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On Objectionable Material in Science Fiction History

First Fandom Experience is an archive wrapped in a story. Our goal with this project is to tell a complete and unbiased history of science fiction fandom, primarily using the original artifacts created by the pioneering fans of the 1920s-1940s. These artifacts are a product of their time and, uncensored, they reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the people who created them and the society in which they lived.

Science fiction is inherently progressive, and to a large degree so are its fans. However, there are in this history statements and views expressed by some fans that are objectionable. The period that we cover in this work is marked by sexism, racism, and other social outlooks we would find ignorant or offensive today.

As historians, we make no attempt to shy away from or cover up these views, nor do we make any attempt to justify or rationalize them. These issues are, for better or worse, part of the history of this period and are part of the story of fandom. It is beyond the scope of this project to cover these issues in detail, but we aim to cover them as they relate to the story of early fandom. We will do our best to contextualize these issues as they present themselves in the history, and we will dedicate some space in the project to deeper exploration to relevant issues.

Above all, this is a conversation we want to keep going with our audience and fans and historians interested in this history. We encourage anyone to connect with us about our coverage, or lack thereof, of these issues.

The Second Eastern Convention – February 1937

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!

2nd Eastern Con – NYBISA announcement, January 1937

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.

2nd Eastern Con – signed Phantastique cover

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.

Fortunately, Fans Are Also Collectors

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 he knew about this exchange column in a small New York newspaper, we will likely never know.

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.

Lester Anderson to Forrest J Ackerman, April 24, 1933

Reading and collecting science fiction wasn’t without controversy. Apparently one female fan felt the need to seek spousal permission before pursuing her interest.

Barbara Burbank to Forrest J Ackerman, May 29, 1934

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, v1n1, May 1936, page 14

The Science Fiction Collector from July 22, 1936 contained a fairly typical advertising section.

The Science Fiction Collector, v1n5, June 22, 1936, page 13

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.

Richard Wilson, Jr. to Forrest J Ackerman, April 11, 1938

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 Kay-Mar Trader, v2n1, March 1947, page 9

Whence Our Signature Pin?

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!

Indexing the SF fanzines of the 1930s

By indexing, I mean here both a subject index and a ‘story’ index of the fanzines.  From Pavlat & Evans, and other sources, we have an index of what zines were published when by whom, in how many issues, including the paper page size, the reproduction method, the number of pages, and often notes of oddities (like skipped numbers/lost issues, etc.) for a given title.  For me, the index I am trying to create will support the work of a historian.  The intent being that if you were going to write about the PSFS and one of things you wanted was to read all the pages in which say, Bob Madle, wrote, or was mentioned, you could easily do so by referring to the index (getting legible copies would be the next problem).

So, people as subjects terms are easy, club names are easy, and most bits of fiction and poems are easy to index.  The news columns that name drop 3 dozen people are tedious, but easy.  What I am now finding harder, since I am getting wiser so very slowly, is that making sub-subject terms that are useful is harder and will now require me to go back over and read everything again.  Why do I think I need sub-terms? Well, because looking at series of 7 dozen page numbers after, say the name of someone like Wollheim or Ackerman, means you might be looking for quite a while unless you have it broken down by a sub-term.

So, an example, from The Science Fiction News Letter. Volume 1, Number 2 (December 11, 1937), page 1.


      We are not, as we thought, pioneers. At a meeting of the New York Fantasy Association last Sunday, Donald A. Wollheim, took great delight in informing us that the first weekly science fiction publication was concocted by George Gordon Clark, of BROOKLYN REPORTER fame (or infamy, whichever). This unnamed whatnot ran for eight weeks or thereabouts.

So, my terms for this are New York Fantasy Association; Wollheim, Donald A.; Clark, George Gordon; and The Brooklyn Reporter.  I’m not sure how I would sub-term this for DAW, and now that I look at this specifically, I’m not sure it really matters, but I think if I was going to, I would now sub-term DAW with “New York Fantasy Association” (maybe with December 5, 1937).

Note: DAW was incorrect. There were 5 issues of The Brooklyn Reporter and the first 4 were close to been published a month apart with the final fifth issue showing up 5 months late.r (I have recently seen all 5 issues).

So, other than perhaps overthinking things, the other things that make this a bit harder than a usual indexing project is

  1. The texts are not in a digital, textual form.  Often when one is indexing something for a book you can merely use a fancy tool and select the text and index it.  The texts I am working from are generally scans of very old hecto’d fanzines that were perhaps hardly readable when they were printed (they did the best they could with what they had). If I didn’t have ‘zoom’, and as needed, the ability to fiddle with contrast etc., I wouldn’t be able to read them at all (and we are so not doing to be trying to transcribe over 10,000 pages of material).
  2. How do I say this nicely. These are not professional magazines. They were done, quite often, by teenagers, doing the best they can. So, the structure, and often the content, is kind of juvenile. Quite a few of the initial issues of a title are little more than a hi guys, I hope you like my effort, please send stuff in, I’m so happy to be here!, is it to early to try to sell ad space? So, not necessarily a whole lot there. It is the attempt and artifact that is important, as the content isn’t necessarily very notable.
  3. Pseudonyms.  How SF loves its pseudonyms!  In fanzines, as in prozines, many stories/articles could be by the same pen, but they made up pseudonyms to make it seem as if they were not.  I index them all. I’ll figure out some sort of notation to mark them as such…if I know they are a pseudonym.
  4. What do I care about, subject-wise? Well, I think I have decided I do not care about itemized listing of recent or upcoming prozines. All this info is available via ISFDB, FictionMags, or Galactic Central: Science Fiction. If the author said something beyond whether they liked it or not (even if was just a brief review) I would index it. I think I also decided I was not interested in indexing articles that are one paragraph long about ‘lava’. I’ll index the author, so we know they were active in the issue, but not ‘lava’.  I would of course index articles on ‘technocracy’ etc. Otherwise, I am trying to make as useful of an index as I can. I vaguely have a use case of, (but not by me), if someone wanted to update every relevant entry in the Fancyclopedia using the index and facsimiles of all the known-to-still-exist SF fanzines of the 1930s.

So what form will this index eventually take?  Not sure yet.  Certainly, it will help us write up bits of history. It will likely be used for bits of back-of-the book indexing. Perhaps we’ll consider printing a stand-alone index or putting it online for searching. Too early to tell yet (there are a lot a fanzines, a lot of history, and many interesting project to get side-tracked into!)

A Conversation with Erle M. Korshak

We had the honor of speaking with Erle M. Korshak, one of the original First Fans of science fiction, at the 2019 Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention. Korshak was a significant player in the fan community, having helped organize the second World Science Fiction Convention (“Chicon”) in 1940.

See a short video of our talk with Korshak below.

Serendipity! Whilst digging through a box of old fanzines at the Curious Book Shop booth (thanks, Ray Walsh), we found a nice copy of the 1940 Chicon Program Booklet. Erle was gracious enough to add his autograph.

Archaeology Chez Ellis

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.