We have the word “experience” in the name of our project for a reason. We’re hoping to bring early fandom to life in a more visceral, accessible and interactive way than previous histories of the period. To that end, we’re always searching for examples of what fans of the 1930s did when they weren’t slaving over a typewriter, mimeograph machine or steaming vat of hectography gelatin.
One thing some of them did is eat ice cream. Not remarkable in itself, but we’d assume that hard-core science fiction fanatics would find a way to make dessert a part of their primary fixation.
As we can see from this article by future-Futurian Frederik Pohl in the The International Observer (v2n7, January 1937), we know that they did just that.
Be on the lookout at upcoming conferences for a “Science Fiction Special” ice cream event sponsored by First Fandom Experience!
In May 1937, John W. Campbell, Jr. was looking for work. He was in good company — the unemployment rate in the United States was fluctuating around 15%, reflecting the lingering economic malaise of the Great Depression. Despite his degree in Physics and some success as a writer of science fiction stories, Campbell hadn’t found a steady gig.
This was to change in the Fall of that year when Campbell was hired as the Editor of Astounding Stories, where he reigned until his death in 1971. His Wikipedia entry describes his subsequent impact on science fiction:
“Referring to his time spent as an editor, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction wrote: ‘More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern sf. Isaac Asimov called Campbell ‘the most powerful force in science fiction ever’ and said the ‘first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely.’ In his capacity as an editor, Campbell published some of the very earliest work, and helped shape the careers, of virtually every important sf author to debut between 1938 and 1946, including Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.”
As a tribute to Campbell, in 1973 the World Science Fiction Society established the “John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.” This prize has been awarded yearly ever since — until Tuesday, August 27, 2019.
The award still exists, but on that day was renamed the “Astounding Award for Best New Writer.” As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, this shift was driven by renewed attention to Campbell’s well-known, publicly-expressed racism. Jeanette Ng, winner of the 2019 Best New Writer prize, called out Campbell to cheers from the audience:
“John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fucking fascist. Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists. Yes, I am aware there are exceptions.”
As we seek to tell the story of science fiction fandom in the 1930s and 1940s, repugnant attitudes among early fans and professionals are impossible to miss, should not be missed, and should not be dismissed or ignored. By documenting this period in what some might deem a celebratory way, we’re in no sense endorsing these views — nor will we shy away from them.
Through our research, we have an opportunity to share insight into Campbell’s life prior to his work at Astounding. The letter presented here in full was penned by Campbell on May 15 1937, several months before he was hired as an editor. The recipient, Robert D. Swisher, was himself a research chemist and early science fiction fan. Swisher and Campbell corresponded regularly through the 1930s and 40s. It’s presented here by expressed permission from Perry A. Chapdelaine Sr., who acquired the letter from the Campbell estate. The San Diego State University watermark isn’t original to the letter — it’s an artifact of the archive where many of Campbell’s letters are physically stored. We appreciate the assistance of Alec Nevala-Lee and Doug Ellis in sourcing and establishing the provenance of this document.
Notes and my perspective on the content of the letter follows each page. Click the individual pages to view them in full resolution.
The vital role played by Mort Weisinger in launching Capmbell’s career as an editor demonstrates the vivid connection between fandom and the pros. Fanzines such as Weisinger’s Science Fiction Digest and Charles D. Hornig’s The Fantasy Fan served as the Grapefruit League for the draft class of professional editors recruited by the pulps in the mid 1930s. Weisinger’s relationship with Campbell was further brought to life by Julius Schwartz in an interview with John L. Coker III:
Before he became an editor, John W. Campbell used to write science fiction, what is referred to today as hard science fiction, much in the vein of “Doc” Smith stories. He tried to broaden his market, so he submitted stories to Mort Weisinger, but Mort rejected them. Finally, Campbell says, “Mort, what is wrong with my stories? Why aren’t I writing the type of stories you’re looking for?” Mort says, “You’re writing the type of scientific stories that I don’t want to bore the readers with. I want you to get to where you’re going, tell an exciting adventure story, and don’t load it down with too much science fact.” Campbell says, “I’d like to take a chance on it. Can you give me an idea what style I should use?” So Mort says, “My favorite writer is Stanley G. Weinbaum.” They were human interest stories. They were believable. Campbell read the stories of Stanley G. Weinbaum, and he submitted a story and Mort bought it. Campbell was very happy and he started writing a series of stories along the same line.
