On September 12, 1946, Washington Governor Mon C. Wallgren (1891-1961) presents Vashon Island writer Betty MacDonald (1907-1958) with the one millionth copy of MacDonald's book The Egg and I. Published with little fanfare on October 3, 1945, the book has captured national attention, topping nonfiction bestseller lists and creating intense public focus on MacDonald, her family, and the Pacific Northwest.
Wallgren presented the book on behalf of its publisher, J. B. Lippincott. The publisher provided Wallgren with his own commemorative copy, the 1,000,001st. At the presentation ceremony, held at a luncheon at the Washington Athletic Club in downtown Seattle, MacDonald and Wallgren were photographed grinning widely and balancing an egg on Wallgren's open copy of the book. The Seattle Times described the two books as "gold bound" (September 13, 1946).
Our Great Betty
Describing the ceremony for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Suzanne Martin called Egg "that outrageously thriving Betty MacDonald book" and continued:
"Bertram Lippincott, understandably preoccupied with a publication that has sold to 1,025,000 customers, flew out from his Philadelphia publishing office to attend the luncheon honoring the millionth copy. Mayor William S. Devin announced that he was 'reveling in the reflected glory and light of our great Betty MacDonald'" (September 13, 1946).
In order to grab the copy he was to present to MacDonald, Governor Wallgren had to reach into a large basket of straw on the banquet table and extract the book (described by The Seattle Times as "green leather-bound") from underneath "a California potter's idea of a setting Buff Orphington" (September 13, 1946). A Buff Orphington is a breed of chicken. The article quoted Betty's response when Wallgren handed her the book: "Thanks a million."
Bertram Lippincott told The Seattle Times, "Although The Egg is not the first book to reach the millionth mark, it is the first to have reached it in less than a year, and the first to have taken so firm a grip on the national imagination" (September 1, 1946).
A humorous take on MacDonald's years as a young bride struggling to run a poultry farm on the Olympic peninsula, The Egg and I retailed in hardback for $2.75. MacDonald's daughters Anne MacDonald Evans Canham (b. 1928) and Joan MacDonald Keil (1929-2004) wrote in their foreword to the book's 1987 paperback edition that before Egg's publication their family "would sit around the fire trying to keep warm and talk about what we would do with the money if 'The Book' sold 200 copies, or maybe 400" (p. 5). Just five months of the book's publication Anne, Joan, Betty, and Don (her second husband, who during Egg's early years was perpetually confused with her first husband, Bob Heskett, the husband character in Egg) were famous, featured in a multi-page spread in Life magazine.
Everything Else a Substitute
MacDonald's Egg-related fame brought offers for product endorsement, with a plug for her latest book usually thrown in. The May 21, 1951, edition of Time featured an advertisement for Parker Pens and quoted Betty: "My new [Parker] '51 writes like a dream. And it makes perfectly beautiful autographs in my new book Anybody Can Do Anything" ("For this pen you'll gladly ..."). Betty also promoted Helene Curtis Shampoo Plus Egg. The last line of the full page advertisement in the May 1956 issue of McCalls read, "P.S. Hope you'll read my new book, Onions In The Stew" (p. 29).
In late 1951 the Crosley appliance company ran Betty's picture under the headline, "The Egg and I are ten times happier with our new 1952 Crosley Shelvador!" Advertising copy, written in Betty's first-person voice, went on, "If you've read The Egg and I, you'll remember some of the troubles I had in the kitchen. But now things are different -- because Egg and I have just treated ourselves to a wonderful new Crosley Shelvador Refrigerator! According to Egg, Crosley's new 'Care Free' Automatic Defrosting is the cleverest work-saver since women were invented!" ("Crosley Sets the Pace Again ..."). The opening line was really just a wink and a nod: Royalty checks arriving regularly in Betty's Vashon mailbox indicated that America had indeed read Egg.
A full page advertisement MacDonald's publisher, J.B Lippincott, took out in The New York Times Book Review of July 21, 1946, documented the book's overwhelming success. It featured the by-then familiar cover with Betty's smiling face surrounded by cartoon sketches depicting scenes of Egg-crazed readers unable to put their copies down. A dancing couple read the book over one another's shoulders; a symphony conductor clutched his baton while his eyes strayed down to Egg on the music stand; a bride at the altar, engrossed in her book, ignored minister and groom; curvy female beauty contestants paraded by male judges who ignored their efforts completely to chuckle at The Egg and I. A banner across the ad read, "Everything Else Is A Substitute."
Don't Stop The Presses
The Wallgren/MacDonald presentation ceremony took place in September, but the actual millionth copy of The Egg and I rolled off Cornwall Press in Cornwall, New York, at 11 a.m. on August 15, 1946. Publisher's Weekly reported that Lippincott's president Joseph W. Lippincott, vice-president and editor Bertram Lippincott, and sales manager Harold F. Gartley were all present "when the millionth sheet clicked off the counter ... . Just to show what a million copies of the book would look like if they were all together, Lippincott has compiled some vital statistics on The Egg and I to date. More than 207 tons of paper were required to print the book ... this amount of paper, if flattened out, would cover 580 acres, or would make a one-inch tape which would reach twice around the world ... if all the copies were piled on top of one another, the top book would be more than 16 miles high ... six times as high as Mt. Rainier, near which the book was written (September 7, 1946).
Although Wallgren's presentation of Egg's million-and-first copy must have seemed at the time a pinnacle moment, sales of The Egg and I continued to climb. Never officially out of print, a new hardback edition of the book was issued in 1986, followed in 1987 by a trade paperback edition, and total sales are well in excess of three million. MacDonald's four Mrs. Piggle Wiggle juvenile books have been enduring classics. Nancy and Plum, her other children's title, is highly sought after on the used book market, as are the autobiographical The Plague and I, Anybody Can Do Anything, and Onions In The Stew.