Once upon a time: The history of Little Golden Books

Western Publishing Company, Inc., one of the largest printers of children’s books in the world, had its beginning in the basement of 618 State Street in Racine, Wis.

Edward Henry Wadewitz, the 30-year-old son of German immigrants, had been working two jobs – one at a paint store and the other for West Side Printing Company – while taking bookkeeping classes at night. When the owner of the printing company was unable to pay Wadewitz his wages, he offered to sell Wadewitz the business. With dreams of owning his own business, Wadewitz, with $2,504 (some of it borrowed from his brother, Al), purchased the West Side Printing Company in 1907.

Wadewitz knew that if the printing company were to make it, he would need someone with more knowledge than he had. Roy A. Spencer, a printer with the Racine Journal Company, was one of the first people Wadewitz hired.

West Side Printing Company, with four employees, showed sales of $5,000 at the end of its first year. In 1908, with commercial job sales increasing, the company hired more employees. That year it also left a $10-a-month rental building and moved into a larger one and purchased a new automatic cutting machine and three new presses.

In 1910, after the purchase of the company’s first lithographic press, the name was changed to Western Printing and Lithographing Company.

Less than four years later, the company moved into an even larger space—the basement of the Dr. Clarendon I. Shoop Building located at State and Wisconsin Avenue in Racine. Dr. Shoop was famous for bottled medications and tonics. Western Printing and Lithographing Company had become so successful that when Dr. Shoop retired in 1914, the company took over all six floors of the Shoop Building.

By its seventh year, sales topped $127,000 and two new departments were formed: electrotyping and engraving. The company purchased a new 28-inch by 42-inch offset press.

Wadewitz was approached by the Hamming-Whitman Publishing Company of Chicago to print its line of children’s books. What Wadewitz did not foresee was that Hamming-Whitman would soon be going out of business. Unable to pay its bills, Hamming-Whitman left Western with thousands of books in its warehouse and in production.

Trying to cut its losses, Wadewitz entered Western into the retail book market for the first time. It proved so successful that the remaining Hamming-Whitman books were liquidated.

After acquiring Hamming-Whitman on Feb. 9, 1916, Western formed a subsidiary corporation called Whitman Publishing Company. Whitman employed two salesmen the first year and grossed more than $43,500 in children’s book sales.

Sam Lowe, who later owned Bonnie Books, joined the Western team in 1916. Lowe sold Western and Whitman on the idea of bringing out a 10-cent children’s book in 1918. Disaster almost followed when an employee misread a book order from S.S. Kresge Company, confusing dozens for gross, resulting in too many books being printed. Lowe was able to sell F.W. Woolworth Company and other chains the idea of having children’s books on sale all year round. Until that time, stores usually treated children’s books as Christmas items.

Toward the end of 1918, Western was outgrowing the Shoop Building, so another one was purchased – named Plant 2 – to house the bookbinding and storage departments. In order to print a 6-inch by 9-inch book, Western purchased a 38-inch by 52-inch Potter offset press in 1923. This same year, Western started producing games and puzzles.

With sales of more than $1 million in 1925, Western decided to add another product, playing cards, to its growing line of merchandise. To be able to handle this, Western obtained the Sheffer Playing Card Company and formed another subsidiary corporation, the Western Playing Card Company.

By 1928, Western had built a new, modern, air-conditioned plant on Mound Avenue in Racine, and by 1929, sales were more than $2.4 million. The print run for children’s books exceeded $10 million, playing cards $5 million, and games and puzzles $1 million. As a result, the company had to make plans to expand its new building.

In 1929, Western purchased Stationer’s Engraving Company of Chicago, a manufacturer of stationery and greeting cards. This was the second operation the company had outside of Racine.

Western was able to keep its plant operational during the Depression years (1929-1933) by introducing a couple of new products: The Whitman jigsaw puzzle became very popular during this time of uncertainty, and a new series of books called Big Little Books was marketed. Brought out in 1932, the 10-cent Big Little Books became very popular during the years when people were looking for inexpensive entertainment. The first Big Little Book title was The Adventures of Dick Tracy. With this line of books, Western was setting the stage for future inexpensive reading material like comic books and Little Golden Books®. People love to copy success, and many publishers started bringing out their own books styled after the Big Little Book.

