Dime Novel: Abandoned in the Attic

House Built around 1900 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

In a prior post, I wrote about finding a recipe notebook from the past behind a drawer in the kitchen of the house pictured above. That was only one of the vintage literary surprises this house held!

Thanks to Nona Blyth Cloud at wordcloud9 – Flowers for Socrates, I learned that today, July 30, is International Paperback Book Day. An early version of Penguin Books started publishing and mass marketing classics in paperback format on this day in 1935. This meant that more people could afford to buy books, which was certainly a wonderful thing.

As readers of my blog know, I enjoy collecting vintage titles. This topic inspired me to think about my own books. What is my oldest paperback book, I wondered. Then I was off to search my shelves. After checking out my lovely finds (sniffing and leafing through a few pages while I was at it), I proved what I had thought to be true. My paperback book dated the very earliest, 1891, was the one found in the attic of the house pictured, above!

The book is titled Married for Money and is written by May Agnes Fleming. This was such an exciting find, I remember, especially since nothing else very interesting was found up there in the attic. After I finished with my happy dance that day, I began to dig deeper and find out more!

Turns out that “Mrs. May Agnes Fleming,” as the book cover states, was Canada’s first best-selling novelist. In all, she wrote 42 “women’s dime novels,” and 27 of them were published after she died, which is true of my title.

May Agnes Fleming, 1840-1880
Offer on Back of Book; 160 House Plans for $2.50

 

Ad for Teething Syrup inside Book
Ad for Teething Syrup inside Book

My research also revealed The American Women’s Dime Novel Project! What began as research for a dissertation eventually turned into a website with information about these books written for working-class women, from 1870 to 1920. This interesting site offers articles, additional resources, author biographies, images, and even some of these novels turned into e-books!

Although they’re called “dime novels,” my particular book was marked “25 cents.” Inflation, I suppose? If you’re interested in the history of women’s literature, please be sure to check out this fun and informative website!                         ~Becky

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #9: Sewing Up Memories

As my regular readers already know, I adore bookstores, especially those that feature used books! To put an even finer point on that, I love the shops that carry other various types of vintage items, such as maps, magazines, product leaflets, branded recipe booklets, and the like.

One of my favorite such spots is located in Moran, Michigan, called “The First Edition, Too.” It was there where I was thrilled to come across the 1939 Singer Illustrated Dressmaking Guide pictured above. This was especially fitting, since I sewed as a teenager in Michigan on my mother’s Singer, which now “lives” in my Texas apartment. The slim booklet shows drawings of sewing strategies such as shirring, insets, and pleats. There are even sections all about sewing for infants and making “first school dresses.”

Martha Kennedy, who blogs at I’m a Writer, Yes, I Am,” wrote a great post about her grandmother’s sewing machine. This got me thinking more about my own, shown above! Martha’s appears to be older and much more ornate than mine, as a treadle machine compared to my electric model. As you can see, I still have the original box with attachments.

I found an interesting website for the International Sewing Machine Collectors’ Society (ISMACS), where I zeroed in on some info about my machine. Based on the serial number, mine is a Singer series AH model and probably purchased about 1947-48. This makes perfect sense, as that would be around the time my mom had her first baby, my older sister, Terri. She may have sewn her infant layette on that machine!

Looking through old pictures, I was pleased to find one from when I was about six months old. My mother’s Singer sets next to the couch behind me. Although Mom sewed quite a bit when her kids were young…clothing, doll clothes, and items for the household…I think she used it mainly just for mending in later years. I’m sure happy my mother hung onto this machine, since it brings back such sweet memories for me.

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’ll share one more photo, showing my maternal grandparents (Rudolf & Frieda Witzke), Mom (Ella Witzke Ross), Aunt Frieda (Mom’s older sister), and my older sister, Terri. This photo was taken in Tawas City, Michigan, on my 1st birthday, and I imagine my father, Philip Ross, was the man behind the camera. Now I’m wondering if Mom sewed those cute, gingham kitchen curtains on her Singer!

