Sunday, April 24, 2016

BIG LITTLE BOOKS: A CHILDHOOD TREASURE by Vonn McKee

It’s possible that this book, Roy Rogers and the Mystery of the Howling Mesa, is the first western I ever read. It once sat on a crowded book shelf in one of the cozy, garret bedrooms of my grandparents' farmhouse in northwestern Minnesota, where I visited every summer of my childhood. I snuggled under handmade quilts at night, surrounded by the rag rugs, books and simple toys left from my father’s childhood days.

It’s just a little book…a Big Little Book, in fact. It’s chubby, about 4 inches square by an inch and a half thick, with a tough little hardboard cover. There were others on hand–Dick Tracy, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse–and they were just the right length to read before nodding off.

Big Little Books were most popular during the 1930s and ‘40s. They actually came about through a series of mishaps. A young man named E.H. Wadewitz went to work for a commercial printer in Racine, Wisconsin, in order to pay for his evening bookkeeping classes (which would come in handy later). The company wasn’t doing so well and fell behind on his pay. (Mishap Number One) Finally the desperate owner offered Wadewitz ownership of the company, negotiating the back pay as part of the purchase price. He accepted and found himself in the printing business, complete with a couple of battered presses, some worn type fonts and a band-powered cutting machine.
Wadewitz christened the company “Western Printing and Lithographing.” He brought his brother onboard and they hired an experienced local printer and eventually a salesman. One of their early clients was Hammerung-Whitman, a publisher of children’s books. Western contracted to print thousands of their newly developed titles but, after the books were printed, Hammerung-Whitman defaulted on payment. (Mishap Number Two)


Western Printing Company, early days
(E.H.Wadewitz second from right)
The Wadewitz brothers had a warehouse full of children’s books and no retail experience. They decided to try selling all the books rather than writing off the cost and, over the next three years, managed to place all the inventory in various department stores.

By now, they were getting the hang of it and contracted with a major five-and-dime chain called S.S. Kresge to provide children’s titles. A miscommunication within the fulfillment department led to Mishap Number Three: Western printed TWELVE times too many books for the Kresge order! Their salesman, Sam Lowe, took a gamble. He persuaded the F.W. Woolworth Company to display the books in their stores, even though it wasn’t Christmas. (At that time, children’s books were only available for Christmas gift-giving.) Sales were brisk and Western Printing scrambled to provide more titles, even branching into boxed board games and puzzles.

With the Great Depression, the public turned to inexpensive forms of entertainment. They flocked to ten-cent movie matinees, gathered around RCA Victors to listen to free radio dramas, and bought cheap comics and pulp fiction based on popular Hollywood characters.

Western Printing hit upon the idea of providing licensed children’s books that featured the radio and cinema heroes the public loved so well. Salesman Sam Lowe designed the “Big Little Book,” a compact, chunky hardboard book, to suit the hands of small readers. After pitching the idea to some New York retailers, he walked away with orders for 25,000 books. Soon, Western had an exclusive licensing deal with Walt Disney to print books based on their cartoon characters. Some of those first edition Disney books are worth thousands of dollars today! Other titles featured Buck Rogers, Blondie & Dagwood and tons of cowboys including Tom Mix, Red Ryder, Gene Autry and Ken Maynard.
A few BIG LITTLE BOOK Western titles
Roy Rogers and the Mystery of the Howling Mesa now sits on a shelf at my mom’s house. (My dad passed away last year.) She says I’m welcome to take it home with me but, for now, I’m letting it stay there with the rest of his mementoes. Someday, I’ll read it again…just so I can say I’ve come full circle.

All the best,

Vonn

 Vonn McKee
"Writing the Range"

2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Finalist (Short Fiction)
2015 Western Writers of America Spur Finalist (Short Fiction)



Facebook.com/VonnMcKee

11 comments:

  1. I think the first BLB I read was based on GUNSMOKE, but I went on to read a bunch of them. You could still find them in used bookstores in those days. They were a lot of fun!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That series would have been released toward the end of the BLB era. They were indeed fun and I'd love to know more about the writers and illustrators involved. Probably a work-for-hire situation.

      Delete
    2. Big Little Books are wonderful for very young readers. I have a bit of collection (Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, etc.). But back in the late 70s, when I was a cartoonist group in Hollywood (CAPS), I was able to get fellow member, comic writer Don Christensen to autograph his 1968 BLB (Disney's Goofy in Giant Trouble). I still have it. I read them to and with my children, one of whom now writes sci-fi and romance (Evan Purcell). Big Little Books can lead little children to big futures.

      Delete
    3. BLBs certainly instilled the love of reading. Wow, that's a very cool story. And how satisfying that one of your children is carrying on the writing tradition!

      Delete
  2. Great memories. I keep looking for any of those little books in the used book stores with no success. They are keepers for sure. Amazon offers some titles at a hefty price. Many are offered as recent digital reprints but to me that is not the same as actually having one in my hands.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jerry, I watch for them at flea markets and book stores too. I don't need much of an excuse to buy old books but these are especially nostalgic for me.

      Delete
  3. I remember reading those books. Thanks for jogging the memory. Doris

    ReplyDelete
  4. There are two dealers in our area who have a dozen or so BLBs each --anywhere from $12 to $50. I picked up a couple, including a Phantom "Better Little Book," and a Texas Ranger story that looks to be a pulp reprint. Great, great stuff!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'll bet a lot of people near our age are snapping them up at used bookstores. I'll be seeing you in Cheyenne, pal!

    ReplyDelete