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Romance Novels of the Jazz Age and Depression Eras


Jessica Kahan

In 2017, Honey and Wax Booksellers launched an innovative book collecting prize open to women collectors in the United States, aged 30 or younger.

“We take a particular interest in the evolving role of women in the rare book trade, on both the buying and selling sides. The great American book collector Mary Hyde Eccles, the first woman elected to the Grolier Club, noted that a collector must have three things: resources, education, and freedom. Historically, she observed, ‘only a few women have had all three, but times are changing!’ We embrace that change,” wrote Honey and Wax, a business based in Brooklyn, New York, run by Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney. Entrants had to supply an essay about their collection, a bibliography and a three-book wishlist.

The contest returns in 2018 and AbeBooks.com is supporting the initiative. To whet your appetite, here is the essay from the 2017 winner, Jessica Kahan, a public librarian in Ohio, who took home the $1,000 prize. Jessica has collected around 300 popular American romance novels from the 1920s and 1930s, all in their original dust jackets. She pays particular attention to the rise of the modern career woman as an archetype, and to how historical events (such as Prohibition and the Olympics) are reflected in the genre. Highlights of Jessica’s collection can be seen on her blog, thegoodbadbook.

This essay is reproduced courtesy of Jessica Kahan, and Honey and Wax Booksellers.

Romance Novels of the Jazz Age and Depression Eras

“He was the sort who, after knowing a girl for years, would ask permission to hold her hand.”  What a description of a soon-to-be rejected suitor!  More than 85 years after Vida Hurst wrote that line for Blind Date (1931), I couldn’t help but laugh and marvel at the freshness of a different generation’s barb.  The path I traveled to own and read such a “Sparkling Romance of the Modern Girl” started about eight years ago.

Back in the spring of 2009, I was a junior at Cornell University, fortunate enough to take a history of the book class taught by a rare book curator.  One assignment that semester was to write a mid-size paper on a genre of fiction and, as a Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major, one genre in particular had caught my eye:  20th century romance novels.  In researching that assignment at the Kroch Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I asked to see 1920s or 1930s romance novels.  I didn’t know any titles or authors to request, which was no problem for the reference librarian.  About 15 minutes later, I was in the reading room, completely awed by the rare books in my hands.  One of the books that fascinated me the most was Georgette MacMillan’s Stepping Out:  A Love Story.

The Good Bad Girl by Winifred Van Duzer

About 10 months later, in February of 2010, I was browsing at The Bookery in downtown Ithaca when a book caught my attention.  That book was The Good Bad Girl by Winifred Van Duzer, about Mimsi Marsh and her quest to be an artist in New York City.  When I found The Good Bad Girl in dust jacket, I first realized that I could collect the books I had loved so much within the library setting.  Until that moment of discovery, I had thought pre-1945 romance novels in dust jacket were more or less unobtainable or were prohibitively expensive.

Throughout 2010, my collection slowly began to accumulate as I started graduate school at the University of Michigan.  At first some of the books I purchased aside from The Good Bad Girl weren’t the sharpest, but at least they all had their original dust jackets and I was learning.  I visited multiple antiquarian book fairs, bookstores, and began searching the Internet for anything and everything I could find about dust jacketed romance novels.  Frustrated with the lack of readily available information online about 1920-1930s romance novels, I decided to start a blog, thegoodbadbook, to write about the vintage books I’ve read.  The blog was named in honor of The Good Bad Girl, which was also my inaugural book review.  Those early collecting years focused mostly on Grosset and Dunlap published first editions, a seeming oxymoron from what was usually a reprint house.

From its earliest days, my collection strives to capture women’s experiences through the lens of romance novels in the decades between women’s suffrage and World War Two.  My collection falls in-between the first and second wave feminism in what I consider an understudied era for women.  These romances were mostly cranked out for serial publications, which were then published in book form.  They feature formulaic or melodramatic plotlines, occasional descriptions of current fashion, and thin characters yet dance around issues of social status, working women, money, marriage, infidelity, and much more.  Plot lines in which I am especially interested involve women choosing between two suitors, one representing “love” and the other “money,” as well as plots concerning women moving to a big city to pursue various careers.  I look for whether a “love or money” plot mentions the Depression, unemployment, or any other allusion to current events.  In the novels which mention more parties with alcohol, I read in the context of prohibition.  I also search for mentions of evolving technologies (e.g. aviation), mention of current events (e.g. 1932 Olympics), and slang (e.g. and how!).

