The "Horatio Alger Theme" in Girls' Books

The formula Horatio Alger used with such success was so useful that it has passed into the general vocabulary with his name attached. Interestingly, though, it was about a generation before it turned up in any other genre than boys' books. What took writers so long to recognize its worth?

Some of the forces were probably social. Fewer girls' books were written. It's still a general fact that more girls read boys' books than boys do girls' books. If you want to reach the broadest possible market, it's better to write for boys. Suspicion and disapproval of a girl reading for pleasure existed in some segments of society -- it took her energy away from useful work. And often the average level of girls' education was lower as well, limiting the market still further.

But more importantly, there are several technical problems in using Alger's idea in a book for young girls. First is the difficulty of setting. Alger's boys lived on the streets, competed among themselves, and were prey to evil temptations. Ragged Dick's problems, for instance, are with drinking, smoking, and wasting his money on theater-going. In contrast, when Alger himself wrote about a girl, Tattered Tom, she has her money stolen, is falsely accused, and in general is perceived as a victim. Dick has to conquer his own soul -- Tom needs physical protection as well. When she is restored to her family and learns to act like a well-brought-up young lady, feminists may well claim that she has merely fallen victim again. (She is certainly less interesting after that turn of events.)

The second difficulty has to do with role models. Many of Alger's heros make the acquaintance of an older man who takes an interest in their development and gives them something to work toward. Today such a relationship might raise an eyebrow, but it was a seen only as a positive influence a hundred years ago. On the other hand, then as now any adult professing a personal interest in a young girl would have been assumed to have ulterior motives. Tom is finally restored to her natural mother as one of the few adults who can be relied upon not to victimize her. Boys are free to find their own mentors in a street acquaintance, a Sunday School teacher, or another boy the same age with more advantages behind him. Girls are too vulnerable to be allowed the same freedom.

And lastly there is the question of goals. What sort of lives were parents at the turn of the century willing to encourage their daughters to prepare for? If the answer, ninety percent of the time, was "wife and mother," the best preparation for that (as pointed out by Diana's mother in Anne of Green Gables) wouldn't be found in books. Furthermore, it would be hard to create a suitable heroine whose life didn't seem likely to lead to marriage. No one dreamed longingly of becoming a domestic servant, and a girl in comfortable enough circumstances to have time for pleasure reading had no need to think in terms of training as a teacher or nurse.

The Tale of the Orphan Girl

On the other hand, as the twentieth century opened, the girls' book field began to burgeon. And even boarding school, dormitory fires, and cruel Latin teachers have their limits as plot devices. Someone was bound to find a way to use the appealing and successful "Alger" plot for this different market.

And there was a way to surmount the setting problem. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Anne Shirley, Ruth Fielding, and Pollyanna were only a few among dozens of fictional female orphans who set out by train to live with unknown, distant relatives -- at best unloving, at worst exploitive. These stern guardians could be relied upon to insist on high moral standards and provide physical protection, so the heroines could get on with developing their inner selves. Safe in a household setting, they could hone their housekeeping skills, get basic schooling, learn to control their impulsive behavior, yearn after beauty, and form life-long friendships -- all apparently as important to success for a girl as accounting and French seem to have been for boys.

Once a girl was so ensconced, several natural -- and safe -- role models were at hand. A childless neighboring farmwife, a teacher, or the mother of a friend could all be reasonably expected to take an altruistic interest in an unappreciated girl in a small community. As time went on, the teacher was, as often as not, a Camp Fire Guardian or Girl Scout Captain as well. Ruth Fielding finds her helpful influence in another girl1 (1); Anne Shirley looks to the minister's wife and the local female teacher (2). Bessie Smith is sheltered by Eleanor Mercer (who is not married, a professional teacher, or even a neighbor; but rather a well-to-do young woman who has found purpose in her life through shepherding the girls of the Manasquan Camp Fire) (3).

