The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
SPACE KIT - IT'S OUT OF THIS WORLD!
For another children's book on space travel from 1953, see Interplanetary Tour.
Amazingly, something good came out of Fredric Wertham's crazy crusade against comics.
A variety of pundits, educators, psychologists, and other purported child experts started to demonize comic books almost as soon as they appeared in the late 1930s. The frenzy slackened during the war when comic books screamed overtly patriotic propaganda as well as being favorites of the GIs, most of whom had never gone beyond high school. Sales, especially of superhero comics, plummeted after the war, so publishers sought subjects that might have the appeal to recapture that now more adult audience. Crime and horror themes did the trick. Violent, sensationalized, gruesome, these adult comics were blamed for every possible evil, including the alarming rise of juvenile delinquency, as if several guidance-free years of having one parent overseas and one working in a factory had no impact.
The campaign came to a head in November 1953. That month's issue of the Ladies' Home Journal ran a long article by Wertham titled "What Parents Don't Know About Comic Books."
Almost immediately afterward, Sen. Robert C. Hendrickson, R-NJ, the head of the Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, announced that he had received 7500 letters from parents, most accusing comic books and other media for the problem. In February 1954, Hendrickson called for hearings on the subject, now backed with a claimed 20,000 letters. (I say claimed because, as with Sen. Joe McCarthy, the number changed erratically with every press release. And not all the letters disapproved of comics.)
Not surprisingly, Wertham was the star witness for the prosecution. (Half the articles spelled his first name Frederic, the other half Frederick, and only a handful got Fredric right. There was never a golden age of newspaper accuracy.) That the hearings were carefully timed and coordinated is beyond doubt. Wertham's blockbuster book, Seduction of the Innocent, was released on April 19; the hearings started on April 21. The 58-year-old Wertham was suddenly a media star.
He left devastation behind. Dozens of comic book publishers simply disappeared. Those that remained released product aimed at the 10 and younger crowd. An enormous niche opened wide. I don't think it's a coincidence that the middle-school aimed Tom Swift Jr. books debuted in 1954.
Another answer appeared in the least likely location: the supermarket checkout counter.
Supermarkets weren't new, nor were gimmicks designed to keep customers loyal and staying away from rivals. As young families moved to suburbs, though, the stroll down the street to the local grocery store was increasingly replaced with a drive to larger chain markets that drew from larger areas and offered more and varied goods. Encyclopedias and dictionaries were sold piece by piece, week after week, so that you had to shop at a store for months to collect the entire volume. Sets of dishes were available one by one. And of course, green stamps, gold stamps, and even plaid stamps accompanied purchases, carefully pasted into books, and then redeemed at special centers for small appliances and other useful household stuff as rewards for collecting the dratted things for months or even years to get the biggest ticket items.
One-time offers abounded as well. They were targeted at housewives and families with children, which similarly abounded in the baby boom fifties. Households centered on little Dick and Jane, who were to be given the best of everything. Or, if not the best, the glittery stuff available cheaply as come-ons. In 1954, after the Hendrickson hearings, that meant something other than the comic books that many supermarkets were hurriedly booting out of their stores. They weren't subtle about what they were doing.
A Space Kit! In 1954 those were magical words. Science fiction kiddie shows overran television programming, leaching from after-school timeslots into the evening so that the whole family could sit together and enjoy them. (The mostly male space crews were soon bolstered by female co-stars half-dressed in futuristic miniskirts, deliberately added to lure fathers.) You could choose from Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger or Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers, Captain Video and His Video Rangers, Captain Z-Ro, or Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. In fact, a 1952 promotion for the Buck Rogers series saw sponsor Sylvania sending out free Buck Rogers Space Ranger Kits.
The kit contains cardboard items that assemble to create a Space Ranger Helmet, Martian Mask, Atomic Space Rocket, Disintegrator gun, Space Compass, Interplanetary Space Phones, Commission Pendants, Stato Power Space Ship, and Martian Nodding Head Dynagator Target, plus commission pendants, a membership card, a space ranger badge, and stand-up figures of Buck, Wilma, Martians, and Space Rangers!
