An antique audiobook has inspired a collector to share a hidden piece of history. The Guardian reports that the collector, prompted by publicity surrounding the publication of Matthew Rubrey’s The Untold Story of the Talking Book, which chronicles the early days of recorded books, has contacted Rubrey about a 1935 recording of Joseph Conrad’s novella Typhoo produced by the Royal National Institute of Blind People—the earliest known example of a full-text adult audiobook. (In a recent post, I shared my starred review of Rubrey’s book, essential reading for aficionados interested in the background of all things audio.)
The Conrad discovery reminded me of a favorite work of early recorded literature: The Bubble Books.
When researching my own book, Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature, I noted the background of these miniature book and record productions:
The publishing trade saw the first true combination of book plus recording in 1917 when Harper Columbia released a volume for children titled The Bubble Book. This production was the twenty-sixth recording recognized by the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, established, as stated in the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, to “maintain and preserve sound recordings and collections of sound recordings that are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The National Recording Registry citation reads, “The first Bubble Book (1917) The Bubble Books, published by Harper Columbia between 1917 and 1922, was the first series of books and records published together especially for children. Authors were Ralph Mayhew and Burges Johnson, while Rhoda Chase provided the beautiful, full-color line drawings. Each book contained three 5 1/2-inch discs to accompany the three nursery rhymes printed in the books. The singer is not listed on the discs, but is thought to be Henry Burr. Millions of the books were sold to delighted children in the U.S. and abroad .”
The charming Bubble Book series featured illustrated rhyming text, ranging from Mother Goose to A Child’s Garden of Verses, in child-sized books with color-illustrated pages, which were joined within the book to serve as disc
sleeves for small records containing the sung and spoken text. A November 1919 advertisement in The Atlantic Monthly notes that Bubble Books were available for one dollar at “any bookstore, Columbia Grafonoia store, gift shop, toy shop, music store, or department store” while the 1919 Sears catalog priced the titles at 89 cents. A massive November, 1920 promotional effort in book trade journals The Bookseller, Newsdealer, and Stationer described Harper Columbia’s consumer push of the Bubble Books as “the largest campaign ever devoted to books” and created a rage for the recordings which were marketed, despite copyright wrangles, into the early 1930s. In an early example of multimedia marketing, the vastly popular productions were endorsed by celebrity child actors, heralded at Bubble Book story times in book stores, and played on the radio. The Bubble Books form the foundation of children’s readalong audiobooks, creating a model of text, image, and words plus music that continues into the twenty-first century.
I fell in love with these beautiful examples of early multimedia for young children, and now have a large collection of Bubble Books—as well as a period Victrola on which to play them. So I’ll be next in line to offer a piece audiobook history to Rubery, to thank him for his groundbreaking research into the importance of recorded books in literary history.