Flashback to the Bobbsey Twins - Hindustan Times
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Flashback to the Bobbsey Twins

ByTeja Lele
Jan 17, 2024 09:52 PM IST

Gender-agnostic precursors to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels, the Bobbsey Twins series focused on the impossibly-charmed life of the all-American Bobbsey family and appealed even to children growing up in a very different culture

The other day, browsing at a buy-by-the-kilo book exhibition, I stumbled across a few copies of Bobbsey Twins books. The hardcover novels, with old-style images of children rendered on the covers, took me back to my school library in Jalandhar where, decades ago, I issued and read many adventures of the two sets of fraternal twins.

For children from a range of cultures, the Bobbsey Twins series played into the fantasy of the perfect family doing fun things together seemingly unhindered by economic hardship, relationship hiccups or everyday neuroses. (Shutterstock)
For children from a range of cultures, the Bobbsey Twins series played into the fantasy of the perfect family doing fun things together seemingly unhindered by economic hardship, relationship hiccups or everyday neuroses. (Shutterstock)

The dictionary defines Bobbsey twins as two people “who are inseparable, who are often seen together and look alike and act alike”. But time was when Bobbsey twins weren’t just another dictionary entry — they were the original investigators way before Enid Blyton dreamed up Famous Five, Secret Seven, and Five Find-outers.

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The two sets of twins, an older pair named Bert and Nan, and the younger Freddie and Flossie, featured in an extended series of children’s books by American author Laura Lee Hope.

Interestingly, there was no Laura Lee Hope; the name was a collective pseudonym for many writers. Edward Stratemeyer set the ball rolling and was joined by other authors who added to the twins’ stories. These include Lilian Garis, Elizabeth Ward, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, Andrew Svenson, June Dunn, Grace Grote, Nancy Axelrad, Mary Donahoe, Patricia Doll, Bonnibel Weston, and others.

The Bobbsey Twins books were written as gender-agnostic precursors to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels, which were more attuned to stereotypical girlish tastes and boyish sensibilities.

For 75 years, from 1904 to 1979, the two sets of twins were the main characters of the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s longest-running series of American children’s novels.

Fraternal twins pose for a picture. Bobbie Ann Mason, in The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide, wrote that the books allow a child to imagine “a union with someone just like her, but of the opposite sex”. (Shutterstock)
Fraternal twins pose for a picture. Bobbie Ann Mason, in The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide, wrote that the books allow a child to imagine “a union with someone just like her, but of the opposite sex”. (Shutterstock)

The books, which began by focusing on stories of home life and travel adventures, trailed the upper middle-class Bobbsey family, who lived in Lakeport, a town most likely in the East or Upper Midwest, where it snowed every winter. Busy Mr Bobbsey owned a lumber business on the shore of Lake Metoka while his wife, the patient and warm-hearted American mom, was a homemaker. She was helped around “their large, rambling house” by Dinah, their African-American servant. Dinah’s husband, Sam, initially worked as a handyman at the house but was later employed at the lumber business. The family home also housed numerous pets – Snap and Waggo, the two dogs, Downy the duck, and Snoop the cat.

This could be Lakeport. (Shutterstock)
This could be Lakeport. (Shutterstock)

The fate of Snoop reveals that the books weren’t written by the same author. The cat, who’s initially male, transforms into a “she” after being lost and rescued from a circus.

Other characters who come and go include Danny Rugg, the school bully; Charlie Mason, Bert’s friend; and Nellie Parks and Grace Lavine, Nan’s friends.

“The books, which began by focusing on stories of home life and travel adventures, trailed the upper middle-class Bobbsey family, who lived in Lakeport, a town most likely in the East or Upper Midwest, where it snowed every winter.” (Amazon)
“The books, which began by focusing on stories of home life and travel adventures, trailed the upper middle-class Bobbsey family, who lived in Lakeport, a town most likely in the East or Upper Midwest, where it snowed every winter.” (Amazon)

The first books in the series followed a clear chronology. The Bobbsey Twins: Merry Days Indoors and Out introduced us to the always exuberant twins – Bert and Nan, eight years old and dark and thin; and Freddie and Flossie, four years old and blonde and plump – and was completed over the course of a school year. It was followed by The Bobbsey Twins in the Country (set at the beginning of the following summer) and The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore (which wound up with the end of summer). The fourth book in the series, The Bobbsey Twins at School, began the next autumn, with the older twins “nearly nine years old” and the younger imps “almost five”.

