THE BEGINNING

The events that led to the production of Big Little Books® in the 1930s were a significant part of the Western Publishing Company’s history.

Edward Henry Wadewitz, born in 1877, was the son of German immigrants. He grew up in Waubeka, Wisconsin and Iron Mountain, Michigan. As a young man, he went to Racine to work at the Racine Trunk Company which was owned by one of his relatives. He studied bookkeeping at night and worked for the West Side Printing Company during the day. The company was a privately held, commercial printing firm that printed books and other printed matter developed by other companies.

When the owner of the company fell behind in paying Wadewitz, the owner offered the company to him, letting his back pay serve as part of the purchase price. Thus in the fall of 1907, with some financial help from his brother, William R., E. H. Wadewitz found himself in the printing business. For the sum of $2,504, he became the owner of the West Side Printing Company, a basement printshop made up of two battered presses, two fonts of worn type, and a band-powered cutting machine.

Because the brothers knew little about the business, they hired Roy A. Spencer, a young, experienced printer who was working at the Racine Journal newspaper. With Roy’s help, the business got underway, and with E. H. Wadewitz’s accounting skills, an accurate cost effective system for pricing printing was established.

The “Pioneer Employees” in the basement printshop: from left to right—Roy A. Spencer, Catherine Bongarts Rutledge, E.H. Wadewitz, W.R. Wadewitz, and William Bell.
The Shoop Building, home of Shoop Laboratories. As Western’s business increased, it eventually took over the whole building.
The company’s new location—first floor in a building at 548 State Street. William R. Wadewitz, seated on the railing, later became the company’s president and chief executive officer.

Within a year, quality service and dependability gave the new company a positive reputation among local Racine customers. In mid-1908, West Side moved into more spacious quarters, added several employees, and set up an automatic cutter, a cylinder press, and two smaller presses.

In 1910, the name of the company was changed to Western Printing and Lithographing Company and moved into rented space in the Dr. Claredon I. Shoop’s building at State Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Dr. Shoop made patent medicines in the building, and Western printed labels for his bottles. When Shoop retired in 1914, Western took over the entire building. It remained the firm’s main office for several years.

In 1915, the company was making a comfortable profit, but because the printing jobs were sporatic and in some cases seasonal, there were many weeks when the shop and workers had nothing to do. To resolve the problem, E. H. Wadewitz began to look for “fill in” work. One of his “fill in” contracts was the Hammerung-Whitman Publishing Company, a Chicago based publisher that specialized in children’s storybooks. Western contracted to print several thousand newly developed titles, but after the books were printed, Hammerung-Whitman ran into financial troubles and defaulted on payment for the books. Western, which had no experience in distributing books, found itself with a warehouse of titles for which it would not be paid. Wadewitz had to either write off the cost or figure out a way to sell the books to recoup expenses. Wadewitz decided to sell the books, thus Western took its first step toward adding a publishing and distribution component to its printing business. Over the next three years, Western recouped its costs by selling the books to book and department stores.

The Western Binding Operation (1912). The gathering machines and stitchers were powered by large belts connected to the overhead powershaft. The bindery was a woman’s world in those days.
Western’s fleet of vehicles parked in front of the Shoop Building (1915), including E. H. Wadewitz’s bicycle and a two-wheel delivery cart.
Delivery trucks at the new plant on Mound Avenue.

In 1918, a second event took place that brought about an important change in Western’s development. The company received its first printing order from a retail firm, S. S. Kresge Company, a major five-and-dime chain. Although 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. Too many for S. S. Kresge to use, Western was again faced with a decision of whether to write off the error or to try to sell the books.

THE WHITMAN BOOK DIVISION

The decision to sell the books was made by Western’s Sam Lowe. Lowe had joined Western in 1916 as a salesman, but his creative mind soon put him in a decision making position. He persuaded the F. W. Woolworth Company and other retail chain stores to experiment with the books by placing them on display year-round. Until this time, children’s books were displayed only for the Christmas season. The public’s response to buying children’s books at a time other than Christmas was enthusiastic, so Western went into the development of materials designed for a year-round market. Among the first products was a ten cent children’s book line conceived by Lowe. The success of this line prompted Western to establish a separate Whitman book division whose main purpose was to develop items for this market.

With connections to chain stores, Western’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 January 1928, Western built and moved to Mound Avenue— into a new air conditioned building, designed to accommodate the varied operations of the company including the Whitman subdivision.

THE DAWN OF BIG LITTLE BOOKS®

During the depression, Western had success with two inexpensive Whitman products. One was its jigsaw puzzle line; the other was the Big Little Book® line.

