The First New York Times Bestseller List

Ninety years ago, on Monday, October 12, 1931, the New York Times published their first book bestseller list. There were nine titles shown, five fiction and four nonfiction.

That month was an interesting time in US history. The president of the United States was Herbert Hoover. The Great Depression was still changing everything, marking a second year since starting in late October 1929. Al Capone was tried, convicted, and sentenced for tax evasion; and the George Washington Bridge was opened in New York City. Charles Colson was born and Thomas Edison died in October 1931.

And people were reading.

October 12, 1931 Fiction List

1 – The Ten Commandments by Warwick Deeping (Knopf): Not exactly what you are thinking. This book is a story of a romance in the jazz age. Some “loose living” going on, so you can count the number of commandments broken.

2 – Finche’s Fortune by Mazo de la Roche (Little, Brown): The third book in a series. Young man turns 21, moves to England to live with his aunt, and falls in love with his cousin. Yikes.

3 – The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (John Day): A true classic. Buck would be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature. Worth reading today.

4 – Shadows On The Rock by Willa Cather (Knopf): A novel covering one year of life in the late 17th century for French colonists in Quebec.

5 – Scaramouche the King Maker by Rafael Sabatini (Houghton, Mifflin): Historical fiction originally published in 1921 about a young lawyer during the French Revolution. You’ll need to read the book to see if he does the fandango.

October 12, 1931 Nonfiction List

1 – Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence by Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw (Putnam): Actress Ellen Terry and literary critic George Bernard Shaw wrote letters to each other in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. A glimpse inside their relationship.

2 – The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams (Little, Brown): Interesting book to be popular during the Great Depression. A reminder America is a land of opportunity where people overcome obstacles to build a better life for themselves and their families.

3 – Man’s Own Show: Civilization by George Dorsey (Harper): Dorsey was a renowned anthropologist. He died suddenly shortly before this book was published.

4 – Washington Merry-Go-Round by Drew Pearson and Robert