As orphans, these girls were necessarily self-reliant and aware of the necessity of supporting themselves. Ruth Fielding starts on her screen-writing career in an effort to put herself through college. Anne Shirley teaches school for some years, develops her writing skills (but finds them, while sufficient for publication, not enough for a livelihood) and finally finds her niche as materfamilias. Her friend Katherine, after teaching school long enough to pay back the investment her guardians made in her education, finds an interesting and challenging position as secretary to a politician (4). Another Montgomery orphan heroine, Sara Stanley, eventually becomes an actress (5), while Kathleen Gilman of the Brightwood Camp Fire discovers her talents can earn her a living as an interior decorator (6). There weren't a lot of respectable careers for a self-supporting woman in the early years of the century, but the indefatigable Laura Lee Hope (an Edward Stratemeyer pseudonym) managed to use three of them at once by setting the orphaned Blythe sisters to survive in New York City -- one as an artist, one as a secretary, and one in retail sales.


An interesting variation on the theme is the reversal that turns up, among other places, in Fagots and Flames, the sequel to Camp Fire Girls of Brightwood. In the first book, Kathleen, under the influence of teacher/Camp Fire Guardian Miss Bolton, achieves a firm start toward her goals. In art school on a scholarship in the second volume, she has the opportunity to pass along the favor when she rescues young Tip, his sister Em-Ri, and his best friend (and fellow newsboy) Snooper from their Algeresque situation. While Tip prefers the farm to being a newsboy, he shares Alger's opinion of rural life and (presumably because he is responsible for his sister) is, with her, finally restored to their natural parents.

The voice of conservative society in this book, Mrs. Falkner, voices sentiments with which Alger would presumably have agreed when she expresses doubt about the addition of streetwise Tip to a middle-class household; "But," she adds,

there is a little girl, and it would be even worse to have her so uncouth. (7)

The Winnebago Camp Fire Girls -- one of whose members has herself lost her parents and suffered with an unfeeling aunt as guardian (8) -- adopt a waif and find her a suitable home in their adventure at Onoway House. (9)

Oh, Those Modern Girls

It took the inexhaustible Edward Stratemeyer (this time writing as Amy Bell Marlowe) to find another way to mine the Alger vein. In The Oldest of Four (10), his heroine Natalie French is left responsible for her invalid mother and three younger sisters. Natalie is no ignorant street waif -- she is an educated young woman, with a home and family. But every financial problem she tackles brings social problems with it. When, to keep the wolf from the door, she takes a department store job, she encounters unexpected snobbery, from the socialite who assumes any girl working for a living must be dishonest, to the former classmate overcome with embarrassment at finding the Senior Class president on the wrong side of the notions counter. Managing to get a better-paying job in publishing, she has to decide between her social training (a young girl should be chaperoned when she meets a gentleman) and business reality (if the gentleman is her editor, and he wants a working lunch, what about the chaperone?). And as her self-reliance and competence are tried and proved, she actually loses some former "friends" who were more comfortable with her in a dependent position. Besides doing most of the housework, caring for her mother, and being the family breadwinner, Natalie also needs to find her father and find out why his employer is being so uncooperative. No Alger hero ever overcame so many obstacles in his path to respectability as Natalie does, as she keeps her family together.


Trying to appeal at the same time to active, intelligent, ambitious young girls and to their parents and relatives (who, after all, actually bought the books) puts definite limits on writers. By adapting Horatio Alger's timeless story line to overcome difficulties in setting, role modelling, and aspirations, many of them can be considered to have made good use of it.

  1. Alice B. Emerson, Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill, Cupples & Leon, 1913.

  2. Lucy M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, L. C. Page Co., 1908; Anne of the Island, L.C. Page Co., 1915.

  3. Jane L. Stewart, Camp Fire Girls series, Saalfield, 1914.

  4. Lucy M. Montgomery, Anne of Windy Poplars, Frederick A.Stokes Co., 1936.

  5. Lucy M. Montgomery, The Story Girl, L. C. Page, 1908; The Golden Road, L.C. Page, 1910.

  6. Amy E. Blanchard, The Camp Fire Girls of Brightwood, W. A. Wilde Co., 1915.

  7. Fagots and Flames, page 233.

  8. Hildegard Frey, Camp Fire Girls at School, A. L. Burt, 1916.

  9. Hildegard Frey, The Camp Fire Girls at Onoway House, A.L. Burt, 1916.

  10. Grosset & Dunlap, 1914.

© 1994 Jo Anne Fatherly

This review first appeared in The Whispered Watchword, the newsletter of The Phantom Friends