Space symbolized science, education, facts, serious learning with a soupçon of adventure and the lure of the unknown, all values contrary to the lurid thrills of comic books. The vast appeal of space to harried mothers was laid out in what's clearly a press release converted into a newspaper article. (Although the article implies that Jitney Jungle developed the Space Kit, the New York firm of McMahon and Morse created it, and the press release was undoubtedly customized for local markets.)
James Sayre Pickering was a major name, author of The Stars Are Yours, published in 1948 but with a revised edition issued in 1953. Though aimed at adults, the book could have appeal for childhood backyard astronomers because it limited itself to phenomena that could be seen by the naked eye, an echo of his own upbringing, as one review mentioned.
Probably it is the author’s background that qualified him primarily for the writing of a book such as this. His father made a hobby of astronomy and maintained a professional observatory on the roof of his house.
As a child he learned, largely without the benefit of a telescope, to recognize and identify the stars and planets. Later he read proof and helped to produce many articles written by his father.
Naturally a connection to the Hayden Planetarium can be found. Though he held a full-time job, Pickering was a "special lecturer" there. Later he'd go on to write other astronomical titles including 1001 Questions Answered About Astronomy, Famous Astronomers, Captives Of The Sun, Men, Space And The Stars, Asterisks: A Book of Astronomical Footnotes, and Windows To Space.
Back in pre-Sputnik 1954, though, the gap between space-happy kids and their clueless adults is evident from the article.
[Pickering] came up with maps of interplanetary space, space calipers, space speed charts, course finders, a space log, and other paraphernalia adults know nothing about.
This ignorance gap wouldn't be matched for another 50 years, when adults turned to their children to help their run DVD players, smartphones, and computers.
Supermarkets had a variety of ads to choose from, and free choice to price it for their individual markets. During the first rollout in May 1954 most stores charged either 79¢ or 89¢ with a $5.00 purchase. Later in that year, the promotion was brought back with the Space Kit being free with a single $20 purchase or with the accumulation of $49 worth of register tapes. Those were big numbers for the day.
Here's the Space Kit, in living color.
Found on Worthpoint
The Space Kit comprised six elements, which I will take in reverse order, countdown style.
6. TOP SECRET flight envelope
This is pictured in some of the ads above as an ordinary envelope with the words TOP SECRET printed on it. The contents remain secret to this day, although that unreadable yellow sheet of paper in the upper left of the box may have been part of them.
5. Interplanetary Log
The TOP SECRET instructions had something to do with the course the ship would be on. Our young space navigators would use the four-page "Official Space Navigator's Log," with its planet table, star chart, and handy set of instructions to set a course and write down every detail of the trip.
Found on eBay
Found on eBay
4. Squadron Identification Button
No kid could feel properly included without a gaudy pin proclaiming membership in the larger troop. Lone explorers weren't wanted in space in the conformist 50s. Even all the space shows extolled huge organizations patterned after the military or the United Nations.
Found on Worthpoint
3. Space Navigating Instruments
Oh sure, the ads promised a "Space Computer." But since a UNIVAC was a trifle large to fit into a cardboard box, McMahon and Morse cheated. Kids got a set of calipers and a "navigating protractor" to plot courses according to the instructions given in the log book. You can see them under the books in the box pictured above.
2. First Official Map of Interplanetary Travel
As opposed to those unofficial maps of interplanetary travel they had to make do with earlier. Even though every ad called it a "map, " the fold-out itself - a huge 24x18 inches - was labeled a "chart." Either way you got a space-bird's-eye view of the solar system with ten planets. Ten? Yes, a tremendous (much larger than Neptune, which was much larger than Jupiter, although the others were sized properly) "unknown planet" beckoned to any intrepid young astrogators.
Found on eBay
1. The First Book of Space Travel
The Space Kit was worth every penny just for this book alone, which had been published the previous year at $1.75. Despite the name, this was not literally the "first book" on space travel, even for youngsters. It was part of the million-selling First Books series
Franklin Watts set up his eponymous publishing company in 1942, along with his wife Helen Hoke, a prolific children's' book author and an editor of children's books at several publishers. They soon created the First Books series, aimed at tweens and eventually covering just about every noun in the English language. They were hugely popular with librarians and parents and noted for their depth of research and clear presentations.
