Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pre-Burgess Newspaper Bedtime Stories

Thornton W. Burgess was "The Bedtime Story Man." His 15,000 newspaper bedtime stories earned him that nickname. But his syndicated "Little Stories for Bedtime" was not the first newspaper bedtime story feature.

On March 9, 1910 the Mansfield (Ohio) News pitched a new labor-saving device, "Daddy's Bedtime Story."
Parents without the time or energy or imagination to create their own stories for bedtime would now have a new story every night (except for Sunday) to read to their children.

Here is an example from March 18 1910, which should be read carefully for reasons that will become obvious.

"Daddy's Bedtime Story" was, at least initially, framed as a story about bedtime stories. The children, Jack and Evelyn, were ready for bed and "daddy" was obliged to tell them a story, usually with a moral directly tagged on at the end. I have no evidence that Thornton Burgess read this particular story, though the character names (Billy Possum [a common colloquialism] and Tommy) and the scenario (possum playing dead, carried by the tail by Tommy) are strikingly similar to future Burgess. The shockingly casual cruelty ("they took him home and showed him to Mr. McFudge, who killed him and had Mrs. McFudge cook him"), on the other hand, is in sharp contrast to the endlessly empathetic Burgess story.

The "Daddy's Bedtime Story" feature was widely syndicated throughout the United States and Canada. Mary Graham Bonner apparently wrote the stories, and although she didn't receive credit in the newspaper, she published several collections of them, including Daddy's Bird Bedtime Stories, under her own name. Initially she offered original stories, largely in the animal and fairy story vein, but eventually (as her own well of creativity ran dry?) she would draw from the larger cultural reserve of the folk tale. In the 1930s she would write thousands of stories under her own name for an Uncle Wiggily-like syndicated feature, "Sundown Stories."

"Daddy's Bedtime Story" should not confused with "Daddy's Good Night Stories," a different syndicated newspaper feature of 1910, written by George Henry Smith (AKA Farmer Smith). Here's a sample from August 18, 1910 that ran in the Meriden (CT) Daily Journal (the highlighted bits are an artifact of searching Google News Archives).
"Daddy's Good Night Stories" were animal fables. Here Smith unapologeticaly appropriates the  "Br'er Rabbit" name for his character (as Burgess would do with "Peter Rabbit") and even offers a little bit of natural history ("ten to twelve days" until baby rabbits are ready to hop around). Like Burgess (and unlike "Daddy's Bedtime Story"), Smith served up a serial. Note the hard sell at the column's end to read the next evening's installment.

Next: Howard R. Garis: Newspapers' other 15,000 Story Man

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