The Bobbsey Twins

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The Bobbsey Twins

The very term "Bobbsey Twins" has become a kind of slang abbreviation for earnest wholesomeness and do-gooder duos. Generations of American children have grown up with the fictional family of Nan, Bert, Flossie, and Freddie, but the 115 books, dating back to 1904, have always reflected societal changes over the decades. Still, even the modern Bobbsey Twins books showcase a perfect world of doting parents, unlimited access to material goods, and just enough adventure and drama to refresh appreciation for the comfort and safety of home and hearth. The books sold millions of copies and were still found on library shelves in America almost a century after their initial debut.

The Bobbsey Twins series was just one of several extremely successful works for children written by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Founder Edward Stratemeyer had once ghostwritten some of the popular "Horatio Alger" stories that fictionalized the myth of the American dream for millions of nineteenth-century young-adult readers, tales in which a poor boy prospers fantastically through hard work, honesty, and the American free-enterprise system. The Stratemeyer Syndicate's first series was launched in 1899 with The Rover Boys, and would later include The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. All were penned in accordance with a strict plot formula by writers-for-hire contracted to the Syndicate, most of whom earned about $125 per book. The Southern-sounding Laura Lee Hope was the collective pen name for The Bobbsey Twins series, which began in 1904 with The Bobbsey Twins: Or, Merry Days Indoors and Out (The work was revised in 1961 and retitled The Bobbsey Twins of Lakeport).

The Bobbsey plots revolved around away-from-home adventures, the purchase of a miniature railroad or Shetland pony, the mysterious disappearance of a toy, or other mishaps or acquisitions. The twins of the title were the two sets of Bobbsey offspring: older twins Nan and Bert and their juniors Flossie and Freddie. The older duo are dark-haired and serious, while their siblings are mischievous and blonde; the genetic discrepancy is, of course, never explained in the plot. The family lives in Lakeport, perhaps somewhere in the East or Upper Midwest, since it snows in the winter and Mr. Bobbsey owns a lumber business on the shore of Lake Metoka. Mrs. Bobbsey is homemaker, and is assisted in her duties around "their large, rambling house" by an African-American servant, Dinah; Dinah's husband Sam is first a handyman there and later an employee of the lumber business. Though the books always start off in Lakeport, often the family travels to visit relatives in different locales—sometimes a farm, in other instances the seashore. Mr. Bobbsey is usually available to travel with them, despite the demands of his business, and Mrs. Bobbsey exemplifies the patient, cool-headed, but warm-hearted American middle-class mom. Academics have explained the appeal of The Bobbsey Twins by citing how the books tap into Sigmund Freud's theory of "family romance," in which an imaginative child creates a substitute family, replete with a more loving set of parents and an elevated economic status.

Like the other so-called "tots" series from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, in The Bobbsey Twins books "the predominant image is of cheerful, contented families leading lives bounded on all sides by security and abundance," wrote Deidre Johnson in Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The Bobbsey Twins are characters that "seem surrounded by a special radiance, blessed by fortune … They are born into lives that guarantee them three things: emotional security, or being loved by family; material bounty, or having and perpetually receiving good things; and continual activity, or doing interesting things and visiting different places," noted Johnson.

What is lacking in The Bobbsey Twins series is any form of strife or misfortune. Nan and Bert eagerly take daily responsibility for the younger twins, and never inflict cruelty upon them. This seems to be their only real duty; the vast amount of leisure time for the children is never constricted by piano lessons, dance classes, or onerous household chores. The Great Depression did not occur in the series, nor do either World War. Even when typical juvenile carelessness gets a Bobbsey child into trouble, he or she is only mildly reprimanded and never punished. Predominant in the pages of all the books is wholesome food, warm clothing, wonderful toys, and—every child's dream—surprise presents for no reason at all. There are detailed descriptions of celebratory meals, such as Flossie and Freddie's birthday soiree, complete with creamed chicken, mashed potatoes, and dual cakes. "A more than adequate income makes their lifestyles and vacations possible and shelters them from the type of misfortune others face," wrote Johnson about the Bobbseys in her book. Sometimes they meet children who live in far less fortunate circumstances—orphans, or children who have to work and are treated severely—but always inflict their own charity and ingenuous solutions upon them.

Up until the 1930s, The Bobbsey Twins plots were simple adventure stories, mostly concerned with vacations, but the family began becoming embroiled in more complex plots in the 1930s with The Bobbsey Twins Solve a Mystery and The Bobbsey Twins at Mystery Mansion, among others. By 1937, the series had sold over five million copies, and their popularity continued unabated in the postwar baby boom of the 1950s. The Stratemeyer Syndicate saw fit to revise the older works in the 1950s, books whose text and tone "contributed to sustaining racial and ethnic prejudice in their stock presentations of blacks, Jews, Italians, Irish, and other non-WASP groups," explained Carol Billman in her 1986 book The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory.

When Edward Stratemeyer died in 1930, his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took over the Syndicate. The Bobbsey Twins books were published by Grosset & Dunlap after 1912, and early manuscripts and related materials from this era were donated to the New York Public Library for its Rare Books and Manuscripts Division in 1993.

—Carol Brennan

Further Reading:

Billman, Carol. The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory. New York, Ungar, 1986.

Century, Douglas. "Herman Melville … T.S. Eliot … Franklin W.Dixon?" New York. September 6, 1993, 23.

Johnson, Deidre. Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. New York, Twayne, 1993.