I consider myself very lucky to have been exposed to children’s books as a kid that were published way before my time—it gave me a wonderful perspective on everything from design and illustration to historical content. A good example is “The Modern Storybook” from the 1930’s. I grew up reading my father’s copy of it, and I was thrilled when I ran across a copy for sale years ago so I could finally have my very own. It was originally published in 1931 and written by Wallace Wadsworth with illustrations by Ruth Eger.
It’s an oversized tome (12″ by 10″) with stories about characters in the form of the latest vehicles and modes of transportation. Although somewhat cartoony in its illustration style, the main characters retain all the realistic details and attributes of the machines they embody. The facial features almost feel like afterthoughts. There’s very little use of the anthropomorphic devices and distortions we’re accustomed to seeing in characters developed for stories like this—especially for children. This was a book meant to celebrate the exciting world of what was then, modern technology in all its current splendor! (In some respects, this article is a follow-up of sorts to an earlier Imprint piece I did on the children’s book “The Little Engine That Could” by Watty Piper.)
So much of what attracts me to illustrated books of this period is not only the design and style of the drawing, but the printing techniques used in the published result. The litho colors are bright, clean and pure, almost like a Kodachrome of illustration. Even though “The Modern Storybook” is a depiction of 1930’s American state of the art technology/industry, another interesting aspect is the overlap with older agrarian sensibilities—the spread of urban culture as we know it now had yet to fully infiltrate society and culture. Think of it: Would you see a farm tractor in a children’s book today? Aviation in particular hadn’t reached what we know it to be today either. Finally, with the front and center emphasis put on the dirigible/zeppelin story, it’s particularly ironic that my edition was published in 1937, the year of the Hindenburg disaster that brought an end to the airship industry.
Regardless of the innocent presentation of this marvelous book, it’s also a terrific chronicle of this unique time. . .
Two stories from The Modern Storybook were also collected in the 1935 book, “The Stubborn Dirigible”. “The Runaway Elevator” is included along with a new story, “The Motor Boat That Went To School”.
The original 1931 version of The Modern Storybook” is currently available with a slightly revised cover AND as an ebook !
Wadsworth’s storybook was also reissued in 1945 with new illustrations by Paul Pilson. I have similar apprehensions regarding this newer version of The Modern Storybook as I had with the newer versions of (see above link) “The Little Engine That Could”. As far as I’m concerned, the updated design and the newer printing methods just aren’t as tasty !