The issue came out with the first story in it, and Campbell went up to see Mort. Campbell says, “Mort, what did you do to the story that appears in the current issue?” Mort says, “I’m an editor, I get paid to edit, so I edited it.” Campbell says, “Does that mean you can change the title of a story of a script that I sell you?” Mort says, “Of course, if I don’t like the title I change it to a title that I like, or something that I think will appeal to my young readers.” Campbell said, “You mean you can take the title of a story you bought and change the title?” Mort said, “Yeah, didn’t you look at the back of the check? It says we can edit and make it suitable for publication.” Mort said, “I cut out the dull parts and got into the action.” I don’t remember the title of the story that Campbell had, but Mort changed it to “The Brain Stealers of Mars.” Any young person must read a story entitled “The Brain Stealers of Mars,” even a few of you adults would want to read a story like that. [Campbell’s original title was ‘Imitation.’ We have to agree that Weisinger’s title is a more likely hook. – dhr]
Campbell said, “I didn’t know you could do that. Let me ask you a few more questions. Why did you change so much of my copy?” Mort says, “John, I told you that I didn’t want to be burdened with your science facts. Get to Mars, don’t tell me how much oxygen there is or isn’t. Let’s get to the story and the damsel in distress. Let everything roll. Get the action going. So, I put that stuff in there for you. I have to do it. Leo Margulies, the editorial director, looks over all our scripts to make sure we’re earning our money, so there’s plenty of rewriting.”
Mort asked him if he had any other problems he wanted to hit him with. Campbell said, “I don’t think that it was the world’s greatest illustration. Those stories had illustrations to excite the reader to read it.” Campbell asked, “How is the selection made for the artist to draw?” Mort said, “I give the artist the story to read, pick out an exciting scene. I will write a description and give it to the artist, and he will draw the story as I instruct him to do.”
Campbell asked Mort, “After you edit the story, and make all the corrections, what do you do with it?” He said, “Send it to the printer so he can set it up in linotype. When we get it back we proof-read it for typographical errors.” Campbell said, “I know your magazine has one hundred sixty pages. How do you make it come out even?” Mort said, “That’s the easiest part of all. All you have to do is put in all of the stories and ads for one hundred fifty two pages, then put in eight pages of letters, and you get one hundred sixty pages.”
John W. Campbell patted Mort Weisinger on the shoulder and said, “I want to thank you very much for these instructions, and I want you to be the first to know. I’ve just been made the editor of Astounding Stories and I didn’t know what an editor does. Thanks to you, I know.”
I told that story when Fred Pohl was present and he said, “No, that’s not true. Mort told a lie. All John W. Campbell did was go to Leo Margulies and Margulies told him exactly what to do.”
Campbell’s letter appears to support Schwartz’s version of events.
The current intense discussion of Campbell’s definitive influence and his deep personal flaws should continue. We hope this contribution adds to the beautiful bonfire.
I’ll say at the start that this is about as obscure as it gets in spelunking fan history. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves if we’re exploring the fringe of the fringe of the fringe, and if anybody will care. We’re sitting in a metaphorical hole in an allegorical desert with an analogous toothbrush, attempting to discern if the illustrative grey lump we’re delicately brushing at is an ancient pot… or an ancestor’s bone… or… ya, crap… it’s just a rock. In this case, we think what we’ve unearthed is at least a pretty cool rock.
If you subscribed to Fantasy Magazine in 1934 and anxiously tore open the February issue that had just landed in your mailbox, you might have been excited to see that it included the next chapter of Cosmos, the ambitious serial novel orchestrated by Raymond A. Palmer and the staff. This installment was number nine of seventeen, penned by Abner J. Gelula. Menace of the Automoton revealed the rise of a race of domineering robots on Earth. It drew its heritage from Gelula’s first published story, Automoton, that appeared in the November 1931 issue of Amazing Stories.
This whole Cosmos thing was a pretty remarkable stunt for the mostly-teenaged editors to pull off. The relationships they established with professional writers through this effort would serve them well later in life. But getting it done wasn’t easy. They weren’t paying for the chapters, and some of the authors didn’t meet their commitments. For example, in the December 1933 issue of Science Fiction Digest, Palmer announced:
“With this writing comes the sad word that Miles J. Breuer is confined to a sanatarium, with a nervous breakdown from overwork. This means that the doctor, loved by all science fiction fans, will not be able to write his part for COSMOS. This is certainly a great loss to the super-serial COSMOS, and to us, who love his writings, and we will have no time to replace him with a writer equaling him in reputation, but we have secured the services of Miss Rae Winters, who wrote “The Girl from Venus” and its sequel, which you will read in this magazine in the near future. Miss Rae Winters shows extreme promise and I am sure she will develop into a fine writer.“
“Miss Rae Winters” was unsurprisingly a pseudonym for Palmer himself. He’d stepped in to write the chapter that perhaps had driven Breuer to madness. A great risk and sacrifice! And a shameless self-promotion.
