This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of the "Little Blue Books." The inexpensive booklets, printed in the southeast Kansas town of Girard, covered a wide-range of topics. Hundreds of millions of these booklets were sold. As Commentator William Jennings Bryan Oleander tells us, the Little Blue Books helped put information into the hands of everyday Americans at an affordable price.
Tom Averill's most recent novel is Found Documents from the Life of Nell Johnson Doerr.
Oleander on the 100th Anniversary of the Little Blue Books
Well folks, Iola Humboldt and I were spring cleaning in the attic when she came across a shoebox full of little books. Little Blue Books, to be exact. She sifted through titles like “What Every Girl Should Know,” “Carry Nation,” and “Voltaire & the French Enlightenment,” each a paperback, staple-bound, 3 ½ x 5-inch pocket book that once sold for a nickel. She wanted to know more, so I did a little research.
Seems a man named Emanuel Julius, a Jewish socialist raised in Philadelphia, came to Girard, Kansas, in 1915 to work at the largest circulation Socialist newspaper in the world, the Appeal to Reason. Once there, he met Marcet Haldeman, vice-president of the Girard Bank, and niece of the famous Jane Addams, of Hull House in Chicago. Marcet and Emanuel married in 1916, changed their last names to Haldeman-Julius, and by 1919, 100 years ago, began publishing what they first called the People's Pocket Series, then the Appeal's Pocket Series and finally the Little Blue Books. Printed at the rate of 40,000 a day, the eventual 2,300 titles sold over 500 million copies by the 1950s. Easy to buy via mail, easy to carry around, easy to pass along, the series made books affordable and ideas accessible to common people the world over.
“And you only have a shoebox full?” Iola asked.
“They were a bit controversial,” I admitted. “‘What Every Girl Should Know’ is by Margaret Sanger, the women’s rights activist and birth control advocate. She was arrested in New York in 1917, and by 1920, Haldeman-Julius published her ideas as Little Blue Book No. 14. My copy was given to me by a Topeka friend, with the story that at Topeka High a student could be expelled if one of these firecrackers full of ideas was found in her locker.”
Folks, we looked through my shoebox. The “Voltaire,” by Will Durant was one of many he wrote for Haldeman-Julius. They were later collected into what became one of the best-known philosophy textbooks—The Story of Philosophy, by Will and Ariel Durant. “Carry Nation” and other Kansas titles were written by a stable of writers who created what was later called “A University in Print,” that claim stamped on the back of each book. These writers included Nelson Antrim Crawford, later the editor of Topeka’s Household Magazine, and Vance Randolph, famous for collecting Ozark folklore. Marcet Haldeman-Julius covered the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, and Clarence Darrow, who went up against William Jennings Bryan in that anti-evolution case, was a frequent Blue Book contributor.
“And to think,” said Iola, “all of this was happening in Kansas.”
“And these books have held up well,” I said. “A little dusty, and the staples a little rusty. But a fine heritage.”
Folks, Kansas radicalism might be in the attic of our history, but we can find it, we can study it, we can learn from it. Who knows when we’ll need it again. Remember, Haldeman-Julius came to Girard to work on the Appeal to Reason. In our time, any appeal to reason would help. So, Happy 100th Anniversary, Little Blue Books.