WHEN SKIES WERE YOUNG

early twentieth century American aviation stories for the young

an exhibit of books from the Erisman-Odom collection

Special Collections - Mary Couts Burnett Library - Texas Christian University

Nowhere is Americans' love for technology in the first half of the twentieth century more obvious than in the books they give their children. Between 1900 and 1950, over eighty technically oriented series, comprising over six hundred volumes, were available to readers (girls as well as boys) between the ages of 10 and 16. These include such titles as The Motor Boys (1906-1921), The Radio Boys (1922-30), and the greatest of them all, the Tom Swift stories (1910-35). All of them give their readers a picture of a society in which young persons, at home with various aspects of technology, use that technology to make their way in the world. The Tom Swift series is a textbook example of the genre's formulas, as Tom, the boy inventor, works his way through a series of inventions, from a motorcycle and a motorboat through an airship, a giant cannon, and a television camera, to achieve world- wide fame and fortune.

Within these eighty series, forty-eight, containing approximately 350 titles, deal in some way with aviation. Bursting onto the scene close on the heels of the Wright brothers' first flights in 1903 (Wilbur Lawton's Boy Aviators series starts in 1910, John Langworthy's Bird Boys books and Gordon Stuart's Boy Scouts of the Air series  in 1912), the books closely parallel the development of aviation and aircraft. The first books are stories of hobbyists and back-yard tinkerers. World War I (1914-18) and the advent of military aviation spawn an entire sub-genre (Eustace Adams, Thomson Burtis, and Noel Sainsbury were all military fliers during the War, and their combat experience resonates throughout their books), while Charles A. Lindbergh's flight to Paris in 1927 and the subsequent boom in airraft technology spark the appearance of stories of professional fliers and commercial aviation.

In their early history, the books go through three clear-cut evolutionary stages. They begin as stories of adventure and joy-riding, in which flight is no more than a means to an end for adventures comparable to those already enjoyed by The Motor Boys, The Motion Picture Chums, and The Ocean Wireless Boys. Aviation is secondary, and the titles tell the tale: Boy Scouts of the Air in Northern Wilds (1912) is as much about survival as it is about flying, while The Bird Boy\s' Aeroplane Wonder, or Young Aviators on a Cattle Ranch (1914) grafts flying onto the already well-established Western genre.

Building upon the national euphoria following Lindbergh's flight, the books develop into career stories in the Horatio Alger tradition. In these works ("Franklin W. Dixon's" Ted Scott flying stories or Eustace Adams's Andy Lane books), the challenges of learning to fly, mastering the technology, and conquering the elements for fame and fortune are interesting enough to carry the plots in their own right. "Dixon's" ("Franklin W. Dixon" was a Stratemeyer Syndicate house name, used by a number of writers for the Hardy Boys books as well as the Ted Scott series) First Stop Honolulu, or Ted Scott over the Pacific (1928) involves the challenges of trans-Pacific flight even as the world is still celebrating Lindbergh, whereas Adams's Over the Polar Ice (1928) records a young industrialist's determination to become the first to fly over the North Pole.

As aircraft technology advances, so, too, do the stories, becoming at last stories of utility and application, in which aircraft are put to practical use as weapons of war or as commercial innovations. Technology and utility go hand in hand, as authors speculate about the potential of the developing aviation industry in peace and war, for boys and girls. Andy Lane demonstrates a practical automatic pilot in The Plane without a Pilot (1930), and, in the same year, flies from London to Capetown in a four-engined flying wing (Wings of Adventure) that closely resembles Jack Northrop's designs of 1929 and after and anticipates the B-2 stealth bomber, while Dorothy Wayne's Dorothy Dixon Wins Her Wings (1933) and Ruthe S. Wheeler's Jane, Stewardess of the Air Lines (1934) are among the earliest to suggest aviation as a career for women (although American Airlines was not to introduce the DC-3, which made passenger flying truly practicable, until 1936).

Paralleling the story of technology and aviation are three equally suggestive themes that emerge from the books. First is the works' picture of the assimilation of aviation into every-day life. Wondrous though the advanes are, they are presented in the same matter-of-fact tones as advances in automobiles, railroads, and communication. Second, they increasingly imply a society of which flying (and aviation generally) is an integral part. Whether used for carrying the mail, defending the nation, or as a commonplace means of transportation, aviation and aircraft are, and will continue to be, central to American life. And, third, they look ahead to an increasingly internationalized world. The aviation books recognize, often long before the public press, that aviation shrinks distances, speeds communication, and diminishes national boundaries. If the United States is to retain its primacy as the political and technical leader of the world, it must recognize that it is a part of the world, and adjust its goals and actions accordingly. This is a terrible burden to place upon a popular literary form, but the authors accepted it without hesitation, and helped a generation of young readers prepare for the changes that, inevitably, were to come.

 

Fred Erisman
Department of English
Texas Christian University

 

This page is an electronic version of an exhibit displyed in the lobby of the Mary Couts Burnett Library from
8 January until 27 February 1997. Dr Fred Erisman, chair of the Department of English, Texas Christian University, wrote the text for the exhibit. The exhibit was curated by Roger L Rainwater, Special Collections Librarian.


This page was last revised on 26 August 2009 by Roger L Rainwater.

Special Collections
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