All the best,
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)
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
All the best,
"Writing the Range"
2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Finalist (Short Fiction)
2015 Western Writers of America Spur Finalist (Short Fiction)