 

 

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #8: Delivered to Your Door

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Written by Jessica Potter Broderick and Illustrated by Jean Tamburine

Home food delivery from grocery stores and through a variety of home meal services  has made a resurgence in the last few years. With the current needs for social distancing and quarantines related to the coronavirus, this practice will likely become even more common.

From my childhood in Tawas City, Michigan, during the 50s and 60s, I have a clear memory of our milkman from the local dairy, Nelkie’s. He was a handsome, dark-haired chap named Tony, who wore some type of white jacket or uniform. I don’t remember his vehicle, however. In my mind’s eye, I can still see several glass bottles of milk set into the frosty snow on the top step near our front door.

Time went by, and one day I realized that Tony the milkman had disappeared. The dairy remained, but home delivery must have been suspended. Evidently that was common for the times, as mentioned in this interesting article about the history of  home milk delivery. Yet another nostalgic piece of our past that no longer exists.

Some people collect Little Golden Books, while others seek the Junior Elf BooksI love both and often look for them when I visit used bookstores. When I saw the Junior Elf Book pictured above, Milkman Bill, it brought back so many childhood memories and sensations. Surely you can see why it was a necessary purchase? The original price tag still stuck to the cover says 15 cents. I paid a bit more, but it was certainly reasonable at $1.00.

The story centers on a little boy, Dickie, who’s been sick in bed for three weeks. The doctor has told Mother that Dickie must drink more milk to get better and stay strong. If only staying healthy was really that easy! Dickie has many questions for the milkman, and the reader learns about the entire process, from cow to home. The book ends with Milkman Bill promising Dickie and his family a tour of the dairy the following week. This slim volume, published in 1960, smells exactly the way an old book should!

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Dick and Jane had a milkman, too!

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #7: Chosen

Snowbound Books in Marquette, Michigan

When I scan the shelves in a bookshop, sometimes a volume chooses me! Irresistible qualities include eye-catching titles, outstanding cover art, smells that spark memories, or an author’s name that rings a bell.

For about two years, I had the pleasure of living in Marquette, Michigan, situated in the Upper Peninsula and perched on the shores of Lake Superior. A variety of bookstores graced that town, but my absolute favorite was Snowbound Books, within walking distance from my home and pictured above. At that time, the store’s vintage paperbacks huddled together in one section, and I always checked them, on the hunt for Dell Map Backs or other interesting finds.

During one of my frequent visits, a 1950 Pocket Book Mystery entitled Beyond a Reasonable Doubt chose me to be its owner. I had nothing to say about it. The book wasn’t a Map Back, but I had to have it, all the same. The title wasn’t what grabbed me; it was the author’s name…C.W. Grafton. Could they be related? One of my favorite mystery authors is Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mystery series, beginning with A is for Alibi. Hundreds of mystery authors could have the last name Grafton, I supposed.

In those hazy years before the Internet, facts and details weren’t available instantaneously at our fingertips like they are today. Months passed before I knew the answer to my question. Yes, they were related! C.W. Grafton was Sue Grafton’s father, who practiced as a lawyer and published three mystery novels. My new collection search had been born!

Becky’s Collection

I don’t need much of an excuse to stop at a used bookstore or collectibles shop that might feature books. This new quest was one more reason to pull over when I saw a promising business sign. Decades went by, but I found all three! Which is my favorite? The paperback on the left is important, since it was the first. My purchase of The Rope Began to Hang the Butcher, on the right, was exciting because it was the last and completed this collection. The book shown in the middle, The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope, is my favorite, for two reasons. First, this copy still proudly wears its jacket, however tattered. Second, the book is dedicated to C.W.’s youngest child, Sue, his other daughter, Ann, and wife, Viv. The family is shown below with the book in a 1944 photo, with Sue on the right.

