July 12, 2010

Celebrating 175 years: Western Printing

By Gerald L. Karwowski, www.racinehistory.com

When you think about books and publishing in Racine it’s almost automatic that Western Printing Co. and their famous inexpensive children’s books come to mind. But an interesting fact is that a printer named Mark Miller was producing children's books on his printing presses here in Racine, Wisconsin, as early as 1850.

Cover of Mark Miller's geography book 

EH Wadewitz

It wasn’t until fifty seven years later E. H. Wadewitz bought out a small print shop operating in a basement on State Street and began one of the largest publishing companies of its kind in the world. 

To write a detailed history of Western Printing would take volumes so I’ll leave that for the professional writers. However, Western Printing has truly touched millions of people throughout the world. Because of their low-cost books, puzzles and games Western entertained generations of children and adults. For many children the first short sentences they uttered while reading a book were from one of the simple, beautifully illustrated “Golden Books." So exploring this part of Racine’s history with a few pictures of a truly “GOLDEN” era will be interesting.

Western got its start in this basement print shop on State Street in Racine in 1907. The original five employees (from left) were Roy A. Spencer, Catherine Bongarts Rutledge, Edward H. Wadewitz, William R. Wadewitz and William Bell. Mr. Bell remained with Western for only a short period of time. The other four spent their entire working careers with Western.

This photo taken about 1909, shows the second home of West Side Printing Company, forerunner of Western Publishing Company. The store was located at 548 State Street and Western occupied the first floor and basement at that location. William R. Wadewitz with the tie and cap is seated on the railing.

In 1910, the company was incorporated as Western Printing and Lithographing Company and also moved into the basement of the imposing Dr. Shoop Building on State Street. As Dr. Shoop’s business declined, Western’s increased so that eventually the Company occupied the whole structure.

In 1928, a new modern headquarters and printing plant was built on Mound Avenue. It was designed and laid out specifically as a graphic arts center, one of the first completely air-conditioned and humidity-controlled plants of its kind in the world. Numerous additions had been added to the Main Plant which made it one of the largest and most diversified graphic arts establishments in the nation.

Western Printing & Lithographing Co. complex as it looked in 1947. 

Books from 1960.

Western Publishing's end began in 1984 when it was purchased by Mattel. The toy company quickly sold the company to new owners. The company was eventually absorbed into the Golden Books Publishing Company, which was acquired by Classic Media and Random House in 2001. Racine's plant closed shortly after.