Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Little Stories for Bedtime: Communities and Commodities [Updated August 2013]

Burgess's "Little Stories for Bedtime" feature quickly became a valuable commodity. Jason Rogers, in his book Newspaper Building (1918), describes its value to newspaper publishers:
Realizing that the immense circulation of our Sunday newspapers as compared with their week-day issues was largely represented by the hold on the children obtained by their comic sections and such matter, we secured the service of Thornton W. Burgess in the Associated Newspapers to produce his own famous "Bed Time Stories."

These little stories are without question the best thing of the kind produced, and are one of the very best newspaper features. Following the lead of The Kansas City Star, which organized a "Bed Time Story Club" with a red "Peter Rabbitt"(sic) button as a club emblem, we stuck to the job until we had 198,000 children enrolled as members of The Globe's Bed Time Story Club. This meant that a large part of these 198,000 children "cried for The Globe" every night. We carried the idea to the extent of monster meetings of the Bed Time Story Club in the public parks, where we brought out 15,000 to 20,000 at a gathering. We had a "Peter Rabbitt Show" at one of New York's largest theaters for a full week to crowded houses. The members of our "Bed Time Story Club" have done really wonderful things in the way of co-operative effort to raise small funds for charitable purposes. We regularly hold sewing, composition, drawing, and other contests to keep them interested.

This huge children's organization, the largest of its kind in any city in the country, is a deep-rooted, far-reaching affair. It works its way into all sorts and conditions of households. Children of the richest and most exclusive families in New York and vicinity are just as much interested as others.

In my meetings with prominent business men it is not unusual for me to hear the remark:"My grandson is a great admirer of your newspaper. He started us taking The Globe for that Bed Time Story, and now we all like it."
Essentially, the feature was used strategically to attract children and create household demand. The serial nature of the feature (Burgess frequently ended a day's story with a cliffhanger and made a point of previewing the next day's story) also contributed to the demand. The club aspect further increased demand by offering premiums and bringing children together in a community--a community, as in the Green Meadow Club,that could be mobilized for pro-social purposes. To join, children needed to pledge that they would "be kind to the birds and animals and protect them from their enemies."

Contrary to Rogers's account above, Burgess stories in the The New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser were not an immediate hit. In fact, during March 1912 (the feature's second month), the Globe only ran six of twenty-six available stories. (It wasn't until May 1912 that the stories were run every day.)  Nevertheless, eventually Burgess's popularity became undeniable and the Globe deployed the promotional activities listed by Rogers. In 1912, the Burgess story occupied an available news hole on any page it fit; by 1916 the Burgess story and its various sub-features and advertisements occupied most of a page.
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A sample Little Stories for Bedtime page
In a profile of Burgess in the Saturday Review, it is suggested that the Kansas City Star's Bedtime Stories Club program was actually a business disaster--so many children signed up that the cost of membership buttons was more than the paper could afford. The Globe, on the other hand, missed no opportunity to merchandise. Bedtime Stories Club members were aggressively recruited, the paper offering $50 for the young reader who brought in the most new members. The "monster meeting" in Rogers's account was the subject of a full page account (provided in full here). Thousands of children and their parents assembled in New York's Botanical Gardens to hear Thornton Burgess (and Ernest Thompson Seton) speak and to see a huge, costumed Peter Rabbit (who emerged from a taxicab--to the apparent surprise of Burgess).

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Peter Rabbit costumed character
The mass rally may not have been quite as successful as Rogers claims. Here's an account from a 1967 column by William A. Burns in the San Antonio Express:
...on Member's Day they had the wonderful idea of dressing up some halfwit in a Peter Rabbit suit and have him prance all over the place, his ears waving in the Bronx breeze, chucking children under the chin. But kids had pictured Peter as a little rabbit, not as a six-foot giant! The result was that most children panicked, burst into tears, got hysterical, or violently attacked Peter Rabbit with fists and feet.
While the Globe understood the value of Burgess's feature it may not have always understood what it meant to its young readers.

Newspapers that had "Little Stories for Bedtime" advertised the fact. Here's an ad for the Syracuse Herald from 1917:

Note the claim of exclusivity (as well as a purported Burgess friendship with James Whitcomb Riley--news to me). Note also the focus on Burgess the person. Newspapers would request that Burgess write occasional "personal letters" to the children in the audience, published in the paper but addressed to them and written in Burgess's voice.

Rivals in other newspapers emerged to compete for the valuable children's bedtime story crown. Unfortunately for Thornton Burgess, one of his competitors would be himself.

Next: Little Stories for Bedtime vs Burgess Bedtime Stories

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