Snippet of History's Women: 1st Women: Harriet Stratemeyer Adams – Syndicate Publisher—Later Author of Nancy Drew Books

History's Women: 1st Women: Hattie McDaniel – Oscar Winning Pioneer ActressHarriet Stratemeyer Adams
Syndicate Publisher—Later Author of Nancy Drew Books
1892–1982 A.D.

When Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate that produced juvenile book series in the early 20th century, died in 1930 his organization was left to his daughters Harriet S. Adams and Edna Stratemeyer. Then when they failed to find a buyer, they began to operate it on their own. Or Mrs. Adams did—through hard times, economic struggles, and a frequently absent co-owner. Also, she continued to publish the bestselling series books – the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew and others—that her father had begun. She also wrote many of the books herself. It could be said that over the years through her company’s books thousands of youngsters started to became readers because they were intrigued with the adventures of the Syndicate characters.

But what was the Statemeyer Syndicate?  It was what we’d today call a book packaging company that was founded in 1905 when Edward Stratemeyer had a problem. As a bestselling children’s author already, he often had more story ideas then he had time to finish them so as a solution he developed the Syndicate. He would created plots and outlines for current and new book series, and then advertise for writers (usually reporters) to complete the novel’s manuscript for publishing under a series pseudonym. In return he paid the writer a flat onetime fee for the manuscript, insisting that they give up all claim to future royalties and publicity for any of their books.

This arrangement was a success that over the years provided the Stratemeyer family a comfortable living and there was born in Newark, New Jersey, in December 1892 a baby girl to Edward Stratemeyer and his wife Lenna.

“I grew up in a story-book house,” Harriet later wrote as she described a father who took his work home with him. “My earliest recollection of my father was when he was playing with my sister and me—outdoors, indoors; and we had continuous stories, not just bedtime stories…”  She and her sister Edna, born in 1895, lived at the time in an upper class home in a neighborhood of other children. Harriet herself proved to be a tomboy for her time but she had to follow local proprieties. She described one in an early interview: “After the age of 13, a lady should not climb trees unless to get away from a dog.” Her neighbor Russell Vroom Adams was a frequent acquaintance. Harriet recalled, “My sister and I used to tease him unmercifully.”  She and Mr. Adams were to be married in 1915.

As Harriet attended and then graduated from Wellesley College, Adams had become an investment banker and as they became more serious their wedding was celebrated and they eventually had three children—three sons and a daughter.

After Edward Stratemeyer died in May 1930 as described above, Harriet and Edna ended up trying to operate a company they knew little about. For her part Harriet tried to understand the system as she both managed her home and family—as well as the office.

Over the next few years as she managed the employment of ghostwriters, edited the submitted manuscripts, and worked with publishers—Harriet had to face another issue. This occurred when one of their authors proved difficult regarding retaining the secrecy of being an author. Yet it also seemed that Harriet was the one who dealt with all the challenges. This was because Edna had gradually become less of an office presence and then in 1937 at the age of 37 years she got married, had a child, and moved away.

However, she still wanted to collect her part of Syndicate profits—and it was the beginning of a continuing alienation between the sisters.

Then came WWII, and Harriet’s son was a military pilot, he was killed in a training mission in 1942 and she returned to the office to a heavy workload. As before Edna, as a silent Syndicate partner, was still an unseen problem. As one author puts it, “Though she would split Syndicate profits with Harriet forty/sixty she [Edna] was no longer in the day-to-day business at the office. Harriet was now fully in charge of all outlines and character development, which meant among other things, that she had to deal on her own with changes in the juvenile book world wrought by the war.”

Edna often wrote hectoring letters which added to the tensions between New Jersey and Florida where Edna had moved. Another pressing issue for Harriet was her low remuneration since she’d failed to get a raise in pay since 1942. Then Edna demanded a complete accounting of the Syndicate fiancés before she’d think about the raise.

Harriett wrote to Edna describing the Syndicate finances as in good condition and reminded her sister how for several years her pay had remained at $37.50 a week. Meanwhile, a permanent rift had developed and though Harriet continued to write family letters to her sister there was part of her that could never forgive.

Then in the 1950s continued denial of royalty raises from her publisher brought a change in Syndicate policy. From then on they ceased relying on ghostwriters and all books were to be written by staffers in-house. Harriet took over the Nancy Drew stories but did not inform the long-term ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson of the new policy. Mrs. Benson simply stopped receiving the assignments.

Also, Harriet continued to seek a salary boost, arguing that Edna had been out of the office for almost fifteen years, and profits had greatly increased. However, her sister denied the raise and Harriet’s offer to purchase her share of the Syndicate.  As the author put it: “Harriett simply stopped consulting her unless it was absolutely necessary and focused instead on her work.”

During the 1950s and 1960s it became evident that the series of books had to be modernized since formerly accepted practices and attitudes were considered inappropriate for more recent readers. Some changes were made in eliminating racial and ethnic stereotypes, but it also meant altering character actions and plot changes. For example, in an older Hardy Boys stowed away in the tail of a small plane to follow some mail thieves but that had to be changed since it was probably considered too risky.  It is likely that readers probably didn’t notice the changes but one they might have realized was how Nancy Drew no longer drove a “roadster” but now a convertible. Also, Nancy’s age was raised from sixteen to eighteen, to make her more independent.

During this time Harriett and Edna had remained distant but the alienation ceased when Edna died in March 1974 and her 37.5 percent ownership of the Syndicate reverted to Harriet.

Another challenge for Harriet came several years later when there was a lawsuit that came from when she changed publishers. Part of the case involved the question of who wrote the original books and that brought Mildred Wirt Benson in to testify about her art in the Nancy Drew books. That she had written many of the original stories, came into evidence, contradicting Harriet’s longtime claim that she had written all the Drew books.

In March 1982 Harriet Adams passed away from heart failure and eventually the Syndicate was acquired by a major publishing company. Many of the Syndicate books including the vintage titles are still in print from various sources and available on the internet.


Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Melanie Rehak, Harcourt, Inc. New York, 2005

Quote by History's Women: 1st Women: Harriet Stratemeyer Adams - Syndicate Publisher—Later Author of Nancy Drew Books