The Little Engine That Could

First Edition Identification & Early Variants

Childrens Picturebook Price Guide

The Little Engine That Could; written by [Watty Piper, pseud.]; Illustrated by Lois Lenski; Platt & Munk, 1930.

Children's Picturebook Price Guide Value – $920 VG+


The Little Engine That Could has been widely popular since it's original publication in the 1930's, and is famous for bringing the refrain "I think I can! I think I can!" into the public's conscious. From the current publisher's website:

"The Little Engine That Could is a classic symbol of inspiration to children and adults everywhere. The words "I think I can" are as carved into our collective memory as "I have a dream," and "One small step for man". The Little Blue Engine's mantra pops up regularly in films, television, and conversation.
It was in 1930 that Platt & Munk, now owned by Penguin Putnam Inc., first published the story of The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. The Little Engine puffed and chugged her way over the mountain and into the hearts of millions of children. With her courageous refrain, I Think I Can, I Think I Can, the little blue engine is part of American folklore, symbolizing the rewards of determination and good will. Currently available in twenty-two different formats, the story of the brave little engine is accessible to readers of all ages."

The Unresolved Authorship Controversy

The book accounted for a large portion of Platt & Munk's revenue during the 1930's and 1940's, however the origins for the story is very cloudy. 'Watty Piper' is not a real person, but instead a house name used by Platt & Munk beginning in the 1920's. In 1955, Platt & Munk offered a reward to anyone who chold offer proof of authorship. Surprisingly, the prize was divided by three parties claiming authorship!

From John Tebbel's A History of Publishing in the United States (Vol. 4. The Great Change, 1940-1980. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1981, p. 476.):

Another firm with a single title successful enough to carry it for awhile, even if no other help had been available, was Platt & Munk, with its The Little Engine that Could, a story whose origins became a matter of dispute in 1955. Although the house had copyrighted its version of the tale in 1930 and published it under the house pseudonym of Watty Piper, subsequently selling more than 1 million copies, the claim was made that the story was first written and published by Mrs. Frances M. Ford, of Drexel, Pennsylvania, who was 102 years old in 1956.
First titled "The Little Switch Engine," it was said, the story first appeared in a newsletter of the After School Club of America on April 18, 1912. Platt & Munk offered a $1,000 award to anyone who could offer proof of authorship, discounting the Ford claim, but the results were indecisive, although the award was split among three people. It was determined only that the basic story had been told and retold under different titles, that it had appeared in print before 1911, and many have originated in Europe before the turn of the century.

So, in The Little Engine That Could, we have a book which has sold millions of copies, with over twenty variations currently in print, been the prime cause for entering a refrain into the public's conscious, and yet whose authorship is still questioned today. For more on the mystery surrounding The Little Engine That Could see In Search Of Watty Piper.

Platt & Munk and the Never Grow Old Series

In the late 1920's, Platt & Munk published the Never Grow Old Series of children's books. The books were published in boxed editions, with paste-down images on the front cover, issued without dust jackets, and have a black cloth spine. They are similar in format to the popular Volland children's books published during the 1920's, best known for the Johnny Gruelle Raggady Ann and Raggady Andy books. There were originally six titles in the Never Grow Old Series:

  • Little Black Sambo
  • The Tale Of Peter Rabbit
  • The Little Red Hen and the Grain of Wheat
  • The Cock, the Mouse, and the Little Red Hen
  • The Three Little Pigs
  • The Gingerbread Boy

In 1929 and 1930, Platt & Munk added three titles to the Never Grow Old Series:

  • Pelle's New Suit
  • The First Circus
  • The Little Engine That Could

This boxed edition of The Little Engine That Could was illustrated by a relatively unknown artist, Lois Lenski. Lenski would go on to write and illustrate over 100 books in a career spanning five decades, including winning the Newbery Medal in 1946 for Strawberry Girl. The boxed edition of the The Little Engine That Could has blue cloth covers, black cloth spine, with a paste-down on the front cover, and was issued without a dust jacket. The illustration on the box cover matches that of the paste-down.

