Contributor: Ryan K. Anderson
Associate Professor of History and American Studies Coordinator
University of North Caroline-Pembroke
Tip Top Weekly (1896-1912) is remembered as a dime novel featuring Frank Merriwell’s life as a schoolboy athlete. Authored by Gilbert Patten (Burt L. Standish) and published by Street and Smith, the Merriwell saga gave Merriwell broad recognition and cultural relevance. Later in the twentieth century, commentators would argue that Tip Top and Merriwell were popular because its readership was made up of white middle-class boys who liked reading about how sports made one into—as the dime novel’s banner proclaimed—“the American Youth.” What these artifacts—a selection of Tip Top Weekly’s colored covers (all courtesy of Ray and Pat Browne Popular Culture Library, Bowling Green State University)—illustrate is that the saga’s subject and audience were actually quite complex.
Merriwell did more than win games for the fictional Fardale Military Academy and then Yale University. Tip Top’s covers portrayed an event from that week’s installment and reflected the dime novel’s diverse subjects. True, many covers portrayed him as a stout athlete, swinging a bat or making a game-saving open-field tackle.
But, others showed the adolescent embracing beautiful young ladies, on globetrotting adventures, or getting into fights or hazing other college boys. And not everyone who appeared on the covers was an “all-American” boy. His love interests appeared, as did African-Americans, working-class boys, and Native Americans.
That people who were not schoolboy athletes appeared on the cover spoke to the diversity of his fictional social circle and his readers.
Rather than establishing a singular boyhood that simplified how one became a man, Tip Top fostered the creation of a fiction that only juvenile middle-class boy readers were interested in schoolboy sports stories. In reality, Tip Top was read by young and old, boys and girls, working-class and middle-class, white and non-white. Marketing one story to a complex readership became problematic, and Street and Smith began marketing the saga as written for a fictional reader—the middle-class, white, boy—while introducing spin-off titles for similar, but different audiences.
Set against the turn-of-the-century mission to clearly demarcate childhood, youth, and proper gendered and class-based behavior in an effort to create a progressive America, these Tip Top covers suggest that the process to do so was hardly simple or uncontested. Romanticized memories of a simpler time when Americans agreed on who a “real boy” was overlook the debate about the best way to make a boy into man and keep us from understanding what forces shaped gendered ideals.