The Vintage Bookshelf

The Campfire Girls in the Maine Woods

Book cover image showing two girls at a campsite. They are carrying water and washing dishes. Two tents stand in the background and another woman tends a cookfire in front of the tents.

Subtitled or the Winnebagos Go Camping, this book is a young adult classic gem from 1916. The Campfire Girls in the Maine Woods, as the first of a ten-book series, tells about a small Camp Fire Girls group and their experiences camping together for the summer. The high school age girls share two tents, cook their own food, and design pageants. They gather round the Council Fire, hone new skills, and face adversity. Most of all, though, they form a strong community. They work together and come out stronger the other side.

Sahwah the swimmer, Hinpoha the curly-haired, and Migwan the writer gather with Chapa the chipmunk, Medmangi the medic, and Nakwisi the star maiden at a primitive camp in Maine. By the time we meet them they are seasoned Camp Fire girls and ready to meet the challenges of a summer away from home. They welcome Gladys, a city girl who feels much more comfortable in a dressmaker’s shop than she does in a tent. Through the summer several of them change as they progress through injuries, moments of bravery, and even thoughtlessness.

Their group leader, or Guardian, is also one of the teachers at the high school all of them attend, save Gladys, who attends private schools away from Cleveland during the year. The girls call her Nyoda. With a unique blend of care and wisdom Nyoda guides the girls through misunderstandings, skirmishes, and the occasional temper flare.

The Camp Fire Girls

The Camp Fire Girls movement started in 1910 as an attempt to get girls outdoors into nature, moving, and learning new skills. Boys participated in camping trips, and boys experienced the wonders of nature. Boys did things in 1910. The Camp Fire Girls organizers, Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick and Charlotte Vetter Gulick, believed that girls could do the same things. And so did many girls.

Girls watched their brothers go camping with the Boy Scouts while they stayed home. Cooking over an open fire sounded a lot more interesting than helping with the housework. And the Gulicks and some friends came to the rescue. They needed a framework that would hold the program together, and they decided that Native American culture and lore was just the thing. Of course, they could have also chosen Irish fairies, ancient Egypt, or varieties of owls. But Native American symbolism put an emphasis on nature as important and worth stewarding. Instead of badges, the girls worked for honors. An honor could be awarded for skill in home craft, health craft, camp craft, hand craft, nature lore, business, or patriotism.

Camp Fire Girls was the most inclusive organzation for girls available in its time. Any girl, from anywhere, could join and participate in the Camp Fire Girls.

I first read these in etext form and I loved them so much I found original hardbound copies of the entire series. It took me seven years, but I located them all.

Current culture, 1916 style

The Campfire Girls in the Maine Woods contains some current cultural references. For example, while a visiting professor watches one of the girls dive into the water, he comments ‘She’s a regular Annette Kellerman!’ This is a reference to the star of a 1914 Australian movie called Neptune’s Daughter. The movie is extant in tiny pieces, but not as a whole. This five-minute clip shows off Annette’s diving abilities.

Other phrases and concepts remind readers that the story is vintage. The girls dress in middys and bloomers, the athletic uniform of 1914-1930. Outdated terms appear occasionally.

Many “Campfire Girls” books were published between 1912 and 1936 by more than ten different publishers. Most of the ones I’ve attempted to read are, frankly, awful. The books by Hildegard Frey shine in comparison. These are the only Campfire Girls books that were endorsed by the Camp Fire Girls Association when they were published. And with good reason, because this book leads the reader into the culture of the club rather than attempting to tell a story about characters named Campfire Ann and Campfire Nan. (I made those names up, but you get the idea.)

Who was Hildegard G. Frey?

Hildegard G. Frey, also known as Hildegarde Gertrude Frey, lived in Cleveland, Ohio her entire life. It makes sense that she set her books there. Born in 1891, she started writing the Campfire Girls books in her twenties. She wrote ten Campfire Girls books which were published between 1916 and 1920, and then she stopped writing. The Campfire Girls books were the only ones she ever wrote. In 1930 she was working as a cartoonist for an advertising agency.

Writing the books between age 24 and 28 gives them a unique perspective for stories of the time. Hildegard never talked down to her younger readers, and she didn’t lecture them. She simply told her story of six campers, a new addition, and their leader.

