Small-town Kansas was once home to the nation’s most controversial publishing house
Just two hours due south on Route 69 sits quaint Kansas town Girard. There’s not much there these days — just a few churches, a Sonic Drive-In and a family-owned appliance store. But believe it or not, this heartland mining town with a population under three thousand was once a hotbed of American socialism and home to one of the largest publishing houses in the country.
Journalist Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, a socialist, atheist, social reformer and free thinker, moved to Girard from Philadelphia in 1915 to work as an editor at the nationally circulated socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason.
After purchasing Appeal, Haldeman-Julius started a collection of three-and-a-half-by-five-inch pamphlet books called Appeal’s Pocket Series in 1919, and the name changed consecutively over the next few years. In 1923, the book series’ name became Little Blue Books because the books tended to have blue covers (though this varied when other paper stocks were cheaper).
Purchased through mail order and sold on stands at bus depots and train stations, Little Blue Books often had entertaining short stories such as the works of literary heroes like Shakespeare and Voltaire. Haldeman-Julius and his wife, Marcet, even penned a number of titles. Piggybacking off Appeal, many topics were taboo in the twenties.
“The whole idea was to affordably get classic literature into working class homes, as well as topics like anti-war, free thinking, socialism, communism and debate between scholars on the existence of God,” says Tom Averill, a professor at Washburn University in Topeka. Averill often uses Little Blue Books stories based in Kansas in his teachings. The titles remain edgy even today — Averill says he once had a student whose high school in Topeka expelled students caught with Little Blue Books in their lockers.
Although the Girard publishing house is now an empty lot — it burned down on the Fourth of July in 1978 — many of Haldeman-Julius’ works are preserved in the archives overseen by Steve Cox at Pittsburg State University. Cox conducted a symposium last March to commemorate the hundred year anniversary of Little Blue Books.
Cox says it’s believed that Haldeman-Julius sold five hundred million books under two hundred titles. “They sold quickly,” Cox says. “Eventually he got the prices down to five cents each. He developed a mass production of them to numerous printing presses that he had, and he was printing eighty thousand a day.”
In 1948, Haldeman-Julius came under FBI scrutiny for publishing a slam piece on J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s director at the time. In 1951, the writer was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to prison. One month later, his wife found him dead in the pool at his home in Girard.
Friends of Historic Girard and Girard History Museum board member Nicki Neil, who bought books from Haldeman-Julius’ son Henry before the plant burned down, notes that there’s speculation around Haldeman-Julius’ death.
“People talk, and this could be small town gossip, but they swore up and down that there’s no way he would drown,” she says. “He was an expert swimmer.”
Despite efforts to keep Haldeman-Julius’ notorious legacy alive, Cox says that Girard’s interest in him is dissipating. “He’s kind of being forgotten,” he says. “There are people in Girard today that have never heard of him and don’t realize that he owned one of the world’s largest publishing companies. Others hear of him and think, ‘Oh, that ol’ red. That socialist. We’re embarrassed about it.’ But he had a major, major industry there and he provided a lot of jobs.”