The Grafton Family in 1944

Over the years, I’ve read interviews in which Sue Grafton explains she was the survivor of a difficult childhood, due to both of her parents suffering from alcoholism. In her semi-autobiographical book, Kinsey and Me (2013), she credits her father with her own passion for the mystery genre, which served her well. Sue Grafton died in 2017, at age 77, just one book shy of the entire alphabet. I’ve read all her alphabet mysteries except the last one, Y is for Yesterday. Guess I don’t want them to end…

Sue Grafton

 

 

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #6: Rose Franken’s “Claudia” Series

I should be packing for my upcoming move, down one floor to my new, balconied apartment. Fellow book lovers know exactly what happens when you start going through your shelves. I’m lingering and looking each book over before placing it in a box! While paging through my “Claudia” books by Rose Franken, I decided to stop and write this post.

When I was in high school, a friend loaned me a book that had originally belonged to her mother. It was already decades old, but named after the couple, Claudia and David, the blue and gold cover appealed to me. At that time, I wasn’t an avid reader and probably didn’t start it right away. That might be why I hung onto it, taking the book with me when I moved after graduation. (Please note, I’m much better about returning books these days. Marilyn, if you’re out there, email me your address and I’ll send this treasure back to you:)

As a young mother, I did finally read the book and loved the world of Claudia and David Naughton, as they moved from New York City to suburban Connecticut. One afternoon, while my baby napped and I dusted furniture, I switched the television on to encounter those very same characters! I realized the movie, Claudia, must have been based on the first in a series. The search was on for more books!

Over the years, I’ve been lucky to find several more titles from the series, like those above, in used bookstores. The one on the left is an omnibus, containing the first title, Claudia, and the second, Claudia and David. Come to find out, both of those were made into movies with Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young, pictured on the red dust jacket. I also love my paperback versions, shown below.

Knowing of the collection, my sister found and surprised me with the “Armed Services Edition” of Another Claudia. During WWII, many complete books were printed in a special size and shape to fit into the pockets of those in the Armed Forces. The book has water damage, and I always wonder if that’s from the conditions where it was taken during the war. Other books in the series are more challenging to find, but I’ve borrowed many from libraries in order to read and enjoy the complete series of eight.

Research tells me the saga of Claudia, her architect husband and their children began as stories by Rose Franken that appeared in Redbook and Good Housekeeping magazines, from about the late Thirties to late Fifties. In addition to the movies, “Claudia” was a hit play on Broadway and also appeared serialized on radio and for a short time on television.

By today’s standards, I suppose the stories are rather sentimental and melodramatic. They do address many important and timeless themes, such as marital temptation, gender issues, serious illness, war, financial woes, racism, and grief related to death and dying. There is always an underlying lightness, however, and a certain sense of redemption. Claudia grows up and comes into her own throughout the course of the series, and David evolves, as well. Both husband and wife are examples of strong individuals who aren’t afraid to lean on someone else when that’s what life requires.

Rose Franken 1895-1988

In addition to her writings about “Claudia,” Rose Franken was a well-known playwright and director who also wrote and successfully published many other novels. She was born in Texas but grew up in New York. A single parent, her first husband died of tuberculosis, and she drew upon that experience when she wrote about fictional David suffering from TB. She eventually remarried a lawyer, with whom she moved to Connecticut and collaborated on successful serial fiction and many movies. I found her autobiography, When All is Said and Done, to be as enjoyable as her novels.

I don’t really need more books, unless I plan on investing in some new bookshelves. However, while revisiting online sources today, I was reminded that map backs aren’t just for mysteries. I see that a paperback version of Young Claudia was published with a map on the back, so I may need to keep looking…

Nancy Drew Re-Do?

Nancy Drew has certainly evolved over the years. Here’s an interesting article in The New York Times about the character’s history and a new television program. Seriously, though, why has no one come up with a Trixie Belden screen rendition?  Although I collect vintage editions of both series, Trixie will always be my favorite!                                             Becky

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #5: Prolific Garis Family

One of my favorite activities is visiting used bookshops or resale stores that feature books. Often attracted to vintage publications, I’m typically drawn to those reminding me of something from my youth. I enjoy sharing these “fantastic finds,” hoping to spark a memory for blog readers, as well, or to create a new curiosity that leads down an intriguing avenue. Since I write for both children and adults, I have a vested interest in understanding what pulls people toward certain types of books.

