The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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New York City in Little Blue Books

October 26th, 2011 · 4 Comments

The “Little Blue Books” were published by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, of Girard, Kansas, from about 1919 to 1947.  They were small, cheaply made, and sold for a nickel or dime.  The covers were originally blue, but other colors were pressed into service if the card stock was cheaper.  By the time the company crumbled, they had released over 2000 titles.

There were Little Blue Books on every possible subject: short stories, poetry, plays, literary essays, recipes, how-to books, biographies, histories.  Haldeman-Julius had a distinctly progressive agenda; and printed many titles on socialism, atheism, evolution, contraception, and civil rights.

I have a particular fondness for those about NYC.  Many sprang from the industrious Clement Wood, who also, in the course of his career, produced poetry, song lyrics, smutty stories, advice columns, a sequel to Tom Sawyer, and a rhyming dictionary.

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This title (1926) is a bit misleading: it’s mostly about the ethnic neighborhoods, with a particular emphasis on debunking ethnic stereotypes.  Among other things, we learn about wine-making in Little Italy during prohibition.

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This one (also from 1926), unfortunately, doesn’t stint on the stereotypes.  It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, with descriptions of shops and restaurants, light verse about Chinatown (a ditty in praise of chop suey, for example), and three pulpy short stories set in the area.

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Wood pulls out the stops on this one (1926, too), with seamy tales of scandals, swindles, seductions, prostitution, and other compelling subjects along Broadway.

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A miscellany of jokes and light verse, much of it spicy for 1927, some of it about New York, some of it about the theater, most of it jokebook boilerplate.  There is also some rather snarky mockery of rival poets Maxwell Bodenheim and Eli Siegel.

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And, of course, two dissertations on Wood’s own neighborhood, then in its full flower of Bohemia: the first from 1926, the second from 1929.  Free love!  Poetry!  Strip poker!  Bobby Edwards!  Anarchists!

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I believe this is the Samuel Marx who went on to a busy career in Hollywood.  There is much 1929 scandal here, including the antics of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Mae West, Fanny Brice, and several anonymous chorus girls.

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Wallace Thurman was a prominent (although short-lived) contributor to the Harlem Renaissance.  His pamphlet is a fascinating look at Harlem in 1927: the clientele at different churches and theaters, the ownership of businesses, the tension with the West Indian community, and much more.

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In 1929, Straton was the outspoken minister at Calvary Baptist Church; and is here ridiculed for his pulpit-thumping against social dancing, evolution, coffee, tobacco, ice cream, theater, and other Baptist bugaboos.

(Posted by Doug Skinner)

Tags: Books · Places

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lisa // Oct 26, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    These are great. As whole, they must paint a very interesting picture of New York City in its multiplicitous glory.

  • 2 Gail // Oct 29, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Wow..these look fantastic during such an interesting period of time. I bet there was a lot of interaction between the various neighborhoods and they weren’t so separate. In some of Carl Van Vechten’s books, the characters frolic all around the town.

  • 3 Mary Clark // Feb 26, 2012 at 12:11 am

    Wonderful collection. Thanks for sharing it with us along with your comments. Bobby Edwards, Max Bodenheim, and the whole Bohemian crew, interesting crowd. The diverse neighborhood stories are invaluable.

  • 4 Doug // Feb 26, 2012 at 1:21 am

    It was a fascinating time! The Little Blue Books aren’t rare; I recommend them…

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