Thursday, June 27, 2024

Virginia Carter Stumbough: Three Bugs in a Rug

Around 1942, my grandmother Virginia Carter Stumbough wrote a children’s book, Three Bugs in a Rug. Her children Gene Nora (age 5) and John Charles (age 7) did the drawings. It’s the story of three bugs, Eenie, Meenie, and Minie, who live in a rug in a woman’s house, and who have to grab their beds and run for their lives when she does spring cleaning. It’s charming as all get out and I’ve restored it and made it into a downloadable PDF.

The backstory will be interesting to people in the children’s book industry or just anyone curious about what it took to get a book made in the 1940s:

Virginia was a precocious writer, and was a pro as early as high school and as late as age 84. At the time she wrote Three Bugs in a Rug, she, her husband Harold, and their two children were living in Evanston, Illinois. She shopped around the manuscript and eventually signed a deal with the David McKay Company of Philadelphia on April 10, 1943.

Company founder David McKay was described in his 1918 obituary as “one of the best-known publishers of juvenile books in [Philadelphia]”. He entered the business in 1882 when he published Walt Whitman’s semiautobiographical book of essays Specimen Days and Collect, and in the years that followed published several more books by and about his friend Whitman including a biography in 1883, Whitman’s late poetry collection November Boughs in 1888, and a revised posthumous edition of Leaves of Grass in 1900.


Some of the children’s titles by which the publishing house earned their reputation included Story of Little Metzu: The Japanese Boy by Helen Campbell (1914); Boys and Girls of Bookland by Nora Archibald Smith (1923); Scoot McKay by David William Moore (1939); From Nags to Riches by Alan Smith (1942); and Ride, Cowboy, Ride! by Billy Warren (1946).

When Virginia submitted her manuscript to McKay (a black-and-white photocopy survives), the original children’s drawings were part of the pitch. McKay, it turns out, credited the book’s art to the children even though they didn’t actually use their drawings—no doubt because they were bona fide kiddie scribbles of the kind that would make any book editor think twice about spending good money to reproduce them a thousand times. Below are scans of the photocopied original art for one spread, and the final color published versions. (This may be apocryphal, but Virginia once told me that one reason the book wasn’t a big success was that some bluenose librarian decided that the safety pin holding together Minie’s diaper was a penis, and had the book banned.)


In fairness to the unnamed McKay staff artists who drew the replacement art, they did an excellent job aping the kids’ style. Also, by making new art from scratch, they were able to make every art element either black, purple, red, or green, and then print using a 4-color black/purple/red/green process rather than CMYK, avoiding the need to use halftone to create composite colors. The final book contains very little use of halftone and the results are nice and sharp.

The book was intended for publication in time for Christmas 1943, but the U.S. government commandeered the printer to make publications supporting the war effort, and the pressing was delayed. It debuted around May 1944, and retailed for $1. The book was manufactured by Kingsport Press (offices in New York and Chicago, pressing plant in Tennessee).

I’ve found four press breaks for the book: two from newspapers that reviewed it (Chicago Tribune, 7/9/1944, and Springfield Daily News, 9/12/1944) and two from newspapers who noted it had been added to their local libraries (Carbondalle, IL Free Press, 6/3/1944, and San Bernardino County Sun, 9/9/1944).

Like so many books, it sold but it wasn’t a hit. It reached end-of-life around the beginning of 1949; in January of that year McKay Company treasurer Charles Cridland wrote to Virginia saying no copies had sold in the last six months, and suggested remaindering the last 250 unsold copies (thus putting an end to her royalty stream). 

McKay eventually sold them to Imperial Book Company of Philadelphia (I can’t find much information about them; presumably they were a remainder distributor). Virginia did write to McKay hoping that the remaindered copies could go to her hometown Evanston Book Store at $0.10 a copy, but McKay got a better deal from Imperial.


A year later, the David McKay Company experienced a regime change at the hands of two industry players from New York, Kennett Rawson and Quentin Bossi:

Kennett Rawson (who at age 14 went on an Arctic expedition!) (that his dad paid for!) was vice president and editor-in-chief at G.P. Putnam’s Sons in New York City. Quentin Bossi (who at age 18 was a golf prodigy!) was vice president of sales at Putnam’s. In 1950 these two well-funded men of the publishing gentry abandoned Putnam’s and bought the David McKay Company. Alex McKay, son of David and president of the company for 32 years, was kicked to the curb. (He founded a new company, Bell Publishing, and died three years later.)

On June 30 1950 the McKay company wrote to Virginia to let her know the company had been sold, it was now in the process of liquidation, and they were assigning the book’s copyright to her. Virginia wrote to the Library of Congress to have them record the copyright, which they did on Sept. 25, 1950.


After recording the copyright, Virginia wrote to the McKay company asking, presumably, if she could claim the plates used to press the book (no copy of that letter survives). Cridland at McKay wrote back to her on 9/6/1950 to say, basically, “No.” His explanation for why McKay can’t help is somewhat tortured, but it does provide some insight into the very heavy footprint, then and now, of the gear required to mass-produce a physical book.


The book has never returned to print. Virginia died in 2001. Today there are no copies listed on eBay, Alibris, or ABEBooks, and almost no Google results. But Mom (Gene Nora) made sure both her kids and all her grandkids got copies.

Three Bugs in a Rug (facsimile edition)


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.