The Little Blue Books as Popular Culture:
E. Haldeman‑Julius' Methodology

Dale M. Herder

In a discussion of the Little Blue Books elsewhere I focused my attention on Haldeman‑Julius' unique and sophisticated theory of popular culture. [1] That study concluded that he, as popular paperbook publisher, was motivated by the highest sort of idealism in his efforts to educate the masses.

Building on the two premises that (1) happiness is the highest good of mankind and (2) that knowledge is the key to happiness, Haldeman‑Julius set out to ameliorate the popular ignorance by sending his "University in Print" to the doorsteps of American society. Each Little Blue Book that rolled off his presses was sent through the mail as a soldier in a war against ignorance; individually and in phalanxes the crisp blue‑uniformed nickel booklets were to carry knowledge and culture to the masses. Haldeman‑Julius theorized that the average man was a potential buyer of good books, who could and probably would read good literature if it came to him in a size small enough to be carried in his work‑trouser pocket and at a cost he could afford.

The validity of Haldeman‑Julius' hypothesis about "Mr. Average American" was substantiated by the phenomenal success of his thirty-two year publishing career (1919‑1951). By the end of his first nine years as a publisher he had sold a hundred million Little Blue Books and established his Girard, Kansas, printing plant as the largest mail-order book publishing house in the world. Before his death in 1951 this second Gutenberg had almost unbelievably quintupled his 100,000,000 sales figure and published over 2000 different titles in the Little Blue Book [31/32] series.

It is the purpose of this paper to consider briefly the methods utilized by E. Haldeman‑Julius in researching the American reading market and providing it with what it wanted during the nineteen-twenties. Before a discussion of Haldeman-Julius' methodology as a publisher of popular culture, however, it is important to comment on his business interest in the Little Blue Books. For despite his Socialist Party background and his many altruistic pronouncements about popular culture and the good it might accomplish for the common man, Haldeman-Julius was no stranger to capitalism and the profit motive. This statement might at first seem to compromise the idealism of his experiment in mass enlightenment, but clearly there would have been no Little Blue Books without such a motive. When asked whether he considered himself to be a philanthropist or a businessman, Haldeman‑Julius answered without hesitation that he was in business: “I invested my capital in the Little Blue Book idea because I thought it was a sound business venture. . . . I was as interested in making a profit as Henry Ford.” [2]

The Little Blue Books were indeed profitable. As Haldeman‑Julius indicated in his autobiography, he was able to pay off completely, within the first year of operation, the $75,000 obligation he had incurred in purchasing his Girard, Kansas, publishing plant. During the 'twenties the plant produced annually between 13 million and 25 million books, and the business grossed approximately a half‑million dollars per year. [3] Ultimately, then, it appears that Haldeman‑Julius' Little Blue Books derived from a synthesis of his pragmatic business sense and his altruistic theory of popular culture. In 1928 he expressed pleasure in the fact that he "had been able to use good business toward the improvement instead of the exploitation of the masses." [4]

At the outset of his publishing venture Haldeman‑Julius had only his intuition to guide him in determining popular reading tastes. He considered himself to be "Mr. Public—E.H.‑J. multiplied hundreds of thousands of times," and judges his first manuscripts by one standard—"do I like them?" His intuition was seldom wrong. Public response to the publication of his first two books in the pocket series, Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Jail and Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat, make it clear that his own literary taste differed little from that of the average American. Over the years, however, Haldeman‑Julius supplemented his intuition with a combination of more scientific market analysis techniques. He eventually relied heavily on sales data, advertising feedback, response to questionnaires, [32/33] and responses to published appeals for information about readers’ likes and dislikes.