Today they are noted mostly because they were among the first children's series in which publishers consciously included books on people of color. The Watts had the courage to contract with Langston Hughes when most firms avoided him because of his earlier communist leanings. His works include The First Book of Negroes, of Rhythms, of Jazz, of Africa, and of the West Indies.
Jeanne Bendick was as prolific as Helen Hoke and much-loved at Franklin Watts. Her titles include The First Book of Ships, of Boats, of Automobiles, of Airplanes, and, ironically, of Supermarkets. Unlike either Hoke of Hughes, she illustrated her own books and many others, including The First Book of Trains, of Time, and of Trucks. Her history parallels that of Pickerings. Bendick also had a grandfather who taught her the trade she would devote her life to, in this case art. Instead of his backyard, he took her to the American Museum of Natural History. She would have been only 16 when the Hayden Planetarium opened and they might have gone there together. She graduated from the New York High School of Arts and Music and the Parsons School of Design. Science remained a lifelong interest, and many of the books she wrote and/or illustrated were on scientific subjects. She, Isaac Asimov, and Roy Gallant wrote the Ginn Science Program, a series of K-8 textbooks.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Watts assigned her The First Book of Space Travel, then. She had counterparts in Catherine Barry, the writer/lecturer at the Hayden, and Frances Frost, who wrote Rocket Away! (see Interplanetary Tour) Both Frost and Bendick's books were reviewed as part of a June 14, 1953, article by librarian Dixie Lou Fisher on science fiction and space travel books at the library.
Fisher inadvertently reminds us of the almost complete lack of knowledge and understanding endemic in the general public, who ignorance about space and space travel in the pre-Sputnik era was countered by kids absorbing every detail they could through television, leaving their parents light years behind.
Both these books also contain glossaries of space terms, which are fascinating indeed. Frankly, we had been feeling a trifle smug because we knew what asteroids were. For some time it has been giving us a turn to hear fourth and fifth graders casually incorporating such words as velocity, cosmic rays, and telemetering into their ordinary vocabulary – now, at last, we see where they have been learning these things.
The serious looks at space travel in both children's and adult nonfiction also sparked a new appreciation of fiction about space travel.
We have discovered that we are definitely less visionary, and more conservative than we like to think. To us, science fiction always has been synonymous with trash. In fact, the best we ever said for it was that it is, probably, one step above comic books! So now, with a loud grinding noise that can be heard all over town, we are eating our rash words. ...
Science fiction has been exceeding popular with a number of our young readers, especially the boys. They are enchanted with the possibilities of rocket trips and space stations. Stories about spacemen spark their imagination and delight their hearts. It is, for us, a rewarding pleasure to find that these same children are intrigued by the books that give them science straight, too; they seem to absorb it painlessly, and clamor for more. ...
Although children and high schools have been interested in science fiction all along, the demand for this sort of thing among our adults patrons has been almost non-existent. ... Now, all of a sudden, we are having numerous requests for thrilling science fiction written on an adult level.
Yet, no matter how thoughtful and enlightened Fisher appeared to be, there's no escaping that she lived in the 1950s, a world with different mores and expectations.
One look at the drawings of the weird accoutrements that make up a correct space wardrobe has deterred most prospective spacewomen, we find!
The First Book's endpapers immediately reinforce the lack of girlish fluff in the accoutrements.
In fact, girls are almost entirely missing throughout. A few female faces are present in the pictures of curious children on Earth, but without exception every image of an astronaut or member of a space crew is that of a male. Bendick has to be named as the culprit; she illustrated her own book.
Nor does the vaunted vocabulary help. An astronaut is defined as a spaceman. When people in the 1950s talked about man going into space, they meant it literally.
And, needless to say, all the faces were white, even when they were glowing green.
The Space Kits had their last hurrah in New Jersey at the end of 1955, illustrated not with the sensible spacesuits that Bendick drew but with some costumes out of a b-grade sci fi flic.
Bendick had a longer career. The First Book of Space Travel went though at least 11 printings and revised editions were released in 1960 and 1963. She died in 2014 at the age of 95, after writing more than 100 books. I can't find any record of what she thought about her book being included in the Space Kit, but an obituary quoted her as saying "If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity." The Space Kit was the perfect gift to be a part of.
July 20, 2020