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The Starch Books
(Article orginally published July 1963)
Do you remember the "Starch Books"? Chances are you do, if you were a child at the turn of the century or in the early years of the 1900s. For a generation these unprepossessing little booklets were saved by mothers, and loved, read, traded, collected, and prized by children throughout most of America.
They were issued by the Faultless Starch Company of Kansas City, Missouri, and given as a premium with their product, which had wide distribution, though not on the Atlantic seaboard. Records of the firm were destroyed in the floods of 1903 and 1951, and Mr. Gordon T. Beaham, the present head of the company founded by his grandfather in 1887, does not know the exact date of their appearance. He thinks, however, it was around 1895, and the illustrations would seem to confirm this.
There are 36 numbered booklets in the series, each 15 pages in length, and 3 by 5 inches in size. They vary in color, and it is evident they were not all issued at one time, as the cover format varies.
The first twelve are labeled "Faultless Starch Books"; the next six are headed "Jokes and Conundrums Series"; and the rest, "Faultless Starch Library," in several type forms. The first part of each is an illustrated story in prose or rhyme, followed by a section of riddles, jokes, games, useful facts, hints on manners, and such. The firm's product is extolled in glowing terms in every story, with appealing frankness.
Mr. Beaham does not remember that the booklets were ever put inside the packages, though Mr. T. E. Caulfield, of the Waco, Texas, NewsTribune, thinks otherwise. He gives some pros and cons on the matter in his column "Reading for Fun," and cites the fact that they always smelled "starchy." Later they were attached with rubber bands by the grocer, and one booklet came with each package of starch. What a thrill to get one that no one else in the neighborhood had seen, and be first with the riddles! What child today could guess "What is worse than raining cats and dogs?" when the answer is "Hailing streetcars"!
D. Arthur Brown wrote the stories, but there is no record of the illustrators; there appear to have been several. They were published by the firm of Brown's brother, the Charles E. Brown Publishing Company of Kansas City, and many of them were written for children in the Brown families. They have the illusive ingredient that makes stories successful with children, whether they tell a familiar tale with a new twist, like "Red Riding Hood," in which the wolf is so taken with Grandma's starched apron that he stays for tea, or an original one, such as "A Trip to the Moon," in which moonbeams and elves anticipate space capsules. Several have the "rags to riches" theme, like "Prink and Prank," in which a little country boy becomes President.
Until about 1930, the booklets were now and then reprinted. The facsimile of the package on the back cover indicates the later ones, as it includes the Good Housekeeping seal. Few of these later ones were issued. Gentlemen were no longer judged by the board-like quality of their collars and cuffs, nor ladies by the stiffness of their petticoats. Children had more distractions, and were perhaps finding stories involving coal-bins and gaslights, difficult to understand.
So the Starch Books faded from the American scene. But many still survive, and they should be hunted out and preserved. Aside from being one of the most successful commercials ever devised, they are an authentic, if humble, addition to Americana-and they're fun!
Below: Starch books from the author's collection; kitchen match, lower left, indicates size. Illustrations of school recitations, little girls in long stockings and sunbonnets, and grocery interiors are typical of the series. "The Fairies" is Vol. 1; "The Trials of Mrs. Graycoat," Vol. 2.