1,823 little blue books at 5c each

A few years ago I spent some time at a magical bookstore in Birmingham. I bought blue-book-coversomething for Stephen and a few things for myself, including a catalog of books I’d never seen, but caught my eye with its provocative listing of “SEX” books on the front page. I’m the kind of person tempted to buy Modern Library books just to buy them, enchanted as I am by the populism of the effort to bring the classics to the masses (I got a Modern Library Thorstein Veblen on this latest book shopping trip, and a sticker in the front told me that in 1947 it cost less than $2 – a lot of money back then). This little catalog, advertising 1,823 little blue books at 5 cents each, seemed to take literary populism to a whole new level.

The variety seemed endless and strange and vaguely seditious. Mixed in with the classics were a ton of books about sexuality, socialism, and atheism. I needed to know more. It turns out that the Little Blue Books this tract catalogs were a highly successful publishing venture by the Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company of Girard, Kansas.

That publishing house has a history of its own. In 1897, socialist Julius Wayland (one of the principals of the Ruskin Cooperative Association) founded the newspaper Appeal to Reason with his colleague Fred Warren (read all about it, folks – maybe you’ve never heard of that paper, but it was the newspaper that first published Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle). Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (you should read that article – it’s a good one) bought a third of the paper after Wayland committed suicide, and used the Appeal’s presses to market small books in series. He made a number of attempts – the titles started with Appeal’s Pocket Series, moving on to People’s Pocket Series, the Ten Cent Pocket Series, and the Five Cent Pocket Series. Finally he settled on the Little Blue Books, and the whole operation took off. Small wonder, with titles like “Serious Lesson in Pres. Harding’s Gonorrhea” (a pamphlet evidently authored by the future president’s FATHER IN LAW – check this New York Times reference), “Lives of Hot-Cha Chorus Girls,” “How the Great Corporations Rule the U.S.,” “Book of Best Hobo Jokes,” and “Unusual Menus.”

The thing may have been too good to last… J. Edgar Hoover evidently found the series’ inclusion of tracts on homosexuality, atheism, and socialism to be a bit suspect, and Haldeman-Julius found himself in trouble with the FBI. Evidently by the 1950s they had basically stopped being popular, and the Girard warehouse finally burned down in 1978.

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