Hildegard G. Frey died at the age of 65 on May 8, 1957, and is buried in Cleveland. In the 1940 census she is listed as living with her father in the family home.

Get Your Copy

How can you read this book for yourself? Download it from Project Gutenberg or Google Books.

The Vintage Bookshelf

Motor Maids School Days

Bille Campbell is an individual. The year is 1911 and in Motor Maids School Days she decides to attend school for the year in West Haven, since her father will be working in Russia for the year and she is motherless. She stays with an elder cousin, Helen Campbell. Spinster Helen acts as both chaperone and guide to Billie. West Haven is a seaside town, filled with seaports, strange people, and high school hijinks. Fifteen year old Billie drives up to the school in her own bright red motorcar, which becomes the centerpiece for many adventures to come.

Frontspiece illustration of Motor Maids School Days, 1911. One girl sits in a window while another one stands facing her. The standing girl says "You will simply become an outcast in West Haven, and I advise you to think the matter over."

This book is the first in the very short Motor Maids series for teen girls. My copy belonged to my grandmother, and she loved it enough after receiving it sometime around age fourteen to keep it for the next 65 years.

Turn of the Century Culture

And there’s a lot to love with this book. To begin with, it starts off a six-book series which leads the Motor Maids far away from the sleepy seaport town of West Haven. Motor Maids School Days is a look into the culture of the early 1900s. Yes, it’s fiction. But it also tackles topics that most of us only read about in passing. Or those cultural artifacts we see in an old photo and wonder what happened.

For one thing, the book explains high school girls’ clubs. The high school sophomore class of girls at West Haven High School is divided into two groups: The Mystic Seven and the Blue Birds. The Blue Birds consists of all the girls not in the Mystic Seven. Seventeen of the girls join the Blue Birds. Reading carefully shows the ebb and flow of interaction between the two clubs, as the book talks about get-togethers, outings, and overnights.

Class systems

School Days also talks a lot about the class system of 1900 – 1915. Some families are in, and others are out – merely based on their financial position within the town. It contains characters who are “haves” as well as those who are “have nots,” and weaves them nicely through the pages of the novel. Sometimes you feel like you get to know supporting characters better than you do the protagonist Billie. Elinor Butler introduces us to her seafaring family, and Mary Price shows us life with her mother’s tearoom.

You also read about vintage fashion and how it reflected social status. For someone fascinated by the fashions of 1910-1915, this could be worth reading the book on its own. Ulsters, veils, wraps, and dresses all take their place as part of the story.

Wrapped up in all this vintage detail you discover a mystery. Billie and her friends find themselves involved in a bizarre cat and mouse game, avoiding people whose names they don’t know as they attempt to unravel the threads that lead to an answer.

Signs of the Times

Because the book appeared in 1911, it contains outdated terms and ideas. One of the girls in the story is overweight, and although she appears in several of the stories and is a general favorite of everyone, they still tease her. Even though West Haven sits as a port town, with ships arriving with cargo from everywhere, some of the visiting characters have unflattering descriptions. These serve to increase suspense in the novel, and perhaps that is how they were intended, but at times they seem odd, especially on this fourth or fifth reading of the novel. And of course, because of the time period, servants are sometimes identified by race.

Who was Katherine Stokes?

Also a sign of the times, a lengthy search turned up nothing about the author. The book’s publisher, Hurst & Company, specialized in series books by the time the Motor Maids books released, and the company folded in 1919. If Hurst managed to stay in business, we might have even more Motor Maids books to read. Katherine Stokes, the author, appears nowhere. Only six books carry her name in any search and these are the Motor Maids books. Katherine may have been a pen name for an author or committee that churned out series books.

With absolutely no evidence to support this, I also suggest that she may have been a real person. Katherine Stokes might have taught seventh grade in Hartford, Connecticut. A Katherine Stokes appears in the Hartford school listings for the years before and after the Motor Maids books were published. A seventh grade teacher stood in a perfect position to write a series about independent teenagers. This Katherine was single, and she rented rooms and houses through this entire period, so she probably had the time to devote to constructing six books. This, however, is complete conjecture. If anyone has information on Katherine Stokes the author, I would love to know her story.

