Friday, April 28, 2023

A Big Disappointment for the Whitman Publishing Company

Whitman Publishing started as a subsidiary of the Western Printing & Lithographing Company of Racine, Wisconsin. In about 1915, Western began printing and binding a line of juvenile books for the Hamming-Whitman Publishing Company of Chicago. A few years later Hamming-Whitman went bankrupt, and Western took over the company, found success in selling the inventory of low-cost juvenile books, and formed the Whitman Publishing Company. Yes, it all sounds a tad confusing and when I mention that the company was responsible for Big Little Books, Better Little Books, Little Golden Books and other collectibles, the story behind them gets even more confusing. Needless to say, Whitman now primarily produces coin and stamp collecting books and materials. The history of the company has fallen into obscurity to the mainstream crowd except die-hard collectors who purchase and read children’s books. But the story gets pretty sad, so beware what you are about to read… 

For decades Whitman was a subsidiary of the Western Publishing Company. After the first Big Little Book, The Adventures of Dick Tracy, was published in December 1932. The books were small and compact and a perfect size for young children, but thick enough to be considered lengthy reading material. In 1933 the company signed a licensing contract with Walt Disney to produce books based on Disney cartoon characters, such as Donald Duck, Goofy and Mickey Mouse.

Numerous titles were sold through Woolworth’s and other retail store systems during the 1930s. Such titles included Captain Midnight, Popeye, the Sailor, Li’l Abner, Blondie, Buck Rogers, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy and many others. With a name change to Better Little Books during 1938, the series continued into the 1960s. It was here that the company published books based on popular radio and television programs such as Captain Kangaroo, The Patty Duke Show, Star Trek and The Beverly Hillbillies.

Today these books sell for an average of $10 for reading condition (which means it is not close to mint condition to qualify for “collecting” condition). Serious collectors inspect the spine, verify all of the pages are intact and keep the books in plastic to ensure the condition is maintained.

A few years ago, a comic book price guide began including Big Little Books within the annual publication so collectors have a price guide for which to gauge the value. Regrettably, most people do not follow the price guide as the street value has dropped considerably for Big Little Books. For decades the most expensive were Mickey Mouse, Tarzan and The Lone Ranger. But even those can be bought for $10 to $20 depending on the venue. 

The reason for the dropping value is the shrinking demand. With less people buying Big Little Books, the supply-and-demand process comes into play. This trend, no doubt the result of an aging fanbase, is bound to become more problematic in the coming years. 

Of recent, collectors have been scanning the books into digital format for preservation, with complete understanding that the damage required for scanning means the destruction of the book. But the rewards are larger than the destruction of one book, despite ongoing sacrilege voiced on social media. 

Whitman is still around today and the company focuses primarily on the sale of coins for coin collectors. If you visit their site and look up the history of the company, the fact that the publishing firm’s history is almost disregarded on the website and replaced with an emphasis of coin collecting is a darn shame. Worse, a friend of mine and I went to the museum in Racine, Wisconsin, specifically to see what exhibit they had, focusing on the history of the Western Printing & Lithographing Company. Regrettably, they had two display cases and, as my friend exclaimed in terror, “they don’t even have a single Big Little Book on display!”

Enclosed are two photos revealing what they have as a display for the publishing firm. We traveled a total of forty minutes round-trip to go out of our way to check out such an exhibit. Since we took one for the team, enjoy the two photos.