Since sales volume is such an important criterion for measuring the success of a popular culture medium, it came to be Haldeman‑Julius’ most valuable tool in determining what the public wanted. By offering something for nearly everyone in a standardized format at a standardized low price, Haldeman‑Julius had only to advertise his product widely and then carefully study Little Blue Book sales in order to feel the popular pulse. Beginning with advertisements for his pocket books in his own paper, he rapidly expanded the exposure of his product in such nationally circulated newspapers the Kansas City Star, the New York Times, the New York Herald  Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Times, the Philadelphia  Inquirer, the Detroit Free Press, the Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He also ran full‑page advertisements in such popular magazines of his time as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, Nation, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and the Ladies Home  Journal. His advertising was successful largely due to its simplicity. By merely listing columns of book titles, arranged under such helpful subject headings as "Sexology," "Self-Education," "Evolution," "Health," "French Love Stories," "Religion," "Prostitution," and “Psycho‑Analysis,” he was usually able to bring a return of at least two to one, often as much as seven to one, and occasionally even ten to one, on the amount he had invested in advertising. [5]

It was important to the outcome of Haldeman‑Julius' careful sales research that virtually all Little Blue Book advertising was "coupon advertising." Fully ninety-five per cent of the more than one hundred million Little Blue Books sold during the 'twenties were ordered on tear‑out coupons which the customer sent directly to the factory in Girard. This enabled Haldeman‑Julius, who was his own advertising manager, to test the "pulling power" of various kinds of advertising media and techniques, while at the same time discovering exactly what the public wanted. Relying primarily on the "key" advertising method, which required the customer to respond to a special "key" box number or "key" address, Emanuel could tell even before opening an incoming order which specific advertisement should receive credit for the business. The data he thus received was direct, controlled, immediately quantifiable, and valid.

Louis Adamic, in an article published in a 1930 issue of Outlook [33/34] and Independent magazine, stated that Haldeman‑Julius' sales were "a weathercock which shows which way the breezes of public taste [were] blowing." [6] A 1929 issue of the New Republic used another meteorological analogy in assessing the extent to which this medium of popular culture accurately reflected the attitudes and concerns of the society for which it was produced: “Mr. Haldemann‑Julius' [sic] titles are so numerous and the volume of his sales so fantastic as to make his business almost a barometer of plebeian taste.” [7] By the late nineteen‑twenties Haldeman‑Julius was sufficiently confident of the diagnostic validity of Little Blue Book sales figures that he could claim to have discovered even the comparative popularity of chess and checkers in the United States: checkers led by 20 per cent. [8]

An important corollary to an analysis of sales as a method of checking the popular pulse was Haldeman‑Julius' basic premise that the Little Blue Books were read books. While other book publishers might claim to reflect public taste in their annual sales figures, Haldeman‑Julius was convinced that his success reflected more accurately than that of other publishing houses the general psychology of American readers. Unlike many luxuriously bound "merchandise books," the Little Blue Books had no pictorial or luxury appeal. For this reason, and because the editorial policy in Girard was to select manuscripts for informative rather than prestige value, Haldeman‑Julius could conceive of no reason for a customer buying a Little Blue Book other than to read it. In what was not wholly an overstatement, Haldeman‑Julius asserted that “more than 99% of the Little Blue Books sold direct to the purchaser are sold to him because he wants to read them.” [9] The Girard publisher frequently referred to his business as "the democracy of books"; the orders he received (sometimes 4000 in a single day) to him represented "votes" indicating the degrees of interest that people had in the great variety of reading matter represented in his series. His dual role of "campaign organizer" and "chief vote‑counter" uniquely equipped him to keep his candidate in office.