Uncle Wiggily” was a popular board game when I was a young child. I remember having mixed feelings about playing with my family or friends and sometimes felt a bit of nerves during the game. Not sure if those related to some of the unsavory characters along the path of play, like the bad “Skeezicks” and “Pipsisewah,” or maybe I just didn’t want to lose! At the time, I was only vaguely aware of stories written about this rabbit, “Uncle Wiggily Longears.”

Hop forward almost forty years to the middle-aged version of me scanning the shelves at one of my favorite used bookstores in Michigan. There it was…a childhood memory in full color, also in rather tattered shape. It was still quite a steal at $8.00. The book, Uncle Wiggily Goes Camping, was mine! Written by Howard R. Garis, I decided to pursue details about the author.

                                            

Further research revealed that Howard Garis wrote thousands of Uncle Wiggily stories, which appeared in the Newark News for many years and in books; I also learned he wasn’t the only published author in his family. During the early to mid-1900s, he and his wife, Lilian, wrote hundreds of juvenile series chapter books. Some sported their actual names, while others were written under various pseudonyms for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, including Tom Swift books as “Victor Appleton” and the Bobbsey Twins series as “Laura Lee Hope.” As you can imagine, I needed more (books and information)!

                                    

 I purchased the treasure above, from the Melody Lane series by Lilian Garis, in a bookstore while living in North Carolina. It’s a former library edition and found its way south from a county in Pennsylvania. I was thrilled to come across it and love the art deco appeal of the cover. The frontispiece illustration and end papers with the dated library pocket (1946) are amazing.

Lilian and Howard had two children, a son, Roger, and younger daughter, Cleo. As a young man, Roger also wrote series books, such as The Outboard Boys. Cleo penned the Arden Blake Mysteries during that same period. The front of Missing at the Marshlands, shown below, isn’t very interesting without a dust cover, but the end papers are beautiful, and the overall condition is very good. This one was bought in a Minnesota bookshop that housed a wonderful vintage section.

                            

In middle age, Roger wrote a biography entitled, My Father Was Uncle Wiggily. I owned a copy, at one point, but gave it away as a gift, so that’s a stock photo, below. The book was a joy to read and has just the right combination of nostalgic family stories and other interesting tidbits, such as tales about Howard Garis being close friends with their neighbor, the poet, Robert Frost! I remember a few hints at some competition between the Garis elders and children, especially as time passes and incomes fluctuate. Roger also tells about his mother’s disappointment in her unsuccessful quest to move from writing for children to more serious works. Overall, the book is a very positive and enjoyable biography, and I didn’t question or care, particularly, whether every bit is true or written through “rose-colored” glasses. Enter the granddaughter, Leslie.Because of my interest in the Garis writing family, I occasionally do a quick internet search to see what I’ve missed. Around 2007, Roger’s daughter, Leslie, wrote House of Happy Endings: A Memoir, which was reviewed as being the story behind the fairy-tale. She recounts a difficult childhood watching her father’s struggle for success, independent of his parents, while he fought depression and addiction. In later years, Howard and Lilian had come to live with Roger, his wife, and three children. Leslie writes candidly about secretly observing much of the goings-on in the large house while hiding in the dumbwaiter.

The book is raw and difficult to read but feels very honest. It certainly dispels any ideas of a Garis utopian life. Not a happy book, but it does contain a certain feeling of hopefulness in the author’s attempts to understand the dynamics between her grandparents and parents, and to come to terms with some issues that follow her into adulthood and even affect her own child. I’ve never come across this memoir at a bookstore but couldn’t resist taking this post full circle. At the time of reading, I borrowed it through the interlibrary loan system. I’m not sorry to have read it, but the story is quite sad. I hope the author, Leslie Garis, has found a bit of her own happy ending.

