Sunday, May 2, 2010

Vintage Big Little Books

Last week I acquired a box full of old Big Little Books, most of which are from the 1930s. They're in rough shape, clearly having been well-read and loved, but I still think they're a fantastic find. They present a sort of time capsule of children's interests from the '30s and '40s: space travel, cowboys, adventure, planes, cops & robbers, secret agents, superheroes.

As I browsed through the titles, I was surprised to see how much they still appeal, some 70 years after their publication dates. Escapism never grows old, I guess, and the opening paragraphs of each book were carefully crafted to catch and hold the reader's attention.

The excerpts below feature samples of some of the most evocative passages. Read on, and find yourself rocketing towards Mongo with Flash Gordon, riding along a creek bed with the Lone Ranger, piloting a plane through a fog bank above the Pacific Coast mountains, confonting an evil spy ringmaster in a dark castle, and taking down criminals with Detective Higgins of the Racket Squad...

The Flash Gordon books were my favorites out of the lot. Their condition reveals they were also the favorites of their original child owner, who actually wrote notes in the back of each book, reminding himself which pages featured his favorite gadgets and machines. The flyleaf below left reads: "130 armored car, 16 spacephone, 212 electrode guns, 366 RKT (rocket) sub, 390 RKT sub, 392 RSH (rocket sub) fleet." On the right you can see one of the beloved "rocket subs."

 Excerpt from Flash Gordon in the Water World of Mongo, Chapter One: The Sea of Mystery:
"High in the gaseous envelope which encloses the planet Mongo, a giant rocket ship sped through a murky fog. Within the craft were three strangers to Mongo -- three wayfarers from the distant planet known as Earth."

There were lots of westerns in the box. Here are two of the best-looking ones.

Excerpt from The Lone Ranger and the Black Shirt Highwayman:
"It was practically impossible for the two horsemen to see more than a couple of feet ahead in the intense darkness of an impending storm. They rode silently along the bank of Powder River; the only sound above the steady clump of horses' hoofs was the occasional rumble of thunder. The jagged flashes of lightning gave brief glimpses of the trail they followed."

Here's one of the oddest titles in the box: Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, all about "the girl who possesses the power to transform herself into an invisible being by merely pressing a strange nerve in her left wrist." (Wouldn't that be a great power to have?!)

 The box held lots of adventure books, including several about pilots. These featured some of the most gripping opening chapters, including this excerpt, from Brad Turner in Transatlantic Flight:
" ' Ceiling zero. Visibility zero. Barometer twenty-eight point four two. Wind...' Ten thousand feet above the peaks of the Pacific Coast Range, a silver shape roared through the endlessly swirling wall of fog. Twin motors hammered their song of might, a faraway drone to the two men inside the great airplane's control cabin."

Some of the most intriguing covers were these, on a couple of spy/secret agent titles. Even the back covers are illustrated:

Excerpt from International Spy: Doctor Doom Faces Death at Dawn:
" ' Doctor Doom! So, he matches wits with us again, eh?' In the gloomy and forbidding chamber, Count Arnheim, the war minister of Merovia, sat hunched over his massive desk and pointed his stubby finger at the tall, cloaked figure before him. His beady eyes smouldered with rage."

 There were lots of crime related titles in the box, with illustrated backs as well.

Excerpt from Detective Higgins of the Racket Squad:
"Detective Higgins swung his two hundred pounds of muscle and bone into action. His arms, working like trip-hammers, pounded down the once sneering face of Tuffy Haynes...he sagged down like a pricked balloon before the merciless fists of Detective Sergeant Higgins, of the Racket Squad."

That's all for now; Flash just rescued the queen of Mongo's underwater city, and I have to see what happens next:


  1. wow, what a great haul! So glad you scanned in so many images, too. Invisible Scarlet O'Neil looks like she stepped out of a Tijuana bible!

  2. Since you are a children's librarian, you can appreciate how these stories help to build a child's vocabulary. The same goes for the forward credits in the Saturday matinee serials. The child had to read for himself with no voice over narration. Did you also notice the pictures in the upper right corner of the pages. They moved when the pages were flipped. You got yourself quite a haul there.

  3. Thanks, glad you liked this post! It was really a thrill finding this stash of books, and discovering how much they clearly meant to their original young owner. You're totally right about the vocabulary: these are a big step up from the "Dick and Jane" readers!
    And yep, some of them have the flip picture pages...the books are so fragile, it's a bit difficult to do the flipping now, but it's still quite a neat feature.