Realising that the main characters would soon be older than their targeted readers, all the books that followed were in chronological limbo – the older twins never aged beyond 12 years and younger set remained in stasis at six years of age.

“In the later books, the older twins never aged beyond 12 years and younger set remained in stasis at six years of age.” (Amazon)
“In the later books, the older twins never aged beyond 12 years and younger set remained in stasis at six years of age.” (Amazon)

The first of 72 books was published in 1904, the last in 1979, with a separate series of 30 books, the New Bobbsey Twins, published from 1987 through 1992.

All books typically started off in Lakeport, with the family often travelling to visit relatives in different settings such as a farm, the seashore, a cabin. They sometimes involved the disappearance of a toy, an exciting family acquisition like a Shetland pony or a miniature railroad, and other interesting adventures. Mr Bobbsey, despite being hard at work at his business, usually found the time to travel, sometimes even coming in at the last moment like the Indian police famously did in 1980s and 1990s Hindi movies.

The Bobbsey Twins novels followed the winning family formula to the T – taking children into a picture-perfect world, one where parents were always amiable and indulgent, help was always at hand, and days were spent playing, dealing with the school bully, boating, kitten rescuing, snacking, sledding, or sleuthing. By 1961, the stories began to focus on mysteries, with a few earlier books revised to make way for this theme.

Sigmun Freud’s portrait on Australian bank notes. “Many researchers believe that the Bobbsey Twins series became popular by tapping into Sigmund Freud’s theory of “family romance”. (Shutterstock)
Sigmun Freud’s portrait on Australian bank notes. “Many researchers believe that the Bobbsey Twins series became popular by tapping into Sigmund Freud’s theory of “family romance”. (Shutterstock)

Many researchers believe that the series became popular by tapping into Sigmund Freud’s theory of “family romance”. Freud identified this psychological complex in The Family Romances, an essay he wrote in 1909, writing that this is when an imaginative child creates a substitute family, replete with a more loving set of parents and an elevated economic status.

By 1937, the series had sold over five million copies, and its popularity continued to rise in the postwar baby boom of the 1950s.

Carol Billman wrote that, in the 1950s, the Stratemeyer Syndicate revised older books whose text and tone “contributed to sustaining racial and ethnic prejudice...” (Amazon)
Carol Billman wrote that, in the 1950s, the Stratemeyer Syndicate revised older books whose text and tone “contributed to sustaining racial and ethnic prejudice...” (Amazon)

Carol Billman in her 1986 book, The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory, wrote that, in the 1950s, the Stratemeyer Syndicate revised older 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”.

By 1960, the Stratemeyer Syndicate had rewritten most of the older volumes. Most rewrites were necessitated by the changing world and had to do with social mores (particularly the portrayal of Sam and Dinah, the two black characters) or technology (automobiles coming in instead of horses and buggies). Rewriting to keep up with the times is understandable. Imagine a child (or parent) in today’s politically correct world taking kindly to Mr Bobbsey referring to Flossie fondly as “my fat fairy”!

The rewrite was accompanied with the release of a new edition of the series as picture covers replaced dust jackets, and the earlier green binding made way for a lavender spine and back cover.

Maria Nikolajeva called the twins a “simple duplication of protagonists”. (Amazon)
Maria Nikolajeva called the twins a “simple duplication of protagonists”. (Amazon)

Maria Nikolajeva, in her book The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature, called the twins a “simple duplication of protagonists” while Bobbie Ann Mason, in The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide, wrote that the books allow a child to imagine “a union with someone just like her, but of the opposite sex”. Mason also showed how the books perpetuated gender stereotypes in their treatment of twins: Bert “acts out his manhood by winning contests and beating the town bully, Danny Rugg” while Nan, “too old for dolls and pranks, too young for boys and barred from their games”, takes on a womanly role at 12, “wagging her finger at Freddie and appearing to enjoy it” as she became “mini-parent, non-child, serious-minded little manipulator”.

