A Golden Era for Young Readers: The Story Behind Little Golden Books
There's a good chance you grew up reading the adventures of The Poky Little Puppy, Tootle, or Scuffy the Tugboat in the pages of Little Golden Books. But how much do you know about the story behind these beloved tales?
Before the introduction of Little Golden Books in 1942, children's books weren't necessarily made with children's interests in mind. They were usually large volumes that were too difficult for young readers to handle or comprehend, and were awfully expensive at $2 to $3 each (that's about $28 - $42 today). But George Duplaix of the Artist's and Writer's Guild, in partnership with Simon & Schuster Publications and Western Printing, wanted to change all that.
Duplaix thought the solution was small, sturdy, inexpensive books with fewer pages, simpler stories, and more illustrations so little kids could actually enjoy them. Western was already publishing a line for kids called Golden Books, so Duplaix and his team piggy-backed on those marketing efforts, calling the new line Little Golden Books.
The first 12 titles were released on October 1, 1942, at a price of only a quarter a piece. They were an instant success. After only five months on the market, 1.5 million copies had been sold and many titles were already in their third printing; by 1945, most were in their seventh printing. One of the keys to their sales success was the fact that they were available in unusual places, such as department stores, drug stores, and supermarkets. Busy parents could keep rambunctious children occupied while they ran errands, and not feel guilty about the additional 25 cents tacked onto their final bills.
The Little Golden Books' original 12 titles were:
Three Little Kittens
The Alphabet A - Z
Prayers for Children
The Little Red Hen
The Poky Little Puppy
The Golden Book of Fairy Tales
The Animals of Farmer Jones
This Little Piggy
The Poky Little Puppy was and still is the most popular of these original titles, helping it become the best-selling children's book of the 20th century (a total of 14,898,341 copies were sold). But Poky isn’t the only Little Golden Book with impressive numbers. Many of the original 12 rounded out the Top 10 of the century, too. Tootle (1945), about a locomotive-in-training, was third with over 8.5 million copies sold. Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947) was #7 with just under 7.5 million, and Scuffy the Tugboat (1955) came in at #8 with 7.3 million.
Overall, well over two billion Little Golden Books have been sold since 1942 in nearly every country across the globe—though they were banned for many years in the Soviet Union for being “too capitalist.”
The books, of course, couldn't stay $0.25 forever, although it did take 20 years before the price jumped to $0.29. The price continued to rise over the years, but still stayed under a dollar for decades, finally threatening that threshold in 1986 when the price reached $0.99. Currently, Little Golden Books retail for $3.99. When you consider the buying power of a quarter back in 1942 was about $3.47 in today's money, they’re still pretty easy on the pocketbook.
Once Upon a Time
In the beginning, Little Golden Books were either based on classic fairy tales or featured wholly original stories and characters. But that all changed in 1944, when the publishers signed a licensing agreement with Disney, which has been in place ever since.
Along with Mickey, Pluto and the gang, there have been tie-ins with just about every kid-friendly property you can imagine, creating an interesting timeline of children's interests. The 1940s and '50s featured cowboy legends, including Hopalong Cassidy, Annie Oakley, and Roy Rogers. The Flintstones, Lassie, and Bugs Bunny and friends were widely read throughout the 1960s. The 1970s saw the beginning of another long-standing licensing agreement—Sesame Street—and even a Donny and Marie Osmond book.
Kids of the 1980s will remember reading about Rainbow Brite, Inspector Gadget, and Pound Puppies. The '90s saw Barney, Pokemon, and Thomas the Tank Engine books, and today, kids can read everything from Dora the Explorer-focused stories to Dinosaur Train to SpongeBob SquarePants.
Brought to You By …
There have also been a handful of corporate tie-ins with Little Golden Books. In 1951, Doctor Dan the Bandage Man included six Johnson & Johnson Band-Aids glued to the title page—1.75 million books were printed, making it the largest first run of any Little Golden Book at the time. Shortly after, a Nurse Nancy edition also sold with Band-Aids.
In 1952, Texcel Cellophane Tape sponsored Tex and his Toys, which featured a roll of tape on the cover so kids could put together paper cut-out toys. Not to be outdone, Kleenex issued 2.25 million first editions of Little Lulu and Her Magic Tricks in 1954, with a small package of tissues on the front.
Little Golden Books have also been given away with Happy Meals, Hardee’s Kid’s Meals, Kimbies Diapers, sold with Fisher-Price pull toys. Special edition books were even once sold at The Ice Capades.
For collectors, first editions, not surprisingly, are the most sought-after. However, it’s very difficult to properly identify the age of a Little Golden Book, because the copyright date rarely changes from the original printing. Which means even though your copy of The Monster at the End of this Book (one of the best-selling Sesame Street Little Golden Books) has a copyright date of 1971, it may in fact have been printed in 1990.
But there are ways to know if you have a first edition:
If your book has a blue spine, it was published between 1942 and 1947, and the edition number will be on the first or second page.
If there's a letter near the spine on the lower-right corner of the last page, your book was published between 1947 and 1970. The letter “A” means first edition, “B” is second edition, and so on. If it’s “AA,” it’s the 27th edition, “BB” is the 28th, etc.
If there is a series of letters on the first few pages of the book, it was published between 1971 and 1991. Using the same letter to edition connection (A=first edition, B=second edition), the letter farthest to the left indicates the edition number.
Between 1991 and 2001, Roman numerals appeared on the title page to indicate the year the book was printed. If the number is preceded by an A, it’s a first edition; by an R, it’s a revised edition. If there is no letter, there’s no definitive way to know what edition it is.
Finally, since 2001, the now-standard print edition method has been adopted. On the copyright page you’ll see a list of numbers. The last number on the right is the edition of your book. For example, “10 9 8 7 6 5” would be a fifth edition.
First editions of the original 12 titles can be sold for $100 or more if the book is in exceptional condition and includes the dust jacket. Some special edition books, such as the Band-Aid books, or titles that included cut-out toys, paper dolls, or a cardboard puzzle, can sell for about $75 if everything is intact. (Another "prize" for collectors: Any edition of the controversial Little Black Sambo, which has been out of print since the '60s.)
Overall, collecting Little Golden Books is a fairly affordable hobby. Most vintage first editions are available for around $15. Later vintage editions in mint condition can be had for as little as $2 to $3. But if you just want to enjoy the stories, Little Golden Books are a staple at thrift stores and flea markets, where they can often be purchased for, interestingly enough, as low as $0.25.
This post originally appeared in 2011.