Harlequin: The Business of Romance in the 1950ís


by Avis Yarbrough

Ah romance, from romance novels to romance comics, and everything in between, romance novels were as much a business in the 1950ís as it is today. At it stands in 2007, romance novels are a billion dollar business and one of the reasons why can be traced back to Harlequin romances which started to make a name for itself in the 1950ís and is as popular today as ever. So, here is a look back at Harlequin romances, the business of romance in the 1950ís

In 2007, the romance industry is run mostly by women, women mostly buy the books, edit the material, and most buyers of the romances novels are women. Therefore it might surprise some people to learn that Harlequin was not founded by a woman but a man, and a lawyer no less, by the name of Richard Bonnycastle in 1947. 

However, there is a catch. There was a woman involved with making Harlequin into the romance publishing empire that lovers of their romance novels now consider them to be today. That catch was Richard Bonnycastleís wife, Mary Bonnycastle. It was she who convinced, pushed, nagged, maybe even browbeaten, her husband to consider publishing romance novels.

Who knows if Richard Bonnycastle actually believed that romances would eventually become the primary focus of his publishing company, but the business of selling romance was a smart one in the 1950ís. 

True confession magazines and Romance comics were wildly popular, so why wouldnít a straightforward plot centering on a good-looking hero and heroine with an optimistic ending work equally as well? 

So the birth of Harlequin Romances began. The first Harlequin book was published by a woman named Nancy Brutt for only 50 cents. Amazing, considering that Harlequin romances cost on average about $4.00 dollars now.

If we look at Harlequin romances in supermarkets, general stores and bookstores now, consumers will see a variety, from sweet Harlequin Presents, to Harlequin Medical Romances which also has a long history that also goes back to the 1950ís. 

Many a young girl decided to become a nurse, in due part to the popularity of Harlequin Medical Romances. The plot of these romances were basic: boy meets girl, boy and girl face obstacles and eventually overcome them to admit their love for each other. 

The difference with Harlequin Medical Romances is the hospital setting and the relationship usually took place between a young sweet and pretty young nurse and a handsome doctor. Ah, romance. 

Of course now Harlequin Medical Romance insists on actually research involving the medical field to make their plots more substantial, but still the primary focus is the romantic one.

As the 1950ís waned and the 1960ís approached, Harlequin publishing was still going strong and in 1964 they stopped producing anything else but romance novels thereby becoming one of the most successful romance publishing houses. Yet, in the end it was not Richard Bonnycastle Sr. that made Harlequin into an eight million-dollar business but his son Richard Bonnycastle Jr. 

Even knowing that, all in all, romance lovers everywhere can thank Mary Bonnycastle for having an idea and insisting her husband give romance a chance. Now that is a romance lesson all on its own, do what your wife says and you will make millions of dollars in the end.

more articles by Avis Yarbrough


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