This weekend, the 13th Annual National Book Festival will take place on the Mall in Washington, D.C. and we hope that many bookworms will swing by to see our Little Golden Books exhibition. Curator Melodie Sweeney goes beyond nostalgia to explain why these books were revolutionary.
It hasn't always been the case that parents were encouraged to read to their children. Today, we think of the education of our children as extremely important and consider reading a fundamental part of this learning process. Between 1890 and 1920, a reform movement known as Progressive Education sought a major overhaul of the education system and ushered in a new commitment to literacy. This new philosophy supported an education initiative that would promote learning for children of all levels of society.
Prior to World War II, large format classic storybooks for children were prohibitively expensive and available only to a privileged few; most books for children were primarily available in school or public libraries.
The introduction of Little Golden Books changed all that. These new books had a child-centered focus that emphasized everyday life experiences and revolutionized the reading habits of millions of children.
In October 1942, New York Publishing firm Simon & Schuster, the Artist and Writers Guild of America, and the Western Printing and Lithographing Company of Racine, Wisconsin, joined forces to create a new series of books advertised as "a cheaper book written with a real feel for what children like." Little Golden Books were born.
The first 12 books of the Golden series, all of which are still in print, include their best-selling book of all time, The Poky Little Puppy. Originally, each book was 42 pages long and especially suited for small hands at a standard 8¼" × 6¾". The books, which cost a mere 25 cents, included 13 pages of color illustrations, with the remaining illustrations in black and white. The pages were stapled and bound in blue cloth with a brightly colored dust jacket that included a gold strip decorated with intertwining leaves along the spine. The cover of the books featured only the title and a brightly colored illustration; the author's and illustrator's names were credited on the inside pages of the books along with a book plate declaring "This Little Golden Book belongs to…"
In the beginning, only bookstores and department stores like Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Marshall Field's sold the books, but by February 1943 the books were in their third printing and the publishers could not keep up with demand. The United States was already embroiled in World War II and major paper shortages limited the supply of the books. However, with the onset of the baby boom after the war, the market for children's books exploded.
A revised format introduced in 1947 reduced the books to their current standard size of 8" × 6½", with only 28 pages and all color illustrations, still only 25 cents. The dust jacket disappeared and the books were bound in a hard cardboard paper cover with an applied gold foil spine and ornamented with entwined leaves, flowers, and animals.
By 1947, Simon & Schuster had introduced a new marketing strategy that included selling books, sometimes in specially designed display units, in non-traditional locations such as five-and-dimes, grocery stores, and drug stores. Little Golden Books became a publishing phenomenon.
Educators and librarians praised the books as "professional and cultural books for young readers" that were "well written" with "beautiful illustrations." More notably, Little Golden Books introduced a new retailing approach that promoted merchandise associated with the books, including records, puzzles, games, paper dolls, and coloring books. After almost 75 years these little books are still golden!
Melodie Sweeney is an associate curator in the Departments of Art & Culture. She has also blogged about the origins of pinball. The Little Golden Books exhibition is open through January 5, 2014. Can't make it in person? Enjoy the online exhibition. Many of the original, best selling titles are for sale in the museum store. They still are hard cover and have a golden spine.