How World War II Helped Give Birth to the Softcover Book

Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Nazi Germany was staging large-scale book burnings of any titles that went against its fascist beliefs, the United States sought to arm its soldiers during World War II with a weapon that was emblematic of the freedom of expression it was fighting to preserve: the softcover book. Merely meant to entertain the troops during the lulls in between combat, the country’s initiative to provide them with low-cost reading material found its way home after the war and forever changed the way the public reads its books.

The paperback book trend that had picked up steam in Germany and Britain was having a rougher start in the United States in the late 1930s, with Penguin and Pocket Books attempting to offer high-quality novels in a cheaper package, according to Atlas Obscura. Previous to this, softcover books typically featured quick entertainment like Westerns, cheap mysteries, tawdry romances, and pulpy adventure tales. Though Penguin and Pocket Books wanted to change that perception by offering far more notable works, many bookstores in the United States stuck to only selling novels as hardcovers aimed at a wealthier clientele. To most, a paperback printing of a great novel was nothing more than a novelty, and there simply wasn't an audience for inexpensive versions of high-quality reads. When America went to war, though, the paperback went with it.

The first effort to get books into troops’ hands was a donation drive run by the Army and the American Library Association. Called the Victory Book Campaign, the initiative proved only moderately successful. Though Americans came through with donations, many of the books the VBC received were unsuitable for troops overseas. After all, how many soldiers would want to pore over a copy of How to Knit while on the front lines? Plus, receiving tens of thousands of books from donors, having volunteers search for acceptable titles, and getting them to troops was laborious and wasteful, and the crates were often ignored in favor of shipping more important items like rations and ammo.

Raymond L. Trautman, head of the Army’s Library Section, had another plan. H. Stanley Thompson, a graphic artist working for the Army, approached Trautman with a way to print paperback books on the same presses used for magazines. The assembly would be quick, the books would be thin, and they would be small enough for soldiers to store in their pockets. If they could get publishers to print select titles and ship them directly to soldiers, it would prove far less time-consuming and expensive.

Trautman went to the Council of Books in Wartime—a trade group made up of publishing titans dedicated to getting books into the hands of troops—with the proposal. It was eventually agreed upon, with the different publishers on the council allowing many of their most famous books to be reprinted and sold to the military for just 6 cents per copy. Books would measure in at 512 by 378 inches or 612 by 412 inches depending on their length, and text would be printed in double columns on each page to reduce strain on the eyes.

An example of ASE books given out during WWII.
An example of a typical ASE book that a soldier would have been given during WWII.

These Army Services Edition (ASE) books began reaching the front in the middle of 1943. There was one crate of books per every 150 soldiers and sailors, and the program eventually shipped 155,000 crates every month, according to The Atlantic. In the end, 122,951,031 copies of 1322 ASE titles were printed and distributed to soldiers around the globe.

An advisory committee curated an enormous selection for the program. There were titles ranging from literary classics like Moby Dick, Plato’s Republic, and The Grapes of Wrath to the hard-boiled detective work of Raymond Chandler and the comic book adventures of Superman. There were also poetry and history books, and titles on U.S. foreign policy. By all accounts, these book crates were some of the most welcome sights during the brutal conflict, with one GI proclaiming that paperbacks were “as popular as pin-up girls.”

The soldiers' love of books didn't just stop once the war was over; as Molly Guptill Manning, author of When Books Went to War, explained to Smithsonian, the ASE program forever changed American reading habits:

"The average WWII conscript had an 11th-grade education and did not read books. During the war, sometimes out of sheer desperation for something to do, the men would pick up books because they were the only entertainment around. Many service members came home with a love of books. Thanks to the popularity of the ASEs, publishers started to release cheap paperback editions for civilians, so veterans returned to a flourishing paperback trade."

The ASE provided the young men and women with books they never would have touched before, and in some cases it helped turn previously obscure authors into icons. Before the conflict, a title like The Great Gatsby garnered a fairly tepid critical reaction and even less inspiring sales, but when it was included in the ASE line, it blossomed. While Scribners printed a mere 25,000 copies of the novel from 1925 to 1942, around 155,000 ASE copies were shipped to soldiers during the war, according to a Library of Congress report by Matthew J. Bruccoli, an expert on F. Scott Fitzgerald. This new generation of readers helped revive the work, and it's been a staple of high school reading curriculums ever since.

The years after the war shifted the opinion of the paperbacks from cheap entertainment to a format in which the greatest works of literature could be printed. Some within publishing worried that the ASE program would ruin the industry by flooding the civilian market with surplus copies for just pennies, but it instead wound up creating a paperback book market that opened the doors to a whole new audience of readers that would never have been able to afford these books otherwise.

