Watty Piper's 1930 “The Little Engine That Could”

When I was a very young child (circa 1960), one of the first books I was given was a 1930 edition of Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could. I’ve loved trains since I was a kid and I’m convinced this little tome was an early contribution to what’s become an obsession. It would be several years before I realized there is more than one version of the classic children’s story. A newer version with slightly revised text and completely redone illustrations was published in 1954. (And the story was given yet another updated treatment with illustrations by Ruth Sanderson in 1976.) As I got more and more into graphic design and illustration, every once in a while I’d go back to compare the 1930  and 1954 treatments. I’ve always come up with the same evaluation—the 1930 version kicks the 1954 version’s ass! I love the simplicity of the design, the flat primary colors, and the printing in the earlier publication. There are more illustrations—one on every page—in the newer edition, but I get a much richer experience from the journey I take with the 1930 version of the story. The later edition, with illustrations by George and Doris Hauman, has come to be the one most people are familiar with (even Amazon lists it as the “Original Classic Edition”), and the original 1930 printing has become harder to find (grab it if you see it !), but putting the two side by side makes me appreciate Lois Lenski’s version more.

On a separate note, “Watty Piper,” the book’s author, is actually the pen name for publisher Arnold Munk, owner of Platt & Munk, who published The Little Engine That Could. He also handpicked Lois Lenski to illustrate the 1930 edition. It’s unknown if he later chose the Haumans in 1954 to interpret the story in their style, but he was editor at Platt & Munk until his death in 1957.

I’ve scanned both books and presented them below. . .

Lois Lenski’s dust jacket illustration

The laminated cover art on red fabric boards

Nice additional touch of blue. . .

Now for the 1954 “New And Improved” edition. Both the text and the art was updated.

The plastic laminated cover of the 1954 version. This is a 1996 reissue. (“The Complete Original Edition”? Really??)


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15 thoughts on “Watty Piper's 1930 “The Little Engine That Could”

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  7. Martin Tuohy

    Mr. Thompson – you probably could research an estimated “market value” of the 1930 edition of the book by looking at what others have paid for a comparable edition in similar physical condition, what is currently available for sale, and who among antiquarian book dealers sells children’s books . Some web sites make this kind of sales research easier:

    Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America: http://www.abaa.org

    LiveAuctioneers provides information about past auctions, as well as upcoming auctions: http://www.liveauctioneers.com

    http://www.abebooks.com (limit to the 1930 edition in the years)


  8. Jim Thompson

    I have a think the 1930 version, it has a red hard cover, and pictures by Lois L Lenski.
    Could advise of the value of this book and how to sell it

  9. spudme1

    First animation of ”The little engine that could” by Coronet.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7uPKDEY4ME Cartoon made of the childrens story “The Little Engine That Could” by Coronet. Bless her wheels.

    In Search of Watty Piper: A Brief History of the “Little Engine” Story
    Celebrating More Than One Hundred Years of Thinking I Can!

    Story of the Engine that Thought It Could. Published in the New York Tribune on April 8, 1906, this story is attributed to a sermon by the Rev. Charles S. Wing to the Norstrand Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Brooklyn; the church had just paid off its mortgage after many years. This is earliest full version I have discovered to date:

    In a certain railroad yard there stood an ex
tremely heavy train that had to be drawn up an 
unusually heavy grade before it could reach its
 destination. The superintendent of the yard was 
not sure what it was best for him to do, so he
 went up to a large, strong engine and asked :

    “Can you pull that train over the hill?”

    “It is a very heavy train,” responded the en

    He then went to another great engine and 

    “Can you pull that train over the hill?”

    “It is a very heavy grade,” it replied.

    The superintendent was much puzzled, but he 
turned to still another engine that was spick
 and span new, and he asked it:

    “Can you pull that train over the hill?”

    “I think I can,” responded the engine.

    So the order was circulated, and the engine
 was started back so that it might be coupled
 with the train, and as it went along the rails it
 kept repeating to itself: “I think I can. I think
 I can. I think I can.”

    The coupling was made and the engine began
 its journey, and all along the level, as it rolled 
toward the ascent, it kept repeating to itself:
 “I —think —I can. I —think —I— can. I —think— I —can.”

    Then it reached the grade, but its voice could 
still be heard: “I think I can. I—– think—–I—–can. 
I —–think—– I—– can.”
Higher and higher it climbed, and its voice
grew fainter and its words came slower:
”I ——-think ——–I——-can.”

    It was almost to the top.

    “I ———think”
If was at the top.
”I ———can.”

    It passed over the top of the hill and began 
crawling down the opposite slope.
’I ——think——- I—— can——I—– thought——I——-could I—– thought—– 
could. I thought I could. I thought I could.
 I thought I could.”

    And singing its triumph, it rushed on down 
toward the valley.

  10. jooey

    Thanks a lot! I’m just looking for this book and thank you so much for providing such good materials! I’ve got a Loren Long’s version and very delighted to see the originals.

  11. Patrick S.

    Funny that Susan mentions the dolls’ faces. As a kid, I always felt the same way about the faces of the edibles in the 1954 illustrations–odd and disturbing somehow.
    It is interesting to note that there are so many more illustrations in the 1954 version than the 1930 original. Was it becoming true that even by the 50s and 60s that we kids “needed” more visual stimulation?

  12. Susan P

    Wonderful! Thank you…like Thom I grew up with the 1954 edition, and as a result, so did my kids. But the original has a lovely sweetness, and I always found the dolls’ faces in the one I read as a child to be strange and sort of scary. A side-by-side presentation would be awesome…