rescued on his adventures. (Plenty of adventures -- plenty of rescued damsels.) Inza’s father is determined that she will marry a wealthy man, preferably a titled English or European nobleman. Uniformly, he tends to select wastrels and cads. Elsie’s father, sea captain Justin Bellwood, drags her on ill-fated voyages around the world, which usually end in shipwreck and Elsie being carried off by everyone from South Sea natives to a gorilla in Africa! Frank keeps constantly on the jump to extricate her from her current predicament. Elsie was abducted so many times in the series that she probably kept an overnight bag permanently packed. During more placid moments, both Inza and Elsie unselfishly relinquish their claims on Frank in favor of each other (at least until the next peril cum rescue.)
The Merriwell saga includes many surprise twists. Frank’s tutor, also the executor of his uncle’s estate, loses the lot in unwise Wall Street speculation. Undaunted, Frank leaves his beloved Yale and finds work as an unskilled railroad laborer. His talent, pluck and determination, plus a healthy dollop of coincidences, win him promotions, first to fireman and then engineer of the mountain express. This dangerous job was the nineteenth-century equivalent of qualifying for an astronaut. Naturally, his meteoric rise excites envy. His enemies conspire to get him fired from the railroad, following a general strike in which Frank attempts to defeat a group of saboteurs. He is blacklisted and his railroad career is over.
While tramping the roads in search of work, he encounters and joins a traveling “Uncle Tom” theatrical troupe. Standing in for a sick cast member, he soon becomes a matinee idol. Jealous over his instant success, some of the other actors become his sworn enemies. One tries to kill him in a stage duel, while another tries to burn down the theater. In addition to acting, Frank constructs sets and acts as advance man for the show. Merriwell writes a melodrama about college life and it becomes a box-office smash. Overcoming all obstacles, including “play pirates,” he recoups his fortune and returns to Yale.
With the royalties from his play, plus the proceeds of the Utah desert treasure treasure, Frank treats his friends to a European trip. The ship sinks in mid-ocean, thanks to an old enemy, but is rescued by a passing steamer. In England, he saves a young Englishman from ruin by defeating the “Irish Gamecock” in a prizefight and encounters Inza Burrage, whose father is trying to marry her off to yet another titled cad. In France, he battles anarchists of the “Anti-Dreyfus” League, but is repeatedly saved by his own father, who appears and disappears in disguise.
Charles Conrad Merriwell, Frank’s father, is one of the more puzzling characters in the saga, communicating with his son mostly by rumor. He has an unfortunate habit of discovering gold mines and then being entombed alive in them by his numerous enemies. Reports of his death are legion and mostly premature. When he regains his liberty, he travels around the world, squandering money by the armload and playing the “American Monte Cristo” to the hilt. Sometimes he is an international crime-fighter with almost supernatural abilities; at others he is almost a doddering imbecile. After the death of Frank’s mother, he secretly married a Spanish lady and had another son, Richard. At his death, he leaves a multimillion-dollar estate to his two sons, (as well as his mining interests and his enemies.) Villains include the nasty Anton Mescal and the hypnotic Dion Santenel, (alias Brandon Drood, alias Hector King.) The post-Yale adventures pit the Merriwell business and mining concerns against various corrupt Latin-American dictators and unscrupulous eastern syndicates.
After their exciting adventures in England and France, Merry’s “flock” returns to America and starts an amateur athletic league. Contrary to the stereotype of sports stories for young people, Frank’s various athletic teams are not made up of identical, clean-cut Anglo-Saxon clones with rippling muscles. Opposing teams usually size them up as “an aggregation of freaks,” much to their eventual regret. Boy readers whose physical abilities fell short of perfection could identify with the too-tall, too-short, overweight, stammering, foreign-born, or countrified ball-players in these fictional contests. Thanks to Merriwell’s astute training and personal encouragement, each player gives his utmost for the team and for Frank, who never bullies or insults them when they make blunders. The harsh contrast between this ideal and the real world tyrants who all-too-often control high school and collegiate sports is unmistakable.
Frank and Bart Hodge return to Yale, win all sorts of athletic honors, make a host of new friends and enemies, and eventually graduate. After graduation, he receives his last direct communication from his father, revealing the existence of his younger brother. Frank’s business interests in the mining industry take him all over the world and into some fairly hair-raising adventures.
During Frank Merriwell's academy days and university career, he excelled at every collegiate sport and most nontraditional ones. He developed a baseball pitch called the “double-shoot” which curved both ways before crossing over the plate. He has to tame his long-lost kid brother, Dick, who has been raised in the wilds of Colorado. As part of the process Frank teaches him civilized sports. Dick follows big brother Frank to Fardale Military Academy and eventually develops his own baseball pitch, the “jump ball,” that both rises and drops, and which can be reversed to drop and rise!
The introduction of Dick Merriwell reveals the single flaw in Ormond Smith’s plan. As Bill Blackbeard wryly commented in “That Nonpareil All-American Boy Reaches Age 80,” (Smithsonian magazine, Vol. 7, No. 3, June 1976, p. 84): Smith and Patten
neglected to lock their hero permanently into either the Fardale or Yale background at an unchanging age, like Orphan Annie, so that he could carry on through decades of stories for ever-new generations of readers. In an abortive stab at realism, they opted for a ten-year fictional coverage of Merriwell’s progress from Fardale through senior status at Yale -- and when they found themselves around 1905 with Frank about to graduate cum laude, and with a still-fascinated readership now numbering more than 100,000 a week, they panicked. It was impossible to start Frank all over again.
After his adventures in college and in business, Frank opens a “School of Athletic Development” for troubled youths in mythical “Bloomfield,” New York, where he puts his experience and educational theories into operation. Patten’s subtext throughout the Bloomfield episodes was that young people deserved to be allowed to develop as individuals, according to nature’s unique blueprint for each of them. The incredible Merriwell feats of athletic prowess and the dime-novel adventures were fairly transparent vehicles for hammering home this message in a palatable dose. The All-American ideals of the Teddy Roosevelt “strenuous life” philosophy applied equally to athletes and those with lesser physical abilities. The trick was to develop mind and body to their utmost potentials.
Hundreds of letters from fans urged Frank to marry one or the other of his sweethearts (or never to marry anyone!). There were “Burrage” factions and “Bellwood Clubs” all over the country, and their arguments often grew quite heated. Even American servicemen in Cuba and the Philippines weighed in on the Inza/Elsie debate! After years of dithering between the two young women, Frank eventually marries Inza. Nine months later, Frank Merriwell, Jr. appears on the scene. In a satisfying plot device, Frank’s former foe, Bart Hodge, marries Elsie Bellwood. By this time Frank, Sr. is running his experimental school of athletic development. Younger brother Dick then took center stage for a while, entering Yale, traveling the world, and so on. Like his brother, Dick becomes embroiled in crusades against oppressive industrialists and South American dictators.
Continue to Part II HERE