Big Little Books® and Better Little Books®: Whitman Publishing Company, Racine, WI
Although Whitman, a subdivision of Western Publishing Company, published Big Little Books® from 1932 through 1989, the history of these books began in 1918.
In 1918 the company received its first printing order from a retail firm, S. S. Kressage Company, a major five-and-dime chain. The order was for dozens of children's books. A foreman working on the order confused the "dozens" to mean "gross" quantities, and twelve times the correct number of titles were printed. There were too many for S. S. Kressage to use, thus Whitman was faced with the decision of whether to write off the error or to try to sell the books. The decision to sell was made by Western's Sam Lowe. He persuaded F. W. Woolworth Company and other retail chain stores to experiment with the books by placing them on display year-round. The public's response led to long-term contracts and Western went into the development of materials designed for such a market. Lowe convinced Western to start a new 10¢ book line. The immediate success of low-priced books prompted Western to establish a separate Whitman book division for the purpose of developing such items for market. Sam Lowe was made president of the new division--the Whitman Publishing Company.
With connections to chain stores, Whitman's production began to extend beyond books. A box department was added to the firm in the early 1920s, thus bringing about the development of boxed games and jigsaw puzzles.
In 1932, Sam Lowe created a special book that would be bulky but small so that it could be easily handled and read by a young consumer. He made up three samples using cover and paper stock that would be used in the printing. He had the Art Department do black and white drawings and insert keyline text so that the dummy samples would serve as prototypes. Taking the prototypes to New York, he presented them as a ten-cent retail item, packed one dozen per title in a shipping carton. Retail buyers were intrigued with the concept and were particularly impressed with the titles. Lowe returned to Racine with more than 25,000 books pre-ordered.
A reconstruction of the records, reveals that 12 titles were originally conceived by Lowe. They can be identified by their paper spines, their outside dimensions (4 4/4" x 4" x 1 3/8"), and length (240, 300, or 320 pages). All had hardboard covers and paper spines. They were called Big Little Books®. Rapid sales of the books through the five-and-dime chains led to the quick creation of other titles and a planned production of comic character, radio character, motion picture themes, and in-house pulp-type western, adventure, and crime stories. The books were produced at a rate of about six titles per month. This was the Golden Age of BLBs.
When comic books underwent a major change after the introduction of Superman in 1938, the popularity of BLBs began to wane, and the Silver Age of BLBs began. The beginning coincided with Whitman's change in logo to Better Little Books®. Throughout the next decade the books gradually diminished in size (number of pages) and disappeared after 1950.
The books were revitalized several times in different formats after 1950. 1950 was the beginning of the Modern Age of BLBs. There was a TV series (1958), a hard cover full-color series (1967-68), and various paperback sets (1973-1989). Today their impact is retained only as nostalgic memories.
Whitman no longer publishes children books, and Western no longer exists. The only continuing items from the great days of publishing children's books are the Little Golden Books®. They were first published in 1942, and in 1986 the one-billionth book was published. Little Golden Books® and all the other Golden Press® books are now owned by Random House.
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