Before there were Ladybird books there were ‘Ladybird Series books’. Let me introduce this under-researched area of collecting and offer you the starting years of WW1 and WW2 as a useful points of reference.
In no real sense could Wills & Hepworth be called a publisher of children’s books at the time that the first ‘Ladybird Series’ books appeared in shops. In 1914 the company was a thriving local printers who specialised in stationery, catalogues, maps, almanacs and any manner of commercial ephemera for local businesses. Since they also provided book-binding services, when there was little other ‘real’ work around printing simple, cheap children’s books became useful stop-gap activity; but this was far from being core business.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact point that publishing began because the first output seems not to have been lodged with the British Library. In addition, the move into publishing seems to have been gradual and desultory. But leaving aside the finer details, books began to appear that were marked ‘Ladybird Series’ on the cover in the bottom left hand corner.
There is no other consistent branding usually to be found on these earliest books – despite what you will read in most histories of the company written to date. The Ladybird logo did NOT appear until 1940 (despite what you will read) and even Wills & Hepworth the company don’t seem to have favoured consistent branding in terms of logo or typeface for their very diverse, flexible areas of work. Why the name ‘Ladybird? No one really knows.
These early books are very different to their later, well-known offspring; they tended to be very cheaply made, thrown together with the cheapest quality materials and often with scant regard paid to the quality of content. That seems like a harsh comment – but when you look through a number of these early publications, you’ll see what I mean.
Often these books have no author or artist stated, no preliminary pages, little (if any) colour printing inside and, inside the cover, are generally unappealing. The illustrations are so crude that often you’ll find that children used them as colouring-in books. Perhaps they were even intended for that double purpose? There was little standardisation in size, font, binding or content, no Ladybird logo and if you came across one of these early books in a secondhand bookshop today, you’d only be able to identify one by the words ‘Ladybird Series’ printed in small letters at the very bottom of the cover.
Over the inter-war years there was little significant evolution and development. Printing processes improved and a little more money was invested in binding, allowing for larger books to be published. A few titles published in the later 1930s even had marbled endpapers and might be said to demonstrate a small step forward in terms of investment in the product. But the first ‘real’, small-size Ladybird Books (Bunnikins Picnic Party, Ginger’s Adventures and The First Day of the Holidays) seem to have emerged blinking into the world in 1940 like cuckoos from the Wills & Hepworth nest – with only sketchy antecedence.
Bunnikins Picnic Party and the other ‘small’ Ladybird books were a clear re-launch for the company now dealing with the effects of the Second World War. Paper rationing leading to their small size, these new books were unusually well-made and carefully bound and stitched with a paper dustjacket on top of pictorial boards – when the picture vignette under the dustwrapper had to be glued on by hand. The artist and writer of these first book was even a fairly well-known illustrator of children’s books, Angusine Macgregor. But as these small ‘classic’ Ladybird book began to achieve excellent and consistent sales in bookshops nationally even then (and for over a decade later) the company saw itself as a commercial printing business with a minor sideline in publishing.
Very soon the ‘Ladybird Series’ books were forgotten and finding these rare pre-1940s books has become a niche interest even among Ladybird collectors. This means that they don’t tend to sell for a price that reflects their scarcity. Treasure a copy if you have one – but don’t expect to sell it for a fortune.
If you’d like to find out more, and to see the best attempt to catalogue the titles that were published (it’s certainly incomplete but was a brave start) let me refer you to the British Library publication: The Story of Ladybird, by Johnson and Alderson. If you’d like to see a collection of the books themselves, visit my exhibition. If you’d like to own one – well keep your eyes peeled for those words on the bottom left corner of the front cover.