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #4: Northern Connection

Teenie Weenie small book

When I was a kid in Michigan, my father’s job required travel, and he was rarely home early in the evening for our nightly rituals. On the rare occasion that he was, however, Dad usually told us marvelous bedtime stories. We were especially enthralled by his tales about the Teenie Weenies. Not sure about my  older sister or younger brother, but I suspected that they actually lived under the large willow tree in our back yard.

I had no idea at the time that my father’s ideas came from comic strips and picture books about these characters, in addition to product advertising, like the examples below, that also contained short stories about these little people. His grandchildren remember listening to these entertaining adventures of the Teenie Weenies, as well.

Teenie Weenie poster

        teenie weenie poster 2

Years later, I found myself exploring the “nostalgia” section of a used bookstore near downtown Dallas, and there it was…a picture book that I never knew existed! The Teenie Weenies Under the Rosebush, written and illustrated by William Donahey, was not in great shape, but I didn’t care. Besides, it was marked $2, and I probably would have paid $20 for that memory.

That purchase prodded me toward more research about the author and his works. As luck would have it, not too long after the bookstore expedition, a weekend collectibles sale at a Texas mall turned up my charming Monarch toffee and peanut butter magazine ads shown above that each sport a story about the Teenie Weenies. It wasn’t until the advent of ebay, after I had moved back to Michigan, that I realized just how many vintage products besides books are out there wearing the likenesses of those intriguing little people…and often at a very large price tag!

The synchronicity doesn’t end there. I knew that William Donahey and his wife, Mary, who was also an author, were from the Midwest. In my internet research, I had read about a North Woods vacation cabin, of sorts, that the Reid-Murdoch/Monarch company gave the couple as a gift. It was fashioned after the company’s pickle barrels, for which Mr. Donahey had done some ads. The structure was made up of two sections, with the larger part rising two stories and connected to a shorter section that served as a kitchen.pickle barrel house old

Evidently the Donahey’s fame and popularity drew too many visitors to the vacation home, which became quite a headache for the pair. After about a decade, they gave the building away to a merchant in a nearby town and built a more private log cabin. What I didn’t know was that the location where the Pickle Barrel House ended up wasn’t far from where I had moved in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

A pleasant spring drive about fifteen years back ended up in the picturesque village of Grand Marais, on the shores of Lake Superior. Lovely bay with bobbing sailboats, silvery vintage diner near the Square for a fun lunch, and…what was that strange structure as we rounded the corner? A unique wooden building shaped like a barrel! There I am, below, holding my sweet dog, Boo Boo, in front of the somewhat peeling Pickle Barrel House. Since that day, the Grand Marais Historical Society has restored the house and made it into a museum. I regret that I didn’t make it back to see the results, especially since life finds me, once again, living in Texas.            ~Becky

pickle barrel house (2)

 

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #3: Mapping the Months

December and January are common months in which to buy a new calendar or to receive one as a gift. I’ve saved several collectible calendars that were given to me over the years, including those bearing wonderful illustrations or photos from Norman Rockwell, Dick and Jane readers, and one of my favorite television shows of all time, Castle. While digging through the sale bin at a bookstore, in 1998, I found an excellent calendar marked 50% off, probably because we were already well into spring, even by Michigan standards. Why would I buy a calendar that late in the year? Besides the price being great, this calendar pictured a style of book that I’d already been collecting for years…the Dell map back!

map backs mine

Map backs (or mapbacks) were published by Dell, beginning around 1943. These paperbacks are often mysteries,  are numbered (over 500), and feature a map on the back that depicts a setting from the book. The three above are several favorites from my own collection. I love the cover of The Circular Staircase and the fact that it carries the price of 25 cents! Death of a Tall Man appeals to me due to the cat and because I’ve enjoyed many episodes of those campy Mr. and Mrs. North mysteries on TV. The middle book shows the map on the back of Through a Glass, Darkly, by Helen McCloy. This is a good example of how the maps sometimes show a small area, like a neighborhood or building, while others picture a larger geographic area, like a city or even country.

