Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Little Leather Library

A few months ago, I found a set of miniature books at Mom's house that looked rather old and which I don't recall ever seeing before. They were sitting in the garage, which has the typical lack of climate-control - so I brought them home for better care.

They turned out to be a set of books from the Little Leather Library, which published over a hundred classic titles from about 1916-1926. The brown book in the photo is one of the earlier editions, but the rest (with the green covers) would date from between 1920-1924. I had imagined that Mom's parents bought these for their kids sometime while they were growing up, but they actually predate her parents' marriage in 1925.

I don't know whether it was my grandmother or grandfather who bought them, but they would have been affordable to a young adult or a newlywed couple. They were mainly sold in sets, at prices that came to about 10¢ per copy. Early editions were sold through Woolworths department stores, but later they were marketed directly through the mail. I expect these were a set, because otherwise it's hard to imagine my conservative grandparents choosing two Oscar Wilde titles. LLL also published many books of the Bible, but grandma and grandpa would have already had Bibles.

The Little Leather Library was all about bringing classic literature to the masses, at as cheap a price as possible. Classic literature, of course, meant out-of-copyright, royalty-free literature; to further reduce costs, the original leather covers were quickly replaced by cheaper synthetic covers. However, the expensive look remained, as the publishers understood that middle America not only wanted good literature to read, but wanted nice things to display in their homes. One of the publishers even later coined the term "furniture books" to describe volumes which sold on appearance as much as literary content.* Their success can be gauged by the fact that the little books aren't rare: you can find them on E-Bay for about $3-4 dollars per book.

As a point of interest, LLL founder Albert Boni went on to found the Modern Library; the men who bought the company from him, Harry Scherman and Maxwell Sackheim, later started the Book-of-the-Month Club.

For more, see Janice A. Radway, A Feeling for Books: the Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire , or Little Leather Library

Robert Browning, Poems and Plays
Robert Burns, Poems and Songs
Samuel T. Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Other Poems
W.S. Gilbert, The "Bab" Ballads
Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Addresses
Thomas Babington Macauley, Lays of Ancient Rome
Thomas Babington Macauley, Lays of Ancient Rome (misidentified on the cover as Longfellow's Courtship of Miles Standish)
Maurice Maeterlinck, Pelleas and Melisande
Olive Schreiner, Dreams
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Alfred Lord Tennyson, Enoch Arden and other Poems
Henry David Thoreau, Friendship and other Essays
George Washington, Speeches and Letters
Oscar Wilde, Ballad of Reading Gaol and other Peoms
Oscar Wilde, Salomé

Multiple authors, Fifty Best Poems of America

* No to accuse my grandparents of mere pretension, however. Grandma was the daughter of a newspaper publisher and raised a family that valued education.


stuffmaster said...

Thanks for the information about the Little Leather Library. I was searching for a timeline for the various colored covers and you have answered my questions.

Best wishes,
Susan Peden

Scott Hanley said...

My pleasure.

Alan said...

Scott, I'd like to ask your permission to use your photograph of the Little Leather Library to help illustrate an article on the Book of the Month Club for the online Literary and Cultural Heritage Map of Pennsylvania project at the non-profit Pennsylvania Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress. The current owners of the BOMC (DirectBrands) don't have any archival photos, but hope I can find some things to get the article up. Please contact me at, if you would. Thank you for your consideration.


Alan Jalowitz, Editor