Long ago in a used bookstore, I came across a “Big Blue Book” featuring the counsels and maxims of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. My dad liked philosophy and was a fan of Schopenhauer, so I picked it up, I think for one dollar. My tattered paperbound copy, published by Haldeman-Julius Company in Girard, Kansas, is not dated, so I had to do a little research. According to Indiana State University:
Sold for as little as a nickel or a dime the Little Blue Books and the larger-format Big Blue Books were published and republished by the Haldeman-Julius publishing house located in Girard, Kansas to foster the ideals of American socialism and to provide a basic education for the working man. Titles began appearing as early as 1919, but the Little Blue Books series was not christened until 1923.
I think my copy dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s, since it features a catalog at the back that says 1500 “Little Blue Books” are available, all for a nickel each. You could order all of them — all 1500 books — for $45.00, “packing and carriage charges” included. The “little” books were about 3.5″ x 5,” or the size of a small index card, a handy size for shirt pockets; my “big” book is roughly 5.5″ x 8.5″.
Amusingly, the advert used these words to sell them: “There is not a trashy, cheap book in the lot.” The “blue” came from the color of the cover (mine is faded), not from any “blue” or lurid contents.
What strikes me today is the focus on educating the working classes, with the expectation that workers wanted intellectually challenging and controversial material. The back cover of my book features the following list of “Big Blue Books” available:
Perhaps my favorite title is the “Tyranny of Bunk.” We could use a book like that for these times.
Titles featuring Voltaire, agnosticism, Clarence Darrow (of the famous Scopes Trial, in which he defended the teaching of evolution), and the debunking of religious miracles point to the free-thinking nature of these books. Here the “working man” is not being talked down to; rather, he’s being given the intellectual tools with which he can lift himself up. Workers of America, read Blue Books and become educated: that was the message of these books.
Workers of those days had fewer distractions than the workers of today. No vapid television, no video games, no materialistic orgies on Black Friday and Cyber Monday: one can imagine more than a few workers picking up a Blue Book for a nickel and enjoying it.
How much was a nickel back then? My dad was a teenager in the early 1930s. He told me you could go to the cinema for a nickel. In other words, a nickel was real money, but it was also a manageable sum.
Nowadays, I suppose, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has access to libraries of knowledge that far surpass 1500 “Little Blue Books” and their “Big Blue” cousins. Yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is lost in today’s cyberworld. Under socialism and other free-thinking systems of the Roaring Twenties and Depressed Thirties, there was faith in workers, specifically in educated workers, as representing the future of a better, a more just, a fairer America.
Do we still have that same faith, that same optimism, in the common man (and woman)? It doesn’t seem that way. We are simply not trying to educate everyone roughly equally, irrespective of social class and status and so on.
Assuming literacy, back then it seemed that all that was needed was to place the right books in the hands of workers thirsty for knowledge. Maybe that was a simple vision, but I admire its idealism.
Can we “make America great again” by getting Americans to read again? To read real books that address serious subjects in a mature way? Why not start with some new, inexpensive, little and big blue books? No lithium batteries or internet required.
Not a bad step, I think, as we fight to restore Democracy and against idiocracy.