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
Bedtime Stories
The Alphabet A - Z
Mother Goose
Prayers for Children
The Little Red Hen
Nursery Songs
The Poky Little Puppy
The Golden Book of Fairy Tales
Baby's Book
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.

Striking Gold

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.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

No, Ernest Hemingway Didn’t Write That Six-Word ‘Baby Shoes’ Story

Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway was known for his clean, restrained writing style. Which makes it conceivable that he's the author of the most famous six-word short story of all time.

The story goes that Hemingway wrote the gut-punching line "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" to win a bet against his writer friends. But there's no evidence that such a bet ever took place, and it's likely that one of the best-known works attributed to Hemingway has nothing to do with the author at all.

According to Open Culture, the urban legend sets Hemingway in a hotel (usually the Algonquin, but the location varies) some time in the 1920s. He was allegedly having lunch with a group of writer pals when he bet them he could write a story with a full narrative in just six words. After his friends put their money down, Hemingway jotted down a few words on a napkin and passed it around the table. Though brief, the other writers couldn't deny that "Baby Shoes" was indeed a full story.

Chances are this story actually originated years after Hemingway's 1961 death. It first appeared in print in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by agent Peter Miller. When recounting the anecdote, Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed newspaper syndicator in 1974.

The story spread from there and its original source only became murkier. A retelling of the tale was included in the one-man biographical Hemingway play Papa in 1996, and then in a Reader's Digest essay in 1998. The internet—for which Hemingway's punchy, compact style was a perfect fit—got "Baby Shoes" in front of more eyeballs than ever.

Though it's been cited in articles and books numerous times, no one has ever been able to trace the story back to a first-hand source. As for the true author of "Baby Shoes" if it isn't Hemingway, flash fiction fans may never know his or her identity. It's possible that the line was never meant to be a fictional story in the first place: Real ads that bear striking similarities to the legendary work predate the myth.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER