The History of Carmen Sandiego: Artifacts in the HMH Archives

Carmen Sandiego will be stealing her way into our hearts and classrooms once again on Jan. 18 when the new Netflix series debuts. And it won’t be the first time the master thief has charmed us with her wicked ways and educational exploits. 

Here’s a look at her history and some of the many artifacts in the HMH archives from her past lives.

Carmen Sandiego came into the world in 1985 as a computer game. Two factors led to her creation: Personal computers were new and companies wanted to establish them as necessary purchases for home use, and at the same time, reports were surfacing that U.S. students were falling behind their foreign counterparts in terms of basic geographic knowledge. 

“Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” was able to combine innovative game design with facts about the world in a fun and informative way. The computer game quickly made its way into classrooms and spawned board games, jigsaw puzzles, comic books, and of course, the PBS television show that's fondly remembered by many.  

What made “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” so popular wasn’t that school children were craving to learn geography—although they may well have been—but that it was fun (and funny) as well. The words “edutainment” and “infotainment” were first used to describe Carmen, and they were intended as praise. Geography lessons were front and center in all TV episodes, but so were puns and a love of language.  

Each of Carmen’s thieving assistants, or henchmen, had silly names: Yul B. Sorry, Lynn Gweeny, and Sarah Nade (a singer) are just three examples. The puns didn’t stop there.  In this example from a 1993 Carmen calendar, the thief has stolen a Mayan temple because she is “building a reputation,” and those playing the game are urged to “take steps to capture her.”

One sign of Carmen’s success: the many corporate tie-ins and merchandise generated about the show. Within the Carmen Sandiego material in the HMH archives, you can find several T-shirts.

There's also a used cereal box:

And then we have some tie-ins that cleverly used travel as a theme, like this promotion from Amtrak...

...and this license plate holder:

We also have many kids’ meals toys from several fast food restaurants that revolve around the themes of spying and geography. I think my favorite is this pack of gum with the slogan “Get lost in flavor” that conceals a compass:

The world has changed since Carmen Sandiego first unleashed her henchmen, but the need to learn about and understand other countries and cultures has not. And that's why we're so excited to welcome Carmen back into our classrooms and our lives!

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You can learn more about the Carmen Sandiego Netflix series and download related student resources here. You can also follow Carmen Sandiego on Twitter and Facebook.

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