If it was World War I, you could find her making bandages on the home front or even maneuvering an
ambulance across the battlefield in France.
In the 1920s she was driving a car, flying an airplane or even starting her own movie studio.
In the 1930s and later she was routinely solving crimes and mysteries that regularly baffled the police.
These plucky teens and young women were de facto role models for multiple generations of American
females, according to Nancy Down, head librarian of the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green
Down presented the Brown Bag luncheon talk "Career Girls and Amateur Sleuths: Girls’ Series Fiction
from the 1920s to 1950s" on Wednesday in the university Women’s Center, one of a dozen Women’s
History Month programs being held during March at BGSU.
Whether we’re talking about the Outdoor Girls series that ran from 1913 to 1933, the war-era Red Cross
Girls series, or the 1920s-30s Girl Aviator books, these series reflected changes that were happening in
society at the time, according to Down.
"Girls of Central High" is a series published from 1914-16, a time when coeducational schooling
was becoming mainstream and there were fledgling efforts at introducing organized physical activity for
A quote from one of the Central High books has the heroine telling her friend: "I think we girls
should have some interest in athletics besides our loyalty to the boys’ baseball and football
In real life, "reforms in women’s dress allowed girls to be more active in sports," Down
In the 1920s society "started to have a lot of technology" so there was "the Radio Girls
Series, in which a small group of girls put together a radio" almost entirely without adult
There were prescribed gender differences, of course. "The girls inherited what somebody else had
already invented," as opposed to books for boys in which the boys were actually doing the
inventing. Down offers Tom Swift as an example.
The Outdoor Girls reflected the reality that "once cars had electrical starters, a lot more females
started to drive."
Down quoted from the book The Outdoor Girls in a Motor Car: "Come on girls, the car is here, and
this time I’m going to run it myself."
From the Girl Aviators series: "Under Peggy’s skillful hands the plane fairly flew… A veteran of
the air could not have made a more accurate or an easier landing than Peggy."
The girls’ and boys’ series industry really moved into high gear because of one man: Edward Stratemeyer,
who created a kind of Fiction Factory.
He would create an author’s name and would own the copyright to that name, but maybe five different
people were actually the authors. Stratemeyer would write an outline for each book and hand it off to
the chosen ghostwriter.
The most famous example of the Stratemeyer machine in action is the Nancy Drew mystery books, ostensibly
authored by "Carolyn Keene."
In reality, the first 23 books in the Drew series – which continues to this very day – were all written
by Toledoan Millie Benson.
"There were hundreds of different series," all focused on white, middle- or upper-middle-class
Very often the girls in them were orphans, or at least their mothers weren’t around and their fathers
seemed remarkably unconcerned about their daily activities.
"They weren’t necessarily the kind of books the parents, teachers and librarians wanted girls to be
reading," Down pointed out, "but they were really popular with the girls" of America.
The tension regarding what was or wasn’t acceptable for nice girls to do was evident during World War I
as an Outdoor Girls character, busy knitting sweaters for the boys overseas, revealed a fervent wish:
"Oh, if only I could put on a uniform and go out and shoot Huns!"
But other books of that decade actually had girls getting involved in espionage or doing brave deeds at
the Front. The girl who drives that ambulance in France, for example, takes over the wheel after the
male soldier driving it is cut down by enemy fire.
The books also followed regional stereotypes, said Down.
"The western girl is brash and speaks her mind. The southern girl is more refined. The northeastern
girl is more reserved."
Starting in World War II, girl series featuring nurses became hugely popular, a trend that continued
through the 1950s and ’60s.
There was "Sue Barton Student Nurse" and the widely read Cherry Ames series, which lasted from
1943 to 1968 and was written by two different people.
Bowling Green resident Judy Miller told fellow local audience members she was so strongly influenced by
the book "Cherry Ames: Night Supervisor," which she read in fifth grade, that she credits it
for her choice of nursing as a career.
Just as females in society returned to more restricted, conformist behavior starting in the 1950s, so too
did the girls in series fiction, Down noted.
In later Nancy Drew books a great deal of ink was devoted to descriptions of the characters’ clothing,
including name brands, and her deeds were not as overtly daring as they had been in the Benson-authored
books which were all written between 1930 and 1953.
The first titles in the series are "The Secret of the Old Clock" and "The Hidden