The Big Little Book® was created in 1932 when Sam Lowe conceived of 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 could 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.

Prior to this order, syndicates had not been deeply involved with publications for children. Lowe convinced them to license comic characters for various publications including the Big Little Books®. The first contract was with the Walt Disney Studio. It gave Whitman exclusive book rights to all licensed Disney characters. In return for the licensing agreement, Whitman paid a negotiated percentage of the wholesale price of products it sold using the characters.

Whitman’s first licensing and rights agreement led to others (motion picture stars, radio program characters, comic strip characters) and served as an important component in Whitman’s publications. In most cases, the licensing helped both parties. Films, radio programs, comic strips, and Disney profited by exposure through Western publications involving the licensees. The films, programs, and characters, in turn, created a demand for publications about them.

The first BLB titles were designed with hardboard covers, paper spines, and 320 pages which generally, but not always, alternated between pictures and text. Whitman’s archives indicate that five titles were originally conceived. They can be identified by their paper spines, their outside dimensions (earliest size — 4 1/4” x 4” x 1 3/8”) and length (320 pages): The Adventures of Dick Tracy #707, Little Orphan Annie #708, Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy Junior #710, Little Orphan Annie and Sandy #716, and Mickey Mouse #717. Quick sales through the five-and-dime chains led to six more titles with the same outside dimensions, but different page lengths: Houdini’s Big Little Book of Magic #715 (240 pages), Little Orphan Annie and Sandy #716 (reprint, 300 pages), Uncle Ray’s Story of the United States #722 (300 pages), Dick Tracy Out West #723 (300 pages), Cowboy Stories #724 (300 pages), and Mickey Mouse the Mail Pilot #731 (300 pages). The production then shifted to a slightly smaller and the subsequently standard format (3 5/8” x 4 1/2” x 1 1/2”) but continued with paper spines: Jackie Cooper, Movie Star of “Skippy” and “Sooky” #714 (240 pages), Mickey Mouse in Blaggard Castle #726 (320 pages), Chester Gump at Silver Creek Ranch #734 (320 pages), Moon Mullins and Kayo #746 (320 pages), Tailspin Tommy in the Famous Pay-Roll Mystery #747 (320 pages).

THE GOLDEN AGE (1932 to mid-1938)

As the author of this and other books and articles about Big Little Books®, I’ve described the years from 1932 to mid-1938 as the Golden Age of Big Little Books®. The dates are for two important events that provide parameters for the time period: In 1932, the first Big Little Book®, The Adventures of Dick Tracy, Detective #707, was released in time for the Christmas season, marking the beginning of the BLBs most interesting era; In mid-1938, Whitman changed its logo from Big Little Book® to Better Little Book®, marking the start of the Silver Age (mid-1938-1950) in which the books slowly faded away due to economic and societal changes and the stiff competition from comic books.

Still in the grasp of the Great Depression, the Golden Age gave rise to a wealth of fresh Americana based upon inexpensive forms of entertainment. Ten-cent motion pictures, cheap reading materials, and free-radio programs came from a few of the industries that prospered during the decade, and their influence was felt deeply and is remembered warmly by millions of people. It was truly a Golden Age for films, radio programs, and inexpensive reading materials.

Motion pictures had added sound just before the 30s began. The crime and western movies of the silent era took on new dimensions as sound enhanced the action of chases, the effect of gunfire, and the tension of the drama through the wise use of background music. Blending sound with artwork, Walt Disney changed and forever influenced animation with a series of great Silly Symphony short features and the superb full length film, Snow White. Light-hearted musicals came into being and gave brief alleviations from daily problems. Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland danced and sang their way into people’s hearts. The child star became pre-eminent due to such talented youngsters as Jane Withers, Sybil Jason, Jackie Cooper, and Freddie Bartholomew. Adult stars grew in stature and are well remembered today—Jean Parker, Katherine Hepburn,

John Wayne, Gary Cooper. The stage voices of the Barrymores could now be heard by countless movie goers, and new, distinctive voices were created for the images of Oswald Rabbit, Betty Boop, Scrappy, Popeye, and Donald Duck.

Radio became widespread. Listening was free and grew into a national pastime that linked people through popular programs that stimulated hours of conversation about what was heard. Little Orphan Annie, Buck Rogers, and Dick Tracy were popular comic strip characters who found a second home on the air waves. The Lone Ranger and Jack Armstrong were created specifically for radio and later found their way into the comic forms. Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, and Edgar Bergen evolved from stage personalities to great radio personalities.