Probably the second most valuable source of information about what the public wanted was direct feedback to Girard in the form of letters from readers of Little Blue Books. When in 1924 Haldeman-Julius published his five‑hundredth Little Blue Book title, he used the occasion to publicize his "University in Print." He drew together and published in his monthly periodical, Life and Letters, several favorable letters received from prominent American Blue Book readers. An old [35/36] Milwaukee Socialist friend, Carl Sandburg, wrote the following:

The Haldeman‑Julius hip‑pocket library has a fine picked list of the best things men have thought and written. For a five‑dollar bill it brings an amazing array of good things to read. It is the brick-layer's hope, the mucker's dream, the wop's wonder of an education. [10]

Upton Sinclair, whose muck‑raking novel of the Chicago meat‑packing industry, The Jungle, was published in a set of six Little Blue Books, saw the Picket [sic—RD] Series as the solution to the problem of culture:

Haldeman‑Julius has solved the problem of culture for the people. In a year or two he will be printing more books than all the rest of the publishers of the world. He is going to put all the comic strips, sports pages and Sunday supplements out of business. The most important invention since the art of printing is the art of printing five cent books! [11]

Will Durant, author of The Story of Philosophy, was perhaps the most celebrated of Haldeman‑Julius' "finds." After the editor had persuaded Durant to convert his lectures on various philosophers into manuscripts for publication in the Little Blue Book Series (Haldeman‑Julius published these manuscripts in a dozen Little Blue Books selling for a total of 60 cents), the young scholar's work became famous, and his efforts were collected into a handsome edition that sold for $5.00 per copy. Eventually it became the best‑selling non‑fiction clothbound book in America. Durant wrote the following letter:

After wandering through all the radical and liberal political and economic movements of the 20th century I have been brought forcibly and inevitably to the conclusion that the only hope of political or economic redemption lies in the spread of knowledge and the enlightenment of understanding and judgment. We cannot change our institutions until we change ourselves; and we can change ourselves not by sermons but by knowledge and wisdom. If there is a utopia, Mr. Haldeman‑Julius has found the road to it. [12]

Eugene V. Debs, another old Socialist friend, hailed the publication of the 500th Little Blue Book title with the following letter:

You have certainly built up a wonderful and unique publishing enterprise, and the millions of copies of books of all descriptions, containing literature in all languages, you have put into circulation, not only in this country but beyond the seas, must have a great cultural and educational influence upon the masses of the common people who have thus been reached and hitherto have been unable on account of the expensive cost to provide themselves with such literature. I hope you will succeed . . . , and that you will be encouraged to develop indefinitely your great [35/36] educational and cultural enterprise. [13]

Letters from the common man were probably better indicators of what the average American reader wanted. The following letters, published in 1928, substantiate what the famous men above had said four years earlier about the Little Blue Books, and give an indication of what subjects were most wanted:

Letter Carrier—Boulder, Colorado

I am a regular reader and booster of the Little Blue Books. They have opened up new subjects for me, which I might not otherwise have become familiar with. They have contributed to a much broader culture than I ever might have achieved without them.

Starr G. Bennett—Student, Kalamazoo, Michigan

The Little Blue Books on marriage and its problems, health and hygiene, for example, are books everyone should possess. They contain practically all I have ever learned about sex and I consider them invaluable in this line of education.

Louis B. Greenberg—Lawyer, Kansas City, Missouri

Looking back on my five years in the University and considering the various educational forces with which I thus came into contact, I find that I cannot attribute to any single factor a greater portion of credit for the little learning I now possess than to the Little Blue Books.

W. L. Nelles—Telegrapher, Rawlins, Wyoming

The Little Blue Books, being pocket‑size, furnish me with a means to employ my spare moments to advantage. They enable me to continue in isolation my studies in subjects that interest me. Large, cumbersome books are difficult to transport and cannot be kept constantly at hand to catch these exclusive, idle moments. [14]

Unfavorable responses were not infrequent. It is not surprising that most of Haldeman‑Julius' "hate mail" was directed against him personally (he was an avowed atheist, and thought the Bible to be a dull book), rather than against the philosophy or even the content of his Little Blue Books. Bishop George A. Beacher, in the Ames, Iowa, Tribune, said, "Down with H.J! Would you have a snake come into your parlor?" The Augusta, Kansas, Journal stated that "H.‑J. is not a good citizen," and the Macon, Georgia, Telegraph castigated him for being "not conventional." In Greenwood, South Carolina, the Index Journal called Haldeman‑Julius a "densely ignorant man," while the Holland, Michigan, Sentinel nominated him "for the position of president of the publicity grabbers for these United States." But perhaps [36/37] the Perry, Iowa, Chief summed up best the position of all those who were unwilling to spend $2.98 for a college education in Little Blue Books; it stated quite simply that “H.J. is a bad influence.” [15]