By 1949, paperbacks were officially outselling the more expensive hardcover books for the first time. Americans had come home from war with an appetite for books, and the burgeoning softcover market was the perfect, affordable way to satisfy it.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

When Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression

Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Four years after gangster Al Capone took over Chicago’s leading crime syndicate, he had raked in over $40 million—around $550 million today. The money came from illegally selling booze during Prohibition; bottles were distributed to more than 10,000 speakeasies and brothels in a vast bootlegging network across the Midwest.

Capone’s alcohol distribution was unlawful, but to many Americans, the man’s work was heroic. He claimed he was just a businessman giving the people what they wanted—and what the people wanted more than anything in the 1920s was liquor.

But Capone’s role as an Italian-American Robin Hood didn’t stop there. As he orchestrated criminal activities behind the scenes, Capone simultaneously launched a program to provide milk to Chicago school children and donated huge sums to local charities.

It was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, however, that spurred Capone to his greatest work of philanthropy. Almost overnight, the American economy collapsed into the Great Depression. Banks failed, businesses shuttered, and millions were suddenly unemployed and hungry. Hundreds of soup kitchens popped up around the country. One of them belonged to Al Capone.

No Questions Asked

Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression
Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression.
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

When Al Capone’s soup kitchen opened at 935 South State Street, in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, in mid-November 1930, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans were out of work. By the following year, 624,000 people—or 50 percent of the Chicago workforce—were out of a job.

Capone’s charity had no name, just a sign over the door that advertised “Free Soup, Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed.” Inside, women in white aprons served an average of 2200 people a day with a smile and no questions asked. Breakfast was hot coffee and sweet rolls. Both lunch and dinner consisted of soup and bread. Every 24 hours, diners devoured 350 loaves of bread and 100 dozen rolls. They washed down their meals with 30 pounds of coffee sweetened with 50 pounds of sugar. The whole operation cost $300 per day.

The soup kitchen didn’t advertise its connection to Capone, but the mobster-benefactor’s name was connected to it in stories printed in local newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and The Rock Island Argus. Those who were down on their luck, though, apparently had few qualms about eating from the hand of Chicago’s worst crime boss. Often the line to get in to the kitchen was so long that it wound past the door of the city’s police headquarters, where Capone was considered Public Enemy #1, according to Harper’s Magazine. The line was particularly lengthy when Capone’s soup kitchen hosted a Thanksgiving meal of cranberry sauce and beef stew for 5000 hungry Chicagoans. (Why beef and not turkey? After 1000 turkeys were stolen from a nearby department store, Capone feared he’d be blamed for the theft and made a last-minute menu change.)

Capone's Ulterior Motives

Capone’s efforts to feed Chicago during the darkest days of the Great Depression weren’t entirely altruistic. It wasn’t even originally his idea, but that of his friend and political ally Daniel Serritella, who was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1930. Nor did Capone invest much of his own money into the operation. Instead, Deirdre Bair writes in Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend, he bribed and extorted other businesses to stock the pantry. In just one example, during Seritella's 1932 trial for conspiring with grocers to cheat customers [PDF], the court discovered that a load of ducks that had been donated to Christmas baskets for the poor ended up in Capone’s soup kitchen instead.

Perhaps more than anything, Capone opened his soup kitchen to get the public back on his side after he was implicated in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. In that murder spree, Capone's associates were believed to have assassinated seven men, five of whom hailed from the rival North Side Gang, inside a Chicago parking garage—though no one was ever prosecuted. Harper’s writer Mary Borden distilled Capone's double-dealing when she described him as “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.”

Capone’s soup kitchen closed abruptly in April 1932. The proprietors claimed that the kitchen was no longer needed because the economy was picking up, even though the number of unemployed across the country had increased by 4 million between 1931 and 1932. The diners who had attended the kitchen daily were forced to move on to another one.

Two months later, Capone was indicted on 22 counts of income tax evasion; the charges that eventually landed him in San Francisco’s Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Though Capone vowed to reopen his soup kitchen during his trial, its doors stayed shut. By the time he was released from prison in 1939, a raging case of syphilis had rendered Capone mentally and physically incapable of managing his own life, let alone that of Chicago’s once-dominant crime syndicate and the soup kitchen that softened his gangster image.

Capone died in 1947, but his larger-than-life legacy lives on. His soup kitchen wasn’t so lucky. The building became a flophouse, and in 1955, Chicago authorities deemed it a fire hazard and shut it down permanently. Today, only a parking lot remains at the site of Chicago’s most notorious food pantry.