I’ve been collecting map backs for decades. My sister first introduced me to these often smelly old mysteries that wear such fun art work, front and back, although it can be a bit lurid, at times. As mentioned in a previous post, I had to part with many of my books when I moved from Michigan to Texas a few years ago. I kept my collection of about 50 map backs, however, and still search for additions to it whenever I visit a used bookstore or antique/collectibles shop. They’re usually quite inexpensive, and their conditions vary, of course. Until the day that I came across this map back calendar, I had never known that such a thing existed. What excitement!

calendar front resized

Each month features the cover of a different book with a smaller inset photo of the map from the back. The map grid page then carries some interesting phrases, such as, “Wouldn’t you like to know what the window cleaner really saw?” from this Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie.

calendar example 1 001 resized

Another favorite month shows this book, below, by C.W. Grafton. That writer was also a lawyer and father of the late Sue Grafton, author of the wonderful “alphabet mysteries” written about the fictional detective, Kinsey Millhone.

calendar example 2 001 resized

 

 

 

 

 

This last photo shows snapshots of all the months and is taken from the back of the calendar, which was published that year by Universe Publishing and distributed in the U.S. by St. Martins Press. I’ve never seen another one like it, have you? I’d love to read your comments, if you also own some of these books and enjoy “everything map back”!          ~Becky

calendar back 001 resized

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #2

dick and jane

If you learned to read at school in the U.S., sometime from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, there’s a good chance that you learned with the help of Dick and Jane, their little sister, Sally, and the pets, Puff and Spot. By today’s standards of instructional materials for reading, this basal series was quite dry and some might say boring. I loved those books in my first years of school, mainly because…I WAS READING!

Dick and Jane pages

Fast forward many decades, when I trained to become a teacher and landed my first elementary position in Michigan. Although we still used a basal series in fourth grade, that year, it was packed with “real literature” and was supplemented with sets of award-winning chapter books, in addition. By the time I served as a Chapter I reading teacher in North Carolina and later taught kindergarten back in Michigan, sets of charming leveled books (like “Mrs. Wishy-Washy“) had replaced all basals. Reading instruction methods, assessment, and progress tracking had been fine-tuned, as well.

During my years of teaching and even after I retired, collecting vintage children’s readers was a hobby that I enjoyed immensely. Many of those 30+ books were the Dick and Jane variety, while some featured other children, pets, and retold folk literature. I had a few favorites, like the cover that’s pictured above, which I can actually remember from childhood. I had read an article, once, that revealed the Dick and Jane characters originally were a part of other collections before they appeared in their “own series”. These early books were known to be quite the collectors’ items and sometimes brought hundreds of dollars. I stored this information in the back of my mind, but didn’t really remember the details.

One day, as fate would have it, I was looking through shelves of used books in a little shop near St. Louis, Michigan. I picked up an old school reader that was in pretty rough shape. My heart started beating a little faster, since the Elson-Gray name on the scarred cover rang a bell. I leafed through the book, being careful not to tear the somewhat brittle pages any more than they already were…Billy and Nancy, Alice and Ned, DICK AND JANE!!!

pages inside oldest Dick and Jane

I tried not to be too overjoyed, since I couldn’t tell if the price penciled near the front of the book said $2.00 or $200. Yes, I really wanted that 1936 edition, but it wasn’t in great shape, and I’ve never spent that much money on a book in my life. Holding my breath, I walked up to the counter. Luck was with me that day, and I still have the receipt for $2.12, with tax.

When I moved from Michigan to Texas a few years ago, I was forced to dramatically cut back on the books that I would pay to ship, since I had collected many different types, over the years. As an end result, I saved just five of my children’s readers, including three regular Dick and Jane books and this very special precursor of what they would later become. I’ll treasure it forever, along with the memory of that day.

oldest Dick and Jane

I’d love to hear from you in comments if you learned to read with Dick and Jane, or if you would just like to share a memory about learning to read!