Whitman Books

When I was a child and wanted to buy a book I had two options. During the school year I could ask my teacher to order me a Scholastic Book Services paperback. Or I could wait until my rural family went to town, and then go to the Murphy store’s toy department and pick out a hardcover Whitman book.

I thought Whitman books were wonderful. If I recall correctly, during the 1960s the hardback books sold for only sixty-nine cents, making them an affordable luxury for someone getting a twenty-five cents a week allowance.

New York City has always been the U.S. publishing mecca, so how did Whitman Publishing, in Racine, Wisconsin, become the country’s largest book producer?

It started in 1907 when brothers E. H. and Al Wadewitz purchased Racine’s West Side Printing Company for $2,504. In 1910 the brothers incorporated their expanded business as the Western Printing and Lithographic Company. (Lithography is a method of printing pictures.)

At first Western’s printing orders were limited to work for local businesses, but there were times when no orders came in, so the owners solicited customers for what they called “fill in” work – print jobs to be done between work for Racine companies.

Western began printing children’s books for the Hamming-Whitman Publishing Company of Chicago. In 1916 Hamming-Whitman was unable to pay their printing bill, and Western was stuck with a warehouse full of books. Western was able to sell them at a profit, so the owners bought out their former customer, and started a subsidiary business renamed Whitman Publishing Company.

For the next couple of years Whitman Publishing was considered a rather minor part of the Western Printing and Lithographic Company – book printing was still fill-in work. However (cue the dramatic music) that changed in 1918.

A book order was received from the S. S. Kresge Company, a chain of what was then called five-and-dime stores, for they originally only sold items costing either five or ten cents. (The company is now K-Mart, and they’ve raised their prices.)

The order was for dozens of children’s books, but the printing foreman confused dozens with gross (144 – a dozen dozens) so Whitman Publishing printed twelve times the correct number of books. Wow, how would you like to explain that mistake to your boss?

Fortunately Western Printing had some pretty good salesmen, so Woolworths and other five and dime chains were persuaded to try selling children’s books year round, and not just at Christmas time.

Western was able to palm off all those extra books, they sold well, and the fill-in-work subsidiary, Whitman Publishing, was flooded with massive orders for more inexpensive hardcover children’s books.

Additional printing plants were either purchased or built in different parts of the country. Whitman published classic children’s stories, modern stand-alone novels, as well as series books. The company obtained the exclusive rights to publish books based on Walt Disney characters. Other licensing rights were obtained, and Whitman developed an extensive line of Authorized Editions – books about movie and cartoon characters, as well as fictional adventures about popular singers and actors. Later on there would be Whitman Authorized Editions about radio, and then television, series.

During the Depression year of 1932, when even inexpensive books were too pricey for some families, Whitman came out with Big Little Books – thick books with about 400 small-sized pages. On every other page was a line drawing illustrating the story. Big Little Books sold for ten cents each, and I doubt there were too many U.S. families that didn’t eventually buy stacks of those little gems.

In 1942 Whitman began publishing Little Golden Books, stories with color illustrations, sturdy cardboard covers, and a strip of foil for the binding.

Over the years Whitman published Gold Key comic books, puzzles, children’s games, card games, books about science, and books on coin collecting. Whitman bought out other book publishers and printing companies, and they established an office in New York City. In 1960 they published a 16 volume Golden Book Encyclopedia, and within two years 60 millions sets were sold. They bought a textbook publishing house, plus Skil-Craft Playthings, and seemingly every other business that went on the market …. but let’s get back to those hardcover children’s books sold in discount department stores.

I’m sure much of the country was like my little corner of the world – the closest town or small city had no book store, so you went to the toy department of the discount store and bought Whitman books. I’ve read about other publishers selling children’s books through department stores, but I have no childhood recollection of seeing other hardback books for sale – only the Whitmans sold in the basement of Murphys.

Over the decades Whitman published dozens of juvenile mystery and adventure book series. For most of those series Whitman followed the example of other children’s book publishers. Editors developed the main characters and their background, and then they “invented” a series author by coming up with a pseudonym – a name to be used in place of the actual author’s name.

The editor in charge of the series plotted out the books before assigning a writer to come up with the finished manuscript. I don’t know if the editor came up with just a rough idea of what was to happen, or if the writer was given a fairly detailed outline.

If the first few books in a series didn’t sell well, the series was discontinued. Popular series had additional titles added, and the books were endlessly reprinted. Whitman only listed the original copyright date on their books, so there’s no way to know how many printings an individual book may have gone through.

I haven’t been able to find out just when Whitman stopped publishing their hardback juvenile books, but I’m guessing it was sometime in the mid to late 1970s.

Western Publishing (which was either another subsidiary of Western Printing and Lithographic Company or a company name change) came out with paperback Golden Press books, and at least two of the Whitman series – Trixie Belden and Meg Duncan – were reprinted as paperbacks. Western had a printing plant that published Golden Press books in special reinforced library bindings, and at one time my local library had some paperback-sized Trixie Belden books with reinforced bindings.

As I stated at the beginning, at one time Whitman Publishing was the country’s largest book publisher, so what happened to that dynasty?

In 1979 Western was sold to Mattel, Inc., and a few years later Mattel resold Western to a private investor. The new owner started adding new lines of products, and was making money … for a time.

In the 1990s the owner started closing some of Western’s many holdings. Other subsidiaries were sold, and disappeared within other businesses. When the dust settled, there wasn’t much left of the original Western / Whitman printing and publishing products.

Little Golden Books are now published by Random House, and at least one of the original 1942 titles, The Pokey Little Puppy, continues to poke along, and remains in print.

There is still a Whitman Publishing company that produces books and coin folders for coin collectors.

Though long out of print millions of Whitman juvenile hardback books were sold, so used copies are readily available. Inexpensive books don’t always hold up well after fifty or more years, so they can be found in all sorts of conditions. But battered books can still be read, so if you remember a favorite series – or want to explore one you’ve only heard about – then hunt up some books, and then sit down for an enjoyable read.