Pulp magazines grew in popularity and catered to different escape interests. Western, sport, crime, and fantasy stories were the mainstay themes throughout the 1930s. Tarzan made his first appearance in a novel, and Buck Rogers had his beginning in a magazine.

Newspaper comic strips gave readers brief chuckles in a generally chuckleless time. The number of daily and Sunday comic and heroic characters increased dramatically over the previous decade. People eagerly awaited to see what would happen next to Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, and Terry Lee. New characters such as Li’l Abner, Don Winslow, Dan Dunn, and Blondie were added to American folklore. Comic books developed naturally from the strips as a way to cheaply reproduce and resell them. Eventually, characters were created specially for the comic book format (e.g., Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman), and by the close of the 30s, their popularity surpassed the comic strips and other competitive materials.

If it had not been for these inexpensive forms of entertainment—which provided escapes from reality and served as common arenas for people’s hopes, fantasies, and idealistic views of how things should work out in the world—the decade would have been an even sadder time.

As movies, radio, pulps, and comic strips developed, the Big Little Books® appeared on the scene. The product was small, stubby, thick, and inexpensive. The books drew much source material from motion pictures, radio, and comic strips and successfully competed with pulp magazines and comic books until the end of the decade. They served to promote films and radio programs and were produced in such quantities that they could be sold for a dime.

Although other companies copied the Whitman format, the Big Little Books® dominated throughout the Golden Age.

The first 11 Whitman BLBs were slightly larger in outside dimensions than subsequent books (except for movie scene books). For nearly a year, all titles had paper spines, however, because the spines were fragile, reprints and new titles published after 1933 were given hardboard spines. From 1934 on, the BLBs were produced at a rate of about six titles per month. Nearly all titles sold well throughout the depression.

Whitman Peripherals

Whitman used its licensed characters and the BLB format to produce a variety of interesting peripherals. A large format of the BLB was called a Big Big Book®. Nickel books came in hard and soft cover versions. Soft cover versions of the BLBs, identical to the standard BLB except for their covers, were given away as premiums. The length and size of the BLBs were reduced for giveaways distributed by stores, gas stations, food products, and radio programs. Advertisements were often added to their covers. Many BLB-related boxed sets, puzzles, and games were also published during the Golden Age.

Beginning in 1933, other publishing companies such as Dell, Engel van Wiseman, Goldsmith, Lynn, McLoughlin, Saalfield, and World, entered the market place to compete with the BLBs. Never as popular as the Whitman titles, they nevertheless produced an interesting variety of titles that sold for 10¢ or 15¢.

Also during the 1930s, Whitman made agreements with some other countries to allow translations and publication of some BLB titles. Agreements included permission to use the BLB format. Spain produced several Disney BLBs and Great Britain marketed a version it called Giant Midget Books®.

With the intent to improve production and sales, Racine based Western opened field offices in other states in 1935. For its first field office, it purchased a large building in Poughkeepsie, New York near the heart of New York City. At this location, Western established a close association with Simon & Schuster and the Dell Publishing Company. About the same time, Whitman followed its parent company to New York City, expanding its business by opening a display office on Fifth Avenue.

The Western Publishing Co., Racine, WI (mid-1930s)
The Whitman Display Room, Racine, Wisconsin (1939).
The New York display room.


Once Western had established a business relationship with Dell, it was not long before its Whitman subsidiary developed and published BLB-type books for the company. The books, called Cartoon Story® books, were published from 1936 to 1938.

Eventually Western became the major preparation and production source for Dell’s line of comic books as well as its later mystery, romance, and adventure paperbacks.

The Whitman Transition BLBs and The End of the Golden Age

In mid-1938, Whitman and several competing companies changed their copyrighted logos: Dell’s Cartoon Story Books® became Fast Action Story Books®; Saalfield’s Little Big Books® became Jumbo Books®; Whitman’s Big Little Books® became Better Little Books®.


Some Whitman books were in development when the transition was being made from Big Little Books® to Better Little Books®. The books caught in the transition can be identified by an overprinted logo on the cover—a blank, usually black, circle in place of the words “Big Little Book”. If you look carefully at the transition books, you can see the “Big Little Book” words under the overprint.

Transition books are of interest to collectors because they appear with different cover and/or interior changes. Smitty in Going Native #1477, has five different print versions due to the changes. Some, like Junior Nebb on the Diamond Bar Ranch #1422 and Mickey Mouse in the Race for Riches #1476, can be found with a logo or an overprinted logo.

The transition books brought the Golden Age of Big Little Books to an end. Following this time, mid-1938, Whitman began the Silver Age by producing Better Little Books until 1950.

© 2012 Educational Research and Applications Corp.