In the new series, published from 1987, the syndicate attempted to change stereotypical depictions. The lovable Mrs Bobbsey found herself a job outside of the kitchen as a part time reporter for The Lakeport News. Sam Johnson was foreman at the Bobbsey lumberyard while Bert and Nan became members of a rock band. The paperbacks ended with volume 30, The Mystery of the Mixed-Up Mall, in 1992.

“All the books typically started off in Lakeport with the family often travelling to visit relatives in different settings such as a farm, the seashore, a cabin.” (Amazon)
“All the books typically started off in Lakeport with the family often travelling to visit relatives in different settings such as a farm, the seashore, a cabin.” (Amazon)

The Bobbsey Twins were among the most successful creations of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the first book packager that targeted children and which was launched by Edward Stratemeyer. He launched the syndicate, essentially a fiction factory for children, in 1903, introducing the Bobbsey Twins in 1904, the Hardy Boys in 1927 and Nancy Drew in 1930 (the year he died). In all, he launched 70 different juvenile series, tailored to children’s varying interests. The syndicate was wildly successful, with a 1922 study of over 36,000 children across the US revealing that majority of children were reading their books.

Perhaps the reason for the success of the Bobbsey Twins books was that they showcased a perfect world, with happy and easy-going parents, abundant creature comforts, and enough adventure and excitement alongside a secure home environment, at a time when the world was not perfect. Neither the world wars nor the Great Depression ever seemed to affect the picture-perfect lives of the chipper twins. Even the hurly burly of life and domestic strife did not taint their world. The older twins seemed to have copious amounts of time at hand – there were no household chores to be done, no piano/dance lessons to be attended, and they were always happy to supervise the younger siblings. Life was always a beach. Or a picnic. The twins and their family were suspended in an enviable bubble. The pages also brim with descriptions of delicious food, warm clothing, wonderful toys, and surprise presents. Which child wouldn’t have turned to them to escape the real world?

“I suppose they were meant to teach me reading skills. And the goodness of clean living. But what the Bobbsey Twins taught me was gut-eating envy.” – Randy Susan Meyers (Amazon)
“I suppose they were meant to teach me reading skills. And the goodness of clean living. But what the Bobbsey Twins taught me was gut-eating envy.” – Randy Susan Meyers (Amazon)

Randy Susan Meyers, author of The Widow of Wall Street and Accidents of Marriage, read the Bobbsey Twins books growing up. “I suppose they were meant to teach me reading skills. And the goodness of clean living. But what the Bobbsey Twins taught me was gut-eating envy.”

“My memories of reading the Bobbsey Twins bring back the first taste of pressing my face against a world I desperately wanted, and yet could believe in no more than I believed in Santa Claus. Perhaps it gave me a thirst for upward mobility; perhaps it made me feel the perpetual outsider. It certainly cooked up a stew of personal anomie that lasted a lifetime – one I still fight, convinced that there is a Bobbsey Twins way of life out there and I am missing out on it,” she writes.

The Bobbsey Twins books are the first adventures that I recall reading. Perhaps that’s why they struck such a chord of nostalgia when I chanced upon them in a cardboard box at that sale.

Fun and games. “The Bobbsey Twins books are the first adventures that I recall reading. Perhaps that’s why they struck such a chord of nostalgia when I chanced upon them in a cardboard box at that sale. “ (Shutterstock)
Fun and games. “The Bobbsey Twins books are the first adventures that I recall reading. Perhaps that’s why they struck such a chord of nostalgia when I chanced upon them in a cardboard box at that sale. “ (Shutterstock)

The leisurely pace depicts an age of good old America, of a life that everyone dreams of. A world where your sister won’t break your doll; one where your brother can always be counted on to help fix your mistake. A world where your ever-smiling parents never raise their voices, the cook dishes out delicious meals, school is a distant memory, and you can run wild on the grass in the yard with your many pets. Today, the Bobbsey Twins seem outdated but there’s no denying that the series once helped children of all ages escape their reality and engage with the perfect childhood via “family romance”.

Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.

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