More specific research is necessary before valid conclusions can be drawn about the effectiveness of other methods employed by Haldeman‑Julius in determining what Americans wanted to read. Accomplishing one of his many firsts in the history of publishing, he at one point sent out 15,000 questionnaires to his readers asking for their preferences in books and inviting comments and suggestions. He received approximately 9000 replies, almost without exception selecting "good" books. [16] Haldeman‑Julius also made direct appeals in his own publications for readers' responses. Responses to the following request, printed in the Haldeman‑Julius Weekly of January 28, 1928, served as a partial basis for his conclusions in The First Hundred Million (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1928), the story of how he sold that number of books during his first nine years as a publisher:

What Have the Little Blue Books Meant to You?

You know the Little Blue Books—you have bought them—you have read them. I am asking you to tell me, in a brief letter, just what those books have meant to you . . . Be explicit. Be candid. Tell me exactly what these books have done for you. Have you been educated—has your attitude changed since you have been a reader of this pocket series? Have you been debunked? Is your outlook wider and freer than it was before you bought some of these books? Perhaps you never were much of a reader before; perhaps you now make use of your spare moments in a delightful or helpful way with these handy books. Tell me about it. Write me a personal letter—200 words or so—and tell me what the Little Blue Books mean to you. Give me your age, your occupation, and tell me something about yourself. Your name will not be used if you so request; what I am after is the general opinion among Little Blue Book readers as to the educational and cultural value of the series. [17]

It is evident that Haldeman‑Julius had at his disposal and utilized a variety of market research techniques during the decade of the 'twenties. The success of the Little Blue Books as a vehicle of popular culture was dependent to a great extent upon his willingness to experiment with these largely intuitive but nonetheless effective techniques.

Having briefly examined Haldeman‑Julius' market research formula during the 'twenties, let us now look briefly at his methods for giving the public what it wanted. His original printing equipment consisted of the 12 x 18 inch job press he purchased with the Appeal to Reason [37/38] plant. With this primitive device the printing of a single 64 page booklet—minus its cover—took three eight‑hour working days. [18] As his pocket books gained in popularity, Haldeman‑Julius judiciously introduced technological innovations into his system of production. Under his guidance what had originally been a relatively expensive manual operation became within a decade a totally electric system of mass production capable of printing 240,000 books per day. [19] The two most significant consequences of this change were that, first, the cost of a Little Blue Book could be cut to a fifth of its original price, and, second, the Little Blue Books became capable of virtually unlimited duplication and distribution. Had it not been for these two factors, the series could not have become such a powerful agency of printed popular culture.

Two of Haldeman‑Julius' editorial innovations, the "Hospital" and the "Morgue," helped to insure that Mr. Average American got the kind of reading material he wanted. As indicated earlier, he made frequent and careful studies of sales, advertising, and inventory figures. Whenever he discovered a book that was not selling its quota of 10,000 volumes per year he sent it to the "Hospital," his "editorial sanctum sanctorum," where he attempted to diagnose the reason for its reduced sales. In most cases a change in title was sufficient to "cure" the ailing Blue Book. Once sent back to the advertising manager under its new name it was usually able to survive in the marketplace. Books with a sales figure that fell below 5000 and showed no signs of increase were condemned to the "Morgue"—or scrap‑heap. On a few sad occasions Haldeman‑Julius baled for scrap as many as 30,000 copies of a deceased Little Blue Book. When he discovered at one point that some of his Little Blue Books were not factual—that they were actually bunk books—he respected his pledge to his public and sent them to the Morgue. [20]

