Big Little Books

Viewers over the age of 50 may recognize what Big Little Books are but I doubt seriously whether those under 50 will be familiar with these literary gems of yesteryear. Maybe I should begin by acknowledging that Big-Little is an oxymoron according to the definition of the word in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. That doesn't prevent the title from accurately describing these small but fat little books which were first published in 1932, the year I was born. They preceded comic books which were first published in 1938.

Well, why in the world would I be motivated to write about something so divorced from UNC sports? There are a couple of good reasons.

First, there doesn't seem to be much that can be said about the just completed basketball season that has not already been said. I must say that some of the comments on the message boards by so called Carolina fans have embarrassed me. Much has been made about the definition of a "true fan" and maybe all of us fall short at times in being absolutely with no qualifications a Tar Heel fan and supporter but honestly, some of the statements made are absolutely unbelievable, at least for me. One poster suggested that we go after Rick Pitino so we could turn things around immediately and that Matt Doherty could serve as his assistant until he matured, and then he could take over again. A poster who described himself as a former UNC football player said he wasn't going to watch or support the team next year because he just can't stand to watch their uninspired play. He vows to start supporting them again the following year after Doherty has it "turned around." I wonder if he would have appreciated fans taking a break from watching and supporting UNC football while he was playing because I remember some pretty uninspiring performances in Kenan recently. Of course, we don't know if he really is a former UNC football player but based on his previous posts and general knowledge level, I believe he is. In fact, I'm pretty sure I know who he is but that is beside the point.

The second reason for writing about Big Little Books is that I am currently working with the folks in the UNC Development Office and the UNC Library to donate my collection of Big Little Books to the Rare Book Collection to be used by current and future scholars in studying the period portrayed in the BLBs. The books don't tell you much about factual history but they are invaluable to historians in presenting other facets of history such as attitudes towards women, minorities, law enforcement, what constitutes a hero, etc. Big Little Books are still produced but they do not enjoy the success they did during what is referred to a the "Golden Age" which ran from 1932-1950. In that period, approximately 550 different books were produced. I have a friend who collected the entire collection and then contributed them to the University of Texas Library. I had planned to do the same and contribute them to the UNC Library but I got a late start and finally realized I would never be able to realize my goal. When I first began collecting, I could purchase one in good condition for 10 or 15 dollars. I quickly reached the point where if I ran into one that I was missing, I could expect the price to be a minimum of $50. I suspect my friend in Texas owns more oil wells than I do.

Most of the books were published by the Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin but a few other companies also produced the books. The standard price of a BLB was 10 cents and I can remember vividly being given $1.00 to do my Christmas shopping and going to Woolworth's on Fayetteville St. in Raleigh to but BLBs for my friends. Sales taxes were relatively new at the time and if you found a sympathetic sales clerk, she might not charge you sales tax on the 10 cent sale. You purchased them at separate times because a sale of several books was more likely to attract the strong hand of the tax collector than would the purchase of a single book. If you were unlucky enough to have the 1 cent tax charged onto your sale, this would break up your change so that one less book could be purchased. If you were charged the tax, you would be given a sales receipt with tear off numbers on each corner that you could use for the next purchase. Keep in mind that 10, 10 cent sales, in theory, would produce 10 cents in tax revenue. The store was required to turn in to the Revenue Department only 3 cents and the remaining 7 cents was retained by the merchant for "collecting" the tax. This explains why the sales ladies, most of whom were young, were as sympathetic to very young customers as they were. They realized that strict tax collections resulted in more profit for the store and was not an amount that was required by law.

The books themselves were approximately 3 1/2 inches by 4 inches but were approximately 2 to 3 inches thick, hence the name Big Little. Some were giveaways, notably Cocamalt and Amoco. These books, unlike the real deal, had a flexible cover and were not as valued as the ones purchased at a store. This could have a serious effect on you in trading sessions which went on all the time because the books could be read in a short period of time. Most all of the books have the names of the first owners and frequently their addresses written in pencil on the fly page.

The covers were cardboard and always extremely colorful. They did a good job of gaining youngsters' attention when put on display. Some of the books had animated stories in the upper right hand side that would produce action scenes if one pressed and released the pages with their thumb.

Some of the characters portrayed in the books were:

Buck Rogers ( space items are always in demand and therefore the the most valuable). Mickey Mouse ( All Disney items are hot ) Tarzan, Tailspin Tommy, Blondie, Betty Boop, Buck Jones, Chester Gump, Red Ryder, Little Orphan Annie, The Shadow, Roy Rogers, Popeye, Our Gang.

Some of the characters disappeared when comic books took over in the late 30's. It's hard to say why comic books replaced BLBs as the book of choice for children. One of the reasons was that comic books looked more adult than BLBs and there is always an economic reason behind a shift in format such as BLB to comic. They could get more comic books on display than they could BLBs. Comic books seemed more action oriented and violence played a more prominent role than it did in BLBs. This is the sort of thing that interests serious students of history.

The transfer of my collection which consists of approximately 250 books should be completed in the next few months. I will have mixed feelings when I pack them for their journey to Chapel Hill. They have been a part of RamFanatic's family for years and I've taken good care of them, but it's time to find them a new home. It wouldn't surprise me to find that I will hold back one of the books to remind me of the days when I enjoyed them so much and the pleasure I have had in collecting the books. Who knows. Your children or grandchildren may be taught by a professor when they get to the Hill who learned about life in the 30s and 40s from my Big Little Books. That would please me.

Note: If anyone other than me remembers Big Little Books, I would love to hear from you. You can use the e-mail on this page or make your comments in the Guest Book Section so others can enjoy what you have to say.