In the early 1930's, Platt & Munk stopped issuing the boxed editions of the Never Grow Old Series books, and changed the format to a dust jacketed version. The paste-down on the front cover remained, however the boards were changed to cloth, and the black cloth spine was eliminated. The nine books in the series were targeted for a wider distribution than the boxed edition (being more expensive to produce). Another prominent book in the series is Little Black Sambo, with illustrations by Eulalie, which is the most popular of the numerous publications of the controversial Helen Bannerman classic.

The Never Grow Old Series books were published with the paste-down until about 1943. At that time, the use of the paste-down on the cover was discontinued, instead the cloth cover had a lightly embossed one-color inked image, either black or blue, which lowered the production costs. This format change could have been in response to the Little Golden Books, which began being published in 1943. Still, the Never Grow Old Series were sold for 60 cents each, while the LIttle Golden Books were priced at an 25 cents.

In the tables that follow, twelve different versions of the The Little Engine That Could have been identified with the paste-down image on the front cover, being published between 1930 and 1942. (Note: We have identified more than a dozen issues without the paste-down, published from 1942 until the mid-1950's. Perhaps for another day.)

Significant among these are five versions with the Never Grow Old Series title's block ending with The Little Engine That Could (on the verso of the front free endpaper). This point has been a common misperception among booksellers and book collectors as the lone first edition identification point. See our previous post for first edition identification points for The Little Engine That Could.

Note: In each table, the red highlighted text indicates a change from the previous, i.e. earlier state, variant.

Book Variants - With Paste-down

The Little Engine That Could First Edition Identification We have identified six variations of the book with the paste-down, labeled 'A' through 'F' in the table.

The 'A' variant is the first edition book, with two key identifying points:
1) the Never Grow Old Series list on the verso of the front free endpaper, with nine titles, ending with The Little Engine That Could, and
2) the two lines on the bottom left of the cover beginning with "No. 358."

On the 'B' variant, the Never Grow Old Series also lists to The Little Engine That Could, however does not have the two lines on the front cover.

In the 'C' variant, the Never Grow Old Series lists to Lil' Hannibal, which was published in 1938.

In the 'D' variant, there is only a single line on the bottom left of the cover, beginning with 'No. 358." No trademark is signified on the cover of variants 'A' through 'D'.

In the 'E' variant, 'TRADE MARK' is added beneath the book's title. In variants 'A' through 'E', the date on the copyright page has been '1930.'

In the 'F' variant, the copyright page indicates two dates, 'MCMXXV' and 'MCMXXX' (1925 and 1930).

 

Dust Jacket Variants

The Little Engine That Could First Edition Identification  

We have identified eight variations of the dust jacket, labeled 'a' through 'h' in the table above. Four of the dust jacket variants, 'a' through 'd', have the book with the Never Grow Old Series title's block (on the verso of the front free endpaper) ending with The Little Engine That Could. Primacy is variant 'a', where the back DJ has 'BEAUTIFUL ONE DOLLAR BOOKS FOR CHILDREN;' later variants omit 'ONE DOLLAR.' Also, variant 'a' is the only issue with four titles listed on the back; later states have six titles listed.

On the back of dust jacket variant 'b' the 'ONE DOLLAR' is omitted, lists six books, and also changes the price to $1.25. Note that the list of six books is centered justified rather than left justified as in later issues. Both the front and back flap are blank on dust jackets 'a' and 'b'.

Variants 'c' and 'd' have a short synopis of The Little Engine That Could on the front flap, which includes highlighting the characteristic refrain, 'I think I can, I think I can.' The synopsis begins with:
     "This little classic of childhood is one of the most popular stories ever published".
This synopsis on the front flap was used on the book until the mid-1950's. We think variants 'c' and 'd' were published in 1934 to 1936.

The Little Engine That Could First Edition Identification  

We do not have the dust jacket for book variant 'B,' however, from the table, it is likely to have dust jacket variant 'd' or 'e.' We will leave the remainder of the dust jacket variant analysis to the reader.

Note: In each table, the red highlighted text indicates a change from the previous, i.e. earlier state, variant.

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