By the end of 1933, the Depression was coming to a close, Disney’s Big Bad Wolf had been beaten by the Three Little Pigs, and Western and Walt Disney signed their first contract, giving Western exclusive rights to Disney’s major characters.

Western, seeing a problem in having its plants and offices so far from the rest of the publishing industry, purchased a plant in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1934. This event marked the beginning of a close relationship with Dell Publishing Company and Simon & Schuster, Inc. Dell Publishing and Western produced Color Comics, which contained many of Western’s licensed characters, from 1939 to 1962. A Children’s History was the first joint effort between Western and Simon & Schuster in 1938.

Western formed the Artists and Writers Guild Inc. in the 1930s to handle the development of new children’s books. This company, located on Fifth Avenue in New York City, would later have an immense hand in the conception of Little Golden Books®.

Western expanded its operations to the West Coast when it opened an office in Beverly Hills, Calif., sometime in the early 1940s. Being closer to the movie capital of the world made it a lot easier to do business with the studios that owned the characters the company licensed.

During World War II, Western did its part to help with the war effort. The company had a contract with the U.S. Army Map Service to produce maps for American soldiers in the fields. Along with the maps and other projects it did for the military, Western also manufactured many of its own products that were sent to the soldiers and the Red Cross overseas, such as playing cards and books.

In 1940, Sam Lowe left the company and George Duplaix replaced him as head of the Artists and Writers Guild. While the guild and Simon & Schuster were collaborating on a book about Walt Disney’s Bambi, Duplaix came up with the concept of a colorful children’s book that would be durable and affordable to more American families than those being printed at that time. In 1941, children’s books sold for between $2 and $3—a luxury for a lot of families. With the help of Lucile Olge, also of the guild, Duplaix contacted Albert Leventhal—a vice president and sales manager at Simon & Schuster—and Leon Shimkin, also of Simon & Schuster, with his idea.

The group decided on 12 titles (shown on these pages) to be released at the same time. Each title would have 42 pages, 28 printed in two-color and 14 printed in four-color. The book’s binding was designed after a side-staple binding being done in Sweden. These books were to be called Little Golden Books®.

The group originally discussed a 50-cent price for Little Golden Books, but Western did not want to compete with the other 50-cent books already on the market. The group did some more figuring and found that if it printed 50,000 copies of each book instead of 25,000, the books could be sold for 25 cents each. In September 1942, the first 12 titles were printed and released to stores in October.

Little Golden Books®, with their colorful, bright pages, were designed to be handled by children and were inexpensive enough that children could read or handle their books whenever they wanted. With these qualities and many more, the books became very popular with parents, but not with librarians in these early years, who felt these books did not contain the quality of literature a child should be reading. They did not consider that a book a child could handle was better than one stored out of reach on a shelf, or that an affordable book was better than not owning one at all, but this attitude has mellowed quite a bit since the 1940s.

Golden® Books were published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. They were produced by Artists and Writers Guild and printed at Western Printing and Lithographing.

During World War II, there was a paper shortage in the United States. To help ease this shortage, in 1943 the War Production Board put restrictions on paper use. As a result, retailers were receiving only one of every 10 books they ordered. Once the paper shortage was over, backorders that had piled up during the shortage began to be filled, and the company now had thousands of new customers.

Sales of Little Golden Books® were doing so well that in 1944, Simon & Schuster decided to create a new division headed by George Duplaix, called Sandpiper Press. Duplaix hired Dorothy Bennett—who was formerly employed as the assistant curator at the Museum of Natural History—as the general editor. She was responsible for many of the subjects used in Little Golden Books® through the mid-1950s, and she authored numerous books, including The Giant Golden Book Encyclopedia. Bennett fought very hard to keep television and movies out of Little Golden Books®; she felt the quality and context of the books would be weakened. She hated to see the book J. Fred Muggs printed and thought it poetic justice when the monkey bit the host and the television show was taken off the air. Bennett wanted the books to teach children something of the world they lived in, whether it was history, geography, science, or the experiences a child has while growing up.