Cover of Motor Maids School Days, 1911.

Get Your Copy

You too can read Motor Maids School Days. One of the great things about these older books is that they are freely available. This bodes well for readers who love turn of the century fiction. You can download a copy from the Internet Archive here, or you can download it or read it online at Project Gutenberg, here. Download a free Kindle version from Amazon. Amazon also sells reprints. If you want an original 1911 copy, and your grandmother or great-grandmother doesn’t have one, try eBay.

The Vintage Bookshelf

Fred Astaire on Himself

My bookshelves are filled with vintage books. Cookbooks, novels, histories, even science. Yes, I know much of the science material is outdated. Looking up current progress is half the fun. Reading these older books gives me a unique perspective on yesteryear. 

I want to introduce the books that sit on The Vintage Bookshelf, but I want to make sure they are available to you. It’s no fun reading about a book you can’t get your hands on to enjoy yourself. Some of the books in this series will be available in hard copy, through a retailer like Amazon. Others might be available in digital format through an online library like The Internet Archive. 

Steps in Time

Photo of book Steps in Time by Fred Astaire, sitting on cutwork embroidered linen. Steps in Time is Astaire's autobiography.
Fred Astaire’s autobiography, Steps in Time, from 1959.

This month I’ve been reading Steps in Time, an autobiography by Fred Astaire. And it is an autobiography – it details Astaire’s opinions on everything! Through it, though, you glean a great understanding of vaudeville. And what those years were like from someone who grew up on the stage. Later, when live theatre blossomed and vaudeville waned, Astaire details that transition as well. You read about the ups and downs of performing live in the early to mid 1900s. 

The story goes that one time when I had gone with my mother to fetch [my sister] Adele, I put on a pair of ballet slippers. I found them in a corner while I was dawdling around the place, killing time, waiting for Adele to finish her lesson. I had seen other children walk on their toes, so I put on the slippers and walked on my toes. It was as simple as that.

Steps in Time, p. 11.

To be fully honest, I’m re-reading the book. I first read it as a young teen, and I was entranced. The only quote I remembered from it, though was Astaire’s daughter Ava’s comment about titling the book itself. She said, “I know! Call it With No Hair on My Head!” How to find a book that I only know the author and one quote? Internet to the rescue! And the book was just as delightful a read this time. 

Steps in Time details Astaire’s time working with George Gershwin… and Ginger Rogers. His time with Bing Crosby… and Noel Coward. He talks about the actors, dancers, and comedians he met in vaudeville… and then expresses his delight at working with their children on the movie set years later. He describes his experiences with golf courses, racehorses, and family — the three loves of his life apart from acting and dancing. 

In a way, this book too is a performance. Astaire glosses over the stock market crash of ’29, which actually affected him substantially (to the tune of losing about $75,000, equivalent to over a 1 million dollar loss today). He doesn’t mention any troubles with payments or much else that would mar the flow of a good showbiz story.

Taking it Further

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can see and hear material from some of Fred and Adele’s earliest shows.

  • Apple Blossoms, their 1919 vaudeville operetta, is the most available. You can read both the book (the story/spoken parts of the play) and see the songs and lyrics in sheet music form.
  • Listen to Fred and his sister Adele sing “Oh Gee Oh Gosh Oh Golly“, from For Goodness Sake/Stop Flirting in 1922/23.
  • Fred and Adele Astaire singing “The Babbit and The Bromide” from Funny Face in 1927. 
  • And although neither Astaire is on this recording, 1931’s The Band Wagon was Adele’s last show. This recording is called Gems from The Band Wagon.

Signs of the Times

The book dates from 1959. Before the civil rights movement of the 60s. Keep that in mind as you read, because once in a while a word or term turns up that today we would find offensive. 

Because it was published nearly 30 years before Astaire died, the book does not cover any details from his later life. Even so, he found enough to fill 338 pages with events from 1904-1958, which is no small feat in itself. His life was very busy, and it was quite full. 

If you read an updated edition, you’ll find a forward by Ginger Rogers that refutes one or two of Fred Astaire’s comments about her. The book should be easy to locate at a local library or on Amazon, in both the 1959 and later editions.