Nancy Drew

DEAR Time: Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew through the Ages

I’ve meant to blog about Nancy Drew – and my undying love for her – for a long time now, but kept forgetting. I was reminded again when I posted about a Nancy Drew-themed embroidery on the &Stitches blog a few weeks ago.

I’ve been a fan of Nancy since I was just a little girl, like about a zillion other girls over several generations, and she will always evoke a special feeling in me. Just holding one of the books is magic, it takes me right back to the special little corner in the children’s library at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. On a quiet little shelf all to itself, the entire Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys collection sat mostly untouched. I’m sure there must’ve been girls like me all over the city, who sat at that shelf and admired those incredibly ratty old books, and loved them just like I did, but I never saw one of them there. It seemed like a special corner only I knew about and even though I haven’t been there in about 19 years, I can picture it as clear as if it was yesterday.

So while my parents roamed around getting their books from the grown-up sections, they left me in the care of the trusted librarian and Nancy Drew, girl detective. I would go sit at the shelf and pick up wherever I left off last visit and I suppose I must’ve taken them home sometimes but I only really remember reading them right there in the library. I’m sure I read all seventy-whatever of the books, but I don’t remember any specific plots, just Nancy’s plucky nature and the adventures she got in with her chums, George and Bess.

I moved to Europe as a mid-teenager and didn’t really have access to Nancy for a long-long time, but when an assignment at university allowed me to pick an essay topic from anything in the whole world, I jumped at the chance to learn more about the books. Since she’s such a 1950s icon, I’d never have guessed she was actually created in the 1930s and had undergone a huge re-imaging 30 years later!

Nancy Drew through the Ages

It cost quite a bit, but I managed to get myself an early (not first!) edition of the first Nancy Drew book, “The Secret of the Old Clock” (to the left in the top photo) — this illustration is how Nancy originally looked. She was much sassier in the older versions and even fights off a tiger, if my memory serves. Plus, just look at how damn cute she is in that 30s outfit! Nancy was created in 1930 as a girl’s equivalent to the already popular Hardy Boys series, and she was an immediate success.

But in 1959, the publishers decided to revamp the series – go back and, supposedly, remove racial stereotypes present in the earlier versions, but the truth is that they basically gave the entire concept a white-washing (no pun intended). Nancy’s past is less emotional, her age is slightly raised so that she is no longer a minor, she’s given a mother-figure and her father becomes more protective, and, most importantly, she is made more ‘feminine’. She is much more obedient and demure, the way a ‘proper’ young lady should be, according to the time. The new Nancy even looks more well-behaved –

Nancy Drew through the Ages

– checking in with the cops rather than running her own investigation around them. It’s such a shame they felt like this was necessary though I suppose that is a sign of the times and all that. If you ask me, the 1930s Nancy, driven by pure moxie, is a much better role model than the polite, mild-mannered girl who is (usually) fine with being told what to do by the men in her life. But even so, I love them both equally. So many of us grew up reading the new-and-improved 1950s Nancy Drew, having no idea there ever was another version of the character, and she will always be special. There is such a charming quality to these books that you just can’t help but love the vintage in them. Reading 1930s Nancy is kind of like reading the books in an alternate universe but if you love that style like I do, you’ll love them too. (I don’t know if they’re still available, but some years ago, they did reprint the first ten books in their original version, you may be able to find those used now for significantly less than the actual vintage books cost.) In today’s world, there’s absolutely room for the two Nancys to co-exist and be adored in different ways.*

The oddest part of the Nancy Drew renovation project was the way all of the books were standardized. They were made much shorter, as you can see here (for perspective, the type in both books is just about the exact same size):

Nancy Drew through the Ages

Much of the detail was stripped in the new versions, making the stories quicker-paced and more action-packed. A sign of things to come perhaps, as that same concept is now followed by so many movies and television shows. No room for character detail when we could have more chasing! Each book was also made to have the exact same number of chapters, though I can’t imagine why that would have seemed important!

I honestly could talk about Nancy Drew all day and could easily spend time studying her academically just for fun. But mostly I just love her to pieces, reading the books always feels cozy and calm like my childhood, and kind of like stepping into an episode of a 1950s television show. I love her so much that I carried the first eighteen books back to Holland after finding them at a charity shop in London on a visit, and I carefully rationed them for years, reading them only when I felt like I really really needed a Nancy Drew break from the world. I’ve been out of new volumes for a long time now, so I’ll need to start hunting down some used copies of the next ones to see what other adventures she’ll get into!

*I will not even acknowledge what happened to Nancy after the 1970s. As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as a modern Nancy Drew.