In 1958, Western Publishing and Lithographing Co., Inc. and Pocket Books Inc. became joint publishers, and the company name then became Golden Press, Inc. But in 1960, Western Printing and Lithographing became Western Publishing Company, Inc. and Pocket Books’ interest in Golden Press was acquired in 1964.

Golden Books® became part of Random House on March 1, 2002.

the poky little puppy little golden book
#8 The Poky Little Puppy. Illustrator: Gustaf Tenggren. Author: Janet Sebring Lowery. 1942, 1st Edition $50. Blue spine with dust jacket $50-$200.
the golden book of fairy tales little golden book

#9 Golden Book of Fairy Tales. Illustrator: Winfield Hoskins. 1942, 1st Edition,  $50. Blue spine with dust jacket $50-$200.

little golden book baby's book
#10 Baby’s Book. Illustrator and author: Bob Smith. 1942, 1st Edition, $50. Blue spine with dust jacket $75-$300.
the animals of farmer jones little golden book
#11 The Animals of Farmer Jones. Illustrator: Rudolf Freund. Author: Leah Gale. 1942, 1st Edition, $50. Blue spine with dust jacket $50-$200.
this little piggy little golden book
#12 This Little Piggy. Illustrator: Roberta Paflin. 1st Edition, $60. Blue spine with dust jacket $60-$250.
Five of the initial 12 Little Golden Books®.


Golden Book Numbering System

Prior to 1979, Golden Books® had a three- to six-digit book number printed on the front or back covers.

In 1979, Western changed its numbering to a code-based numbering system using three digits, a dash, and two digits. For example, with 101-42, 1 indicates assortment, 01 indicates category, and -42 indicates position in category. These dash numbered books were not printed numerically, and this number on the book may or may not have changed with a title’s reprinting. I recommend that if you are a new collector trying to collect a title that was printed with a dash number, that you try to collect the first edition.

How to Determine Golden Book Editions

1. 1942-1946    Edition number will be found on the first or second page of book.

2. 1947-1970    Depending on the book series, there is a letter of the alphabet on the inside front cover, bottom left, or at the bottom lower right-hand corner of the last page of the book by the spine. A few larger Golden Books® had the letter at the bottom of the back inside cover. This letter will correspond with the book’s edition. For example: A=1st, Z=26th, AA=27.

3. 1971-1991: On the bottom of one of the first two pages, you will see something like ABCDEFGHIJKLM. The first letter to the far left is the edition. A= first edition.

4. 1991-2001: Books printed during these years will have a copyright date as well as a printing date in Roman numerals. If a book from this period does not have a Roman numeral date, it is a first printing and the number was left off by mistake. If the letter “A” precedes the Roman numerals, the book is a first edition. If an “R” precedes the Roman numerals, the book is a revised edition. If no letter precedes the Roman numerals, the numerals themselves state when the book was printed, and there is no way to determine the edition.

 For those not familiar with Roman numerals, “MCMXCI” is 1991. When reading Roman numerals, you subtract the number on the left from the one on the right when the one on the left is smaller. M =1,000, C=100, X=10, IX=9 (or 10 minus 1), VIII=8, VII=7, VI=6, V=5, IV=4 (or 5 minus 1), III=3, II=2, I=1. With the number “MCMXCI,” you have “M”=1000, “CM”=900 (or 1000 minus 100), “XC”=90 (or 100 minus 10), “I”=1 for 1000 + 900 + 90 + 1 = 1991.

5. 2001-Present: In 2001 the Roman numerals were dropped for the industry standard way of determining book editions. Using this method, the last number to the right of a row of numbers is the edition/printing.

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 is a first edition. Most first editions will also state “First Edition.”

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 is a third edition/printing.

How to Determine Whitman Book Editions

Whitman books never had edition information printed in the books. Further research can assist you in making an educated guess to a book’s year of printing.

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