Perhaps the best example of a Little Blue Book that recovered after hospitalization was Guy de Maupassant's "Boule de Suif." This famous story was first made available in the Little Blue Book series under the accurately translated title The Tallow Ball. When in 1925 the sales record for this book was checked, it was discovered that it was selling only half as well as two other Maupassant Blue Books (Love and Other Stories and Mademoiselle Fifi). The title of the lagging book was changed shortly thereafter to A French Prostitute's Sacrifice, which, of course, is what the story is about. Within a year the book had increased its sales by more than three times—from 15,000 to 54,700 copies.

In some cases an ailing book needed only a "change of scenery" to restore its sales health. Such a change involved moving the book from one advertising classification to another. Experience indicated, for example, that some poetry, such as Longfellow's Courtship of Miles Standish and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets From the Portuguese, sold much better under the classification of "Love" than under "Poetry." On more rare occasions a book that was selling poorly needed both a title change and a change of scenery—involving two or more return trips to the Hospital.

Haldeman‑Julius refuted criticism directed against this rather freewheeling editorial policy by stating repeatedly that his title and scenery changes were motivated by his concern for the welfare of the reader, maintaining that changes in title served not to deceive the reader but to enlighten him. One of his basic rules in altering a title was that the change "must advance some particular information as to exactly the book's contents." [21] As an enlightened pragmatist, however, Haldeman-Julius had no qualms about using a clever title in order to trick a buyer into reading—and actually becoming "hooked" on—good literature. [22]

Besides his actual printing equipment and his editorial techniques, Haldeman‑Julius utilized a third important means to provide the public with the kind of culture that it wanted—advertising. Earlier in this paper it was pointed out that to him advertising served as an important diagnostic tool, telling the editor what the public wanted. In its more traditional role the printed advertisement—with its handy "keyed" order coupon—served to bring the Blue Books to the reader. Because the high cost of national advertising was almost more than his low profit margin could tolerate, it was impossible for Haldeman‑Julius to print a "blurb" about each individual volume in the series. Consequently, he merely listed all of his books by name and number in a standard full‑page advertisement, and left it to his carefully selected titles and categories to do the actual selling. In 1928, with 1260 different titles in print, Haldeman‑Julius was buying more agate lines (in which advertising is measured) of nationally circulated newspaper and periodical space than any other book publisher in the world. [23]

Other advertising mediums used by Haldeman‑Julius were less effective than newspapers and magazines as diagnostic devices, but [39/40] they undoubtedly had a considerable influence on the number of orders he received. Inside the back cover of many of his early Little Blue Books the publisher printed lists of book titles and numbers currently available from the plant in Girard. Also, circulars and small 3 1/2 by 5‑inch "Little Blue Book Catalogues" were regularly stuffed into outgoing packages of books in the mailing room. On one occasion in January of 1924 Haldeman‑Julius even took to the newly invented radio to advertise his ideas and product, reportedly reaching a million radio listeners. Speaking on the subject "Do the Masses Want Culture?" he closed his broadcast by offering a free Little Blue Book to any hearer who wrote in and mentioned the speech. Nearly 10,000 people responded. [24] This experiment with a non‑linear means of advertising during the nineteen‑twenties is particularly significant because it was conducted by a man whose entire life was devoted to the medium of typography. And to a certain extent this experiment in radio advertising foretold the impact that the revolution in electronic circuitry would eventually have on other agencies of American popular culture.

