Dating Nancy Drew Book Formats

Edward Stratemeyer (1862 – 1930) created a literary syndicate in the early 1900s which was responsible for the publication of thousands of juvenile series books. These included the Rover Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Dana Girls, Honey Bunch, Bomba the Jungle Boy, X Bar X Boys, Campfire Girls, Happy Hollisters and scores of others. Stratemeyer dreamed up series ideas and characters, created the story lines and then contracted with ghostwriters who wrote under various pseudonyms to flesh out the story details. Stratemeyer edited the manuscripts and had them printed by dozens of publishers (with the most common being Grosset and Dunlap). The syndicate continued to be run by Edward’s daughter and other partners until 1979, when Simon and Schuster took over publication rights and drastically changed the style and format of the books.

During the Stratemeyer Syndicate/Grosset and Dunlap publishing control of the Nancy Drew series, from 1930 to 1979, approximately one new title was produced every year (although 6 books were created in the first two years). Throughout these 49 years, the physical formats of the books were constantly updated with numerous changes, combinations and variants. Most of the other Syndicate books in production were kept in sync and went though similar style changes at the same time. Thus, the information presented here for Nancy Drew can be associated with similar changes to other Stratemeyer series books over the same time frame.

Early Nancy Drew books

The first six Nancy Drew books began as thick editions with blue or bluish-gray slick covers, each containing four finely detailed glossy illustrations. The end papers were blank and the simple title lettering was light orange. The dust jackets had an illustration only on the front, leaving wide, white spines to display on the shelf. The six books with blank end papers were produced only in 1930 and 1931 and are now highly collectible. (End papers are the pages that are pasted onto the insides of the front and back covers.)

With volume #7 in 1932, a garish orange silhouette of Nancy was embossed on the book cover and the end papers were changed to depict vivid orange silhouettes. Due to production costs, three glossy internals were eliminated in 1937, leaving only a glossy frontispiece. And in 1941 (volume #18), a blue silhouette of Nancy was added to the white dust jacket spine. Around 1943 (volume #20), the wonderful, high-resolution glossy frontispiece was replaced with a plain and simple line drawing on regular paper. Also that year, the books gradually started to become thinner as the thread count in the paper was continually reduced.

A dramatic change occurred with volume #23 in 1946. The white spine dust jackets changed to the wraparound style, where the cover art continued onto the spine. The orange silhouette end papers changed to dark blue. The silhouette on the book cover also changed to dark blue (thus eliminating all orange). The cover stock remained slick.

The silhouette spine symbol on the dust jacket remained for only four more volumes, and then was changed to a circular color portrait, which gradually became smaller over the years. In 1947 and 1948, perhaps to advertise another popular series, random volumes contained marvelous maroon Dana Girls end papers, which were quite a big change from the previous orange and blue silhouettes. These very rare volumes are very hard to find and are also highly collectible.

Dust jacket style changes

In 1950, most of the older volumes also transformed to the wraparound dust jacket style and began to use updated dust jacket art by a new illustrator. (Volumes #12-22 continued to be produced only with white spine dust jackets – although they were issued in much thinner formats and now had new end papers and new cover art.)

Beginning with volume #30 in 1953, the book’s cover style changed from a slick blue to a blue cloth tweed (but retained the dark blue lettering and silhouette), and this format eventually became the most common. For a brief period from 1953 to 1958 (first introduced in volumes #30 – 35), the end papers depicted Nancy peering from behind a tree, watching a mysterious man digging in the night. These end papers, dubbed “digger ends” by Nancy collectors, are often sought specifically for this format. Starting in 1959, the well-known multi-scene end papers were adopted and used in various styles until 1979 (volume #56). The white oval cameo end papers were a later offshoot of the Simon and Schuster reprints.

The last volume to contain a dust jacket was volume #38, The Mystery of the Fire Dragon, and it was only produced in this format for one year in 1961 (in 3 editions). Therefore it is a rare find. In 1962, the formats changed to the cheaper, yellow spine picture covers. Also, the text was revised and updated and the page count was drastically reduced. The books were never to be the same again.

Nancy Drew reprints continue

Because of their popularity, all the old titles continue to be reprinted, over and over again, often several times a year, in the latest style. Thus, the oldest books appear in virtually every format. (Volume #1, The Secret of the Old Clock, has well over 100 separate editions by Grosset and Dunlap alone.) However, whenever a new format was introduced, the older one was usually discontinued, so the oldest formats are naturally the hardest to find.

As mentioned earlier, the changes to the Nancy Drew series happened in parallel with similar changes to other series. When Nancy Drew cover stock switched to blue tweed, for example, The Hardy Boys switched to tan tweed and Dana Girls switched to green tweed. All the major series adopted the wraparound dust jacket in about the same time period and all went to the picture cover format in the early 1960’s (at the same time that the text was reduced and revamped).

Grosset and Dunlap did not put a publishing date in their books, retaining only an outdated copyright date. Therefore, understanding the style changes can help date the books. As another reference point, paper quality was poor for brief periods in the 1940s, causing darkened and more brittle pages. (This is sometimes called “war paper”, as its poor quality was tied to the rationing of better goods during World War II.)

Because each Grosset and Dunlap book listed all the books in that series, it is often assumed that a first edition can be identified if the book list goes only to the current subject title (often described as “lists to self”), and not beyond. However, Grosset and Dunlap sometimes produced as many as five different editions of a book in a single year (before the next title was printed). Furthermore, the listings inside the book lagged well behind the listings on the dust jacket flaps, so it is very risky to make a first edition assumption with a book lacking a dust jacket. The only sure way to identify a first is by the changes in advertising on the dust jacket (particularly when listing other series) and by comparing points using reputable guides.

A very good source for identifying the various editions of Nancy Drew books is Farah’s Guide by David Farah.

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