Preceding Simon & Schuster’s paperback imprint ‘Pocket Books’ by two years, ‘Modern Age Books’ was the first large-scale press to publish paperbacks in the United States. Founded in 1937 by Richard Storrs Childs (Yale ’32), and Samuel W. Craig (who, in 1927, created BOMC competitor, The Literary Guild of America), the press released more than 150 titles before closing its doors in 1942.
On the eve of the Second World War, Childs and Craig aimed to democratize reading in the United States by combining innovative illustration, printing, and distribution techniques. They published a low-cost list of progressive titles (including works by Theodore Dreiser, Woody Guthrie, Harry F. Ward, and Erika Mann - daughter of Thomas) with cover art by illustrators such as Lynd Ward, Irving Politzer, and Rosalie Slocum. The books enjoyed initial print runs of 50,000 – 100,000, and retailed for 25 to 50 cents apiece. Books were printed at night by union labor on Reader’s Digest printers in Concord, NH. By distributing the cost of composition, and ensuring accomplished presswork and good management, it was possible to keep the price of the product down. Modern Age also offered a book club service, modeled on Craig’s Literary Guild.
The paperback was already thriving in Western Europe – particularly in France and Germany, but earlier US outfits, among them Dime Books (simply-bound small format sensational novels popular after the Civil War), and the staple-bound series of world literature (Little Blue Books) published by E. Haldeman-Julius (1919 – 1978), were unable to sustain the readership of larger audiences. Determined to repackage reading-for-entertainment or eductaion as “literature-for-the-people”, Modern Age began offering books below magazine prices in drugstores, newsstands, and department stores. The books were sold at tiered prices under the Three Seals imprint: Blue Seal books were 25 cents a copy; anything priced above that was a Gold Seal book; and reprints bore the Red Seal label.
Contemporary newspapers praised the Modern Age “experiment,” extolling the books’ large format, quality paper, and cover art for “ushering in a new era in American publishing.” With a total profit margin of 10 cents a copy, however, the company’s success depended on an enormous volume of sales. By 1941, the press was forced to sell five books for the price of one as the editorial office disappeared to the war effort. In October 1942, Childs announced that Viking had “taken over a large number of Modern Age’s books and author contracts”, and the press officially stopped printing.
Richard Childs was my grandfather. Somehow I carried the family ‘legend’ about his publishing efforts with me for most of my adult life without pausing to probe the backstory. In fact, I had already made a career in books in New York when a move to rural CT, and a chance encounter at the local historical society, prompted me to look more closely at his work: I was evaluating a collection of antiquarian Bibles when the president of the board (by chance, a fellow Grolier member) stopped by; we began to chat. He mentioned his particular passion for the cover art of an erstwhile publishing house he’d recently discovered, known as Modern Age. Modern Age - he had learned – was founded in the 1930s by a young man from the town to which I had recently moved: had I ever heard of him?
To date, the collection consists of 67 (of the 150) Modern Age titles. The initial 40 were discovered quite by accident, tucked under the attic eaves in my grandfather’s study.
Hope in America: The Struggle for Power in the United States.
John Strachey. New York: Modern Age Books, 1938. 14 x 19 cm : 215 pp.
“I am thirty-six years old. So I was brought up to believe that the world was getting better. But it is getting worse.”
So begins an urgent call for Socialist reform in America, penned by the British Labour politician, journalist, and Marxist theorist, John Strachey (1901 –1963), whose 1937 entry onto the United States lecture circuit generated such buzz that readers bought the book just to see what the fuss was all about. Strachey analyzes the New Deal (without wholly approving of it), urges support of Roosevelt, and clarifies the differences between dictatorship in Fascist countries and the successful socialism of the Soviet State. He concludes that America must find a way to resist Fascism, or fall before it.
The Labor Spy Racket.
Leo Huberman. New York: Modern Age Books, 1937. (2nd printing, published the same month as the 1st). 14 x 19 cm : in pictorial wraps; 195 pp. + 8 b/w photographs + 2 pp. publisher’s catalogue.
A vivid portrayal of the methods of the ‘Labor Spy’, based on testimony secured by the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee of the U.S. Senate.
The true story of how 80 million dollars was deducted from the wages of workers to hire “union wreckers” who involved themselves in every aspect of the spy-business, brutally manipulating clients, reports, and courts through the use of policemen, armed forces, and vigilante organizations in order to maintain “the open shop” of “the American Way.” Huberman concludes with a plea for collective bargaining.
LaGuardia: A Biography.
Jay Franklin. New York: Modern Age Books, 1937. 14 x 19 cm : in pictorial wraps; 176 pp. + 2 pp. publisher’s catalogue.
Jay Franklin (a pseudonym of John Franklin Carter) authored this biography of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1937 with research assistance from Joseph C. Bailey. Just before its publication in October of 1937, the Mayor recalled 50,000 copies of the book, claiming libel. Childs made the decision to excise two sentences from all copies and then released it as planned, declaring, “in the interest of a free press we cannot accede to the Mayor’s request.” Note the label pasted to the front cover.