Since there is no reliable information at present regarding the effectiveness of Haldeman‑Julius’ final two devices for getting culture to the masses, it will have to suffice merely to mention them. In 1924 he opened in Cincinnati and New York City the first two of a projected series of "Little Blue Book Shops." The extent to which such shops were established in other cities across the country is still in need of further research. Several years later, in 1939, Haldeman‑Julius contracted with a Chicago vending machine company to sell Little Blue Books in the same manner as five‑cent packs of gum. An initial order of half a million books (including such titles as Kipling's Gunga Din and Other Poems) were sold in strategically‑placed coin‑operated machines under the following imprint: “Published for Automatic Libraries, A Division of O. D. Jennings & Company A National Institution.” [25] In spite of the dearth of information about these two marketing devices it is safe to say that they probably did not contribute substantially to Haldeman‑Julius' phenomenal total sales figures. The Little Blue Book business was (and still is) transacted almost exclusively by mail‑order.

We might conclude, as Victor Willard did in an article published in 1926, that the success of Haldeman‑Julius' unique publishing venture lay ultimately in his genius for understanding the American public. [26] "HaIdeman‑Julius," Willard said, "knew that a large part of our population was intellectually undernourished, that its diet consisted almost exclusively  of winter bread and the jam of light fiction. He set out  to supply the mental vitamines [sic] that make growth of the mind He won because his diagnosis was correct."


1 "Haldeman‑Julius, The Little Blue Books, and the Theory of Popular Culture," Journal of Popular Culture IV (Spring, 1971), pp. 881‑93. The article also briefly outlines the background and training of Emanuel Haldeman‑Julius (1889-1951), and describes the nature of the Little Blue Books.

2 E. Haldeman‑Julius, The First Hundred Million (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1928), pp. 39, 255, 256 (hereafter FHM).

3 Ibid., p. 237; Nation (May 10, 1952), p. 453; Time (August 8, 1949), p. 47.

4 FHM, p. 256.

5 Ibid., chs. XV and XVI, p. 273.

6 Louis Adamic, "Voltaire From Kansas," Outlook and Independent: An lllustrated Weekly of Inquiry (June 25, 1930), p. 285;

7 New Republic (January 9, 1929), p. 206.

8 FHM, p. 76.

9 Quoted in Adamic, p. 285.

10 Life and Letters (January, 1924), p. 3.

11 Ibid., p. 8.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., p. 40.

14 Haldeman‑Julius Weekly, no. 1684 (March 10, 1928), p. 2.

15 Ibid.; Time (August 8, 1949), p. 47; Saturday Review (April 12, 1969), p. 23.

16 "Porter Library Bulletin," Vol. 3, no. 18 (May 15, 1969), pp. 3‑4 (Haldeman-Julius Collection, Porter Library, Kansas State College of Pittsburg).

17 Haldeman‑Julius Weekly, no. 1678 (January 28, 1928), p. 1.

18 FHM, p. 224.

19 Ibid., pp. 223‑237, for a detailed description of how Haldeman‑Julius mechanized his system of production.

20 For a detailed discussion of the "Hospital" and "Morgue" see chs, VIII and X, First Hundred Million.

21 Ibid., p. 137.

22 Ibid., pp. 123, 132; William McCann, "Sex‑mad Socialism," The Progressive (September, 1967), p. 45; New Republic (August 15, 1960), p. 20; New Republic (January 9, 1929), p. 207.

23 FHM, p. 339.

24 Unidentified newspaper clipping dated January 14, 1924, probably from the Girard or Pittsburg (Kansas) newspaper. Gives an account of Haldeman‑Julius' broadcast from the Crosley Radio Station in Cincinnati (Haldeman‑Julius Collection document). [41/42]

25 Series of letters between Haldeman‑Julius and the O. D. Jennings Company, dated March, 1939 (Haldeman‑Julius Collection documents).

26 Victor Willard, "Bringing the Light to Main Street," Sunset Magazine (January, 1926), p. 62.

SOURCE: Herder, Dale M. "The Little Blue Books as Popular Culture: E. Haldeman-Julius' Methodology", in: New Dimensions in Popular Culture, ed. Russel B. Nye (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972), pp. 31-42.

"Haldeman-Julius, The Little Blue Books, and the Theory of Popular Culture" by Dale M. Herder

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