It’s safe to say that 1920s and 1930s romances helped carry me through the tumultuous year following graduate school.  I placed in the 2012 National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest, and marveled that my romance novels took me to the Library of Congress.  Martha O’Hara Conway sponsored my entry through the University of Michigan Special Collections Library, where I worked at that time.  The “celebration book” I bought was Make-Up by Alma Sioux Scarberry, unique to my collection in that it has the original Grosset and Dunlap advertising wrap-around band on top of its dust jacket.

Saleslady by Harold Morrow

Due to the obscurity of my collecting scope, I search nationwide for the books I love.  I used to prefer buying books in person but had to put that idea on hold when I moved to Charleston, South Carolina.  My favorite bookstores were very far away but I communicated regularly with my favorite book dealers.  The rare book highlight of my time in South Carolina was when I traveled to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair and “The Shadow Show” during Rare Book Week 2014.  At the ABAA Book Fair, I found the department store romance Saleslady by Harold Morrow, at Yesterday’s Gallery and Babylon Revisited Rare Books’ booth.   At that time, I had been searching for Saleslady for nearly two years.

When I moved to Ohio in 2015, I started buying books in two very different roles: my professional responsibility as a Children’s and Teen Collection Development Librarian and my personal rare book collection. As a seasoned collector of romance novels, I only purchase titles within a narrow scope, avoiding books that take up filler space, and know when to act quickly on special finds.

Collection highlights are books that take my breath away upon first sight.  I know them when I see them.  I consider items in the collection “strong” for various reasons.  Blond Trouble by Rob Eden has a humorously outlandish plot premise, and is in fantastic condition with a Pomeroy’s Department Store sticker.  Recently, in the spring of 2017, From Nine to Five reminded me that books I’m searching for are still out there.  I had listed From Nine to Five by Mary Badger Wilson in the original Penn Publishing edition in my 2012 NCBCC wish list and five years later, I found it, complete with the publisher’s bookmark still attached to the dust jacket.  And of course, The Good Bad Girl by Winifred Van Duzer always holds a special place in my collection and heart.

My collection may not be the pinnacle of fine literature but like flaws in the story, I regard flaws in the physical book as not always a negative.  In fact, I prefer the books with traces of previous ownership, such as an owner inscription or bookplate.  One collection highlight, Stolen Love by Hazel Livingston, contains several pasted in contemporary Hollywood magazine clippings of actors the reader imagined “cast” for the book, notably different than the actors actually cast for the movie adaptation.  I also appreciate original bookseller’s stickers or stamps, especially in conjunction with a previous owner’s name.  With the help of census records, I’ve been able to track down some of my books’ original owners, and have been able to trace the probable journey of some of these books, as noted in my bibliography.  Some of my romance novels really didn’t travel far before joining my collection, and a good portion of the women I found took interest in these books around the same age I first did.

No Such Girl by Vida Hurst

After completing my 50-item collections highlight bibliography, I realized how much my collection has taken off in the past five years.  I compared it to my 2012 bibliography and looked back upon several years of successful collecting.  The toughest part about completing the bibliography was narrowing down 50 highlights that best captured the essence of my romance novel collection.  Each author is only represented once.  I have approximately 300 books.  For the bibliography, I cut my “Career and Collegiate” sub-collection, including my favorite librarian career novels.  Even Blind Date, quoted at the beginning of this essay, was cut in favor of No Such Girl by Vida Hurst, one of the few romance novels I have set in my home state of Michigan.

Staying true to time period and audience, there are many exciting directions in which my collection can still grow.  Professional commitments such as serving on a regional Mock Caldecott and Newbery Committee have slowed down the blog, but it’s certainly not forgotten.  I’d like to continue adding to my annotated bibliography and piecing together how my books traveled around the country.  Future projects could include further study of 1920s romance ownership, more formal or extended writing on the books’ content, or even producing a bibliography in an admittedly much more narrow scope than either Bleiler on science fiction or Hubin on mysteries.

For now, I continue to live my life and build my collection one book at a time.  I consider book collecting to be my favorite hobby and take great pride in my collection.

Jessica Kahan

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