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Cool, Funky Books of a Bygone Era: Flashback to the 1970s

Updated on June 9, 2012
The many colors of The Family Creative Workshop: a feast for the eyes and hands
The many colors of The Family Creative Workshop: a feast for the eyes and hands | Source

When I was a kid I spent many, many MANY hours reading. I was such a voracious reader that I even read through our dusty set of World Book Encyclopedias! My favorite books, however, were those serialized sets that were advertised through direct mail, TV ads, or other sources, and for which my parents were (fortunately for me) absolute suckers. These were most often received piecemeal, one volume per month, until the whole set was complete. Those of you who were around in the 1970s may remember those TV commercials for Time Life books. I specifically remember ads for a set on World War II that made the books seem so exciting that the history would jump right off the page! While that particular set was not one of those I read, those that I did read were nothing short of awesome.


Reader's Digest Condensed Books

My parents subscribed to the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which were not really a set but an open-ended serial. The volumes were designed to look a little bit like law books, presumably so they would be handsome sitting on a shelf together. I liked perusing each new volume and selecting one or two of the condensed novels to read. It was nice to read a whole book in one sitting, and the editors at Reader’s Digest did such a good job that I could never figure out what could possibly be cut from the books. They seemed so complete as they were. Now, of course, the idea of slashing a book for the benefit of readers with short attention spans seems a little bit appalling, but I assume this was only done with the authors’ permission and they were compensated well. According to Worldcat, the world’s online library catalog, hundreds of libraries worldwide have at least one volume.



Another of my favorite rainy-day reading materials was Childcraft. I don’t think this one came to us piecemeal. It was a set that my parents bought at the same time as their set of World Book encyclopedias. Childcraft was a veritable cornucopia of stuff that appeals to kids. Each volume (can’t remember how many there were) concentrated on a specific area of knowledge such as natural history, holidays and customs across the world, and arts and crafts. These were written at roughly a sixth-grade reading level, so naturally I was reading them in kindergarten. Childcraft was a set to which I returned again and again. The early 1970s edition that I loved so much appears to be hard to find. There are few libraries listed in WorldCat, however several updated editions have been produced, and over a thousand libraries have at least one edition.

This Fabulous Century: Full of memories you never knew you had
This Fabulous Century: Full of memories you never knew you had | Source

This Fabulous Century

One of my very favorites was This Fabulous Century, a product of Time-Life Books. I believe that this one was serialized, but my parents obtained it so early in my life that as far as I am concerned it was always in our home as a complete set. This Fabulous Century was an amazing book of photographic essays encompassing all areas of American history and culture from the 1870s to the 1960s. I believe many of the photos came from issues of Life Magazine, and they were indeed fabulous. Huge, full-color illustrations accompanied concise but informative text about pretty much anything of interest. I learned about Vietnam, the Dust Bowl, the hippie craze, silent movies, and so much more form this wonderful set of books. One poignant chapter dealt with the antics of  very rich young socialites during the darkest days of the Great Depression. I feel like I lived through the 50s and was something more than a drooling infant in the 60s because of This Fabulous Century . The spread on the pink fad of the mid-50s was especially amazing with all kinds of pictures of crazy pink items and fashions. I’ll bet you didn’t know that pink was so hot back then! My Mom still has all of the volumes, which says a lot about her priorities since she got rid of many of her books when she and Dad moved several years ago. I have instructed her that, if she ever wants to get rid of them, she is to ship them to me and I will pay the postage. According to Worldcat, over 2000 libraries worldwide have copies of This Fabulous Century. It can also be found at several online booksellers for $20-30 per volume.


The Family Creative Workshop

Another set that is under the abovementioned standing order, and my very favorite of all, is The Family Creative Workshop, published by Plenary Publications International. This truly wonderful set was a psychedelic fantasy for crafters. Mom and I waited anxiously for a new volume to be delivered each month or so, and if I happened to pick up the mail the day it came, Mom would just have to wait until I was done. This set, slick, colorful, and glossy from cover to cover, was a feast of craft projects ranging from knitting and crochet to making granola and metalworking to stargazing and having a clambake. My favorite was the chapter on origami, because all of the projects were easy and safe for an unattended child to do (paper cuts notwithstanding). I also became so good at macramé that I sold some of my work at an arts and crafts fair. I think Mom made us granola on at least one occasion, and she made a beautiful needlework pillow. I can still remember the blue and gold flame pattern. She was also seriously into fabric painting, and did some really lovely work. I am not sure, however, that the fabric painting came from this particular set of books. I wish I still had some of it. Living inland, we never got to have a clambake, and to be honest clams did not sound appetizing to me, but it sure looked like fun.

I loved the contributor biographies that accompanied the chapters. They ranged from loft-dwelling, artsy Manhattan sophisticates wearing black turtlenecks to fringe-clad leftover hippies. I imagined knowing these people and learning from them. They were so cool! Their work was the ultimate in 70s chic and I wanted to make everything. I think I actually completed fewer than one percent of the projects in the books, but they were so much fun to read that I did not care. According to Worldcat, hundreds of libraries worldwide hold this set. These are also available through several online booksellers, for what appear to be bargain prices.

 These are just some of the books from the 70s that stand the test of time and leave lasting impressions. I would love to start a conversation. What special books do you remember from your childhood?

Wendy S. Wilmoth, MLIS is a librarian, independent researcher and doctoral student.

Poll: Childhood Memories

Which do you most fondly remember from your childhood?

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