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.

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

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.

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.

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