Anyway. If you read the rest of the February 1934 issue, you’d eventually come to page 30 and the regular column titled “The Editor Broadcasts.” This was ostensibly penned by Conrad H. Ruppert, but could have been written by anyone on the staff. Oddly, the first paragraph of the column was crudely redacted in black ink.
A mystery! Something had occurred between printing and publication that simply had to be erased. The few tantalizing letters visible at the end weren’t enough to give even a hint.
We’re delighted and relieved to report that this troubling gap in the historical record has now been plugged. In a copy of this issue bound into a volume for Palmer, we see a version of this page where the redaction is transparent enough to allow it to be read.
If you don’t want to squint, it says:
“For some unexplained reason Abner J. Gelula failed to send in his chapter to COSMOS. Repeated letters and postcards have brought forth no reply. We are very sorry that our readers must again be disappointed and trust that you will enjoy Wallace Wray Quitman’s offering, which is being introduced in place of the part originally scheduled for Mr. Gelula.”
We can only guess that the promised chapter arrived just in time to be printed separately and bound with the issue. We can also surmise the identity of “Wallace Wray Quitman.” If Palmer ever actually wrote the replacement chapter, it has likely been lost to history. If it turns up, we’ll be sure to share it.
This post is work-in-progress. We’re developing this content for inclusion an upcoming volume of The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom. Feedback and leads on additional material pertinent to the Second Eastern Con are much appreciated!
The second-ever “science fiction convention” in the United States occurred on February 21, 1937 in New York City. There is of course the endless debate about what really constituted a “convention” versus just a gathering of fans. The “First Eastern Con” occurred in October 1936 in Philadelphia. It was an informal afternoon attended by perhaps a dozen fans from the East Coast, from which there are no known printed artifacts. The idea for a more formal get-together in New York was hatched at that meeting.
The planned New York gathering claimed the lofty “convention” moniker and was organized by the core of the New York Branch of The International Scientific Association (NYBISA). This cadre — Donald A. Wollheim, John B. Michel, David A. Kyle and Fredrik G. Pohl — would play central roles in the drama and shenanigans surrounding science fiction clubs and confabs for the next several years.
The program for the convention is a small, delicate leaflet, elegant if terse.
Songs? Indeed, songs. As remembered by Robert A. Madle in a conversation with John L. Coker III:
“The ISA had a bunch of songs, and one went like this:
Oh, we’ll rally from the nuthouse, We’ll gather from the cell, Shouting an accolade to Gernsback. To cheer for dear old Wonder And the good old SFL, Shouting an accolade to Gernsback. The SFL forever, let rockets light her way, Shouting an accolade to Gernsback. With C.D.H. to lead us Through commentary hell, Shouting an accolade to Gernsback.
Many of the ISA members hated anyone who was connected with Wonder Stories, including Charles D. Hornig. There were a lot of other people that they had picturesque names for. They referred to Forry Ackerman as Farwest J Sapperman, Sam Moskowitz as The Newark Neanderthal, James Taurasi was Il Duce of Flushing Flats, and The Philadelphia Science Fiction Society was known as the PSFS Hoodlums.”
Who was there on that somewhat musical day? We have one remarkable survival that gives us some evidence. The first issue of the fanzine Phantastique was produced by Burton duMont with a cover date of November 1936. The issue was actually distributed in January 1937, just in time for the convention. Our best guess is that someone brought a copy of this issue to the meeting and had it signed by many of the attendees.
This is the earliest collection of fan signatures that we’ve seen. Here are the names we’ve been able to decipher (top-to-bottom, left-to-right):
Arthur Leeds Morris Chakamsky Robert W. Lowndes Conrad H. Ruppert Charles D. Hornig X-ED (ex-editor?) John J. Weir Mort Weisinger George R. Hahn (Curly) Warren D. Woolsey Willis Conover, Jr. Richard Wilson, Jr. John B. Michel John V. Baltadonis Walter Kubilius ISA Robert A. Madle Otto O. Binder Julius Schwartz Charles Schneeman John V. Baltadonis (again)
Comparing this roster to the Second Eastern Convention attendee list from Fancyclopedia, there’s clear overlap and no obvious conflicts that would cause us to reconsider the origin of this piece. We’d be very interested to hear any other interpretations or evidence.
Sad to say, it appears that the “proposed NYBISA Science Fiction Motion Picture” was never produced.
Much of the history of fandom would have been lost long ago if many fans had not also been fanatical collectors. We see evidence of this everywhere in their writings from the 1930s. Almost every fanzine had a column for posting “wants” and offers to sell or trade for missing issues. Here are just a few examples of how fans stocked their libraries.
Forrest J Ackerman was notorious for the intensity of his collecting. Here we see a posting from Ackerman that appeared in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle from November 1, 1931. Forrest was just shy of his 15th birthday and lived in San Francisco, California.
How did young Forrest discover this obscure East Coast newspaper swap column? It seems his extended family was actively supporting his interests. See below from the November 8, 1931 issue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. (Thanks to Bill Mullins for digging up this letter.)
It didn’t take long for Ackerman to become known as a go-to person for other fans who hoped to find scarce items. Lester Anderson wrote to Forrest on April 24, 1933 with both an offer and a request.
Reading and collecting science fiction wasn’t without controversy. Apparently one female fan felt the need to seek spousal permission before pursuing her interest.
Many fans strove to assemble complete sets of the professional science fiction magazines, and to preserve them. In the first issue of Morris Scott Dollens’ The Science Fiction Collector, the editor offered advice on binding magazines for inclusion in a library.
The Science Fiction Collector from July 22, 1936 contained a fairly typical advertising section.
The publishers of fanzines also avidly followed and collected the work of their peers. Here Richard Wilson, Jr., notable for his long-running fanzine The Science Fiction News Letter, sought to fill gaps in his collection by tapping the usual suspect.
This led later in the 1930s to the creation of ‘zines fully dedicated to trading and collecting. Some were simple listings, such as Bob Tucker’s Science and Fantasy Advertiser. The first issue (titled The Science Fiction Advertiser) appeared in October 1938.
The care and dedication of these early collectors has made it possible for today’s fans to encounter the work of the earliest fans. One notable example: Walter A. Coslet of Helena, Montana. Coslet bought, sold and traded science fiction material of all types beginning in the early 1940s. The library he amassed has become a key resource for historians through the archival work of the Coslet-Sapienza Fantasy and Science Fiction Fanzine Collection held by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. From The Kay-Mar Trader of March, 1947, we can see some of Coslet’s offerings to his fellow fans. This copy appears to be annotated by its owner to highlight their haves and wants.
The First Fandom Experience lapel pin has become our de facto logo. We needed a logo for our Windy City launch. We had the pin. Lacking any further inspiration and running out of time, the pin was it.
We didn’t invent the pin. It’s derived from a very relevant piece of science fiction fan history. Props go to Hugo Gernsback, Charles D. Hornig, and the staff of Wonder Stories in 1934 when the Science Fiction League was launched. The distinctive spaceship design was used as the League’s insignia…
…and appeared on the club’s membership pin. This original from the 1930s – a rare survival – is in the collection of Doug Ellis.
The pin was offered to members for 35 cents – close to $7 in today’s money.
In the depths of the Great Depression, we’re not sure that anyone ever sprang for the $2.50 solid gold version.
The original image for the insignia was based on an iconic Frank R. Paul cover from Science Wonder Quarterly, Fall 1929.
Our adapted facsimile was designed by Alison Scott of Stow Shirts, Walthamstow, London. Alison was great to work with and also facilitated the manufacturing. You can see her reproduction of the original pin in her Etsy store.
We award FFE pins to friends, family and good folks who help us to spread the word about our project. Look for us at a science fiction, fantasy, or comic book convention soon!
On April 10 and 11 Daniel, Kate and I are spending time with Doug Ellis and Deb Fulton at their home outside of Chicago. The Windy City convention starts tomorrow, but Doug has graciously agreed to let us spelunk his archive of correspondence and other material from the estate of Jack Darrow (nee Clifford Kornoelje). Darrow was one of the most active early fans and central to activity in Chicago in the late 1920s and 1930s. The letters he exchanged with Otto Binder, William Dellenback and others gives a great sense of what it was like to be a leading fan during those seminal years.
On this post we’ll highlight just a few of the unique items we found in these files. Much, much more to come as we have a chance to process and post.