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Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

How World War II Helped Give Birth to the Softcover Book

Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Nazi Germany was staging large-scale book burnings of any titles that went against its fascist beliefs, the United States sought to arm its soldiers during World War II with a weapon that was emblematic of the freedom of expression it was fighting to preserve: the softcover book. Merely meant to entertain the troops during the lulls in between combat, the country’s initiative to provide them with low-cost reading material found its way home after the war and forever changed the way the public reads its books.

The paperback book trend that had picked up steam in Germany and Britain was having a rougher start in the United States in the late 1930s, with Penguin and Pocket Books attempting to offer high-quality novels in a cheaper package, according to Atlas Obscura. Previous to this, softcover books typically featured quick entertainment like Westerns, cheap mysteries, tawdry romances, and pulpy adventure tales. Though Penguin and Pocket Books wanted to change that perception by offering far more notable works, many bookstores in the United States stuck to only selling novels as hardcovers aimed at a wealthier clientele. To most, a paperback printing of a great novel was nothing more than a novelty, and there simply wasn't an audience for inexpensive versions of high-quality reads. When America went to war, though, the paperback went with it.

The first effort to get books into troops’ hands was a donation drive run by the Army and the American Library Association. Called the Victory Book Campaign, the initiative proved only moderately successful. Though Americans came through with donations, many of the books the VBC received were unsuitable for troops overseas. After all, how many soldiers would want to pore over a copy of How to Knit while on the front lines? Plus, receiving tens of thousands of books from donors, having volunteers search for acceptable titles, and getting them to troops was laborious and wasteful, and the crates were often ignored in favor of shipping more important items like rations and ammo.

Raymond L. Trautman, head of the Army’s Library Section, had another plan. H. Stanley Thompson, a graphic artist working for the Army, approached Trautman with a way to print paperback books on the same presses used for magazines. The assembly would be quick, the books would be thin, and they would be small enough for soldiers to store in their pockets. If they could get publishers to print select titles and ship them directly to soldiers, it would prove far less time-consuming and expensive.

Trautman went to the Council of Books in Wartime—a trade group made up of publishing titans dedicated to getting books into the hands of troops—with the proposal. It was eventually agreed upon, with the different publishers on the council allowing many of their most famous books to be reprinted and sold to the military for just 6 cents per copy. Books would measure in at 512 by 378 inches or 612 by 412 inches depending on their length, and text would be printed in double columns on each page to reduce strain on the eyes.

An example of ASE books given out during WWII.
An example of a typical ASE book that a soldier would have been given during WWII.

These Army Services Edition (ASE) books began reaching the front in the middle of 1943. There was one crate of books per every 150 soldiers and sailors, and the program eventually shipped 155,000 crates every month, according to The Atlantic. In the end, 122,951,031 copies of 1322 ASE titles were printed and distributed to soldiers around the globe.

An advisory committee curated an enormous selection for the program. There were titles ranging from literary classics like Moby Dick, Plato’s Republic, and The Grapes of Wrath to the hard-boiled detective work of Raymond Chandler and the comic book adventures of Superman. There were also poetry and history books, and titles on U.S. foreign policy. By all accounts, these book crates were some of the most welcome sights during the brutal conflict, with one GI proclaiming that paperbacks were “as popular as pin-up girls.”

The soldiers' love of books didn't just stop once the war was over; as Molly Guptill Manning, author of When Books Went to War, explained to Smithsonian, the ASE program forever changed American reading habits:

"The average WWII conscript had an 11th-grade education and did not read books. During the war, sometimes out of sheer desperation for something to do, the men would pick up books because they were the only entertainment around. Many service members came home with a love of books. Thanks to the popularity of the ASEs, publishers started to release cheap paperback editions for civilians, so veterans returned to a flourishing paperback trade."

The ASE provided the young men and women with books they never would have touched before, and in some cases it helped turn previously obscure authors into icons. Before the conflict, a title like The Great Gatsby garnered a fairly tepid critical reaction and even less inspiring sales, but when it was included in the ASE line, it blossomed. While Scribners printed a mere 25,000 copies of the novel from 1925 to 1942, around 155,000 ASE copies were shipped to soldiers during the war, according to a Library of Congress report by Matthew J. Bruccoli, an expert on F. Scott Fitzgerald. This new generation of readers helped revive the work, and it's been a staple of high school reading curriculums ever since.

The years after the war shifted the opinion of the paperbacks from cheap entertainment to a format in which the greatest works of literature could be printed. Some within publishing worried that the ASE program would ruin the industry by flooding the civilian market with surplus copies for just pennies, but it instead wound up creating a paperback book market that opened the doors to a whole new audience of readers that would never have been able to afford these books otherwise.

By 1949, paperbacks were officially outselling the more expensive hardcover books for the first time. Americans had come home from war with an appetite for books, and the burgeoning softcover market was the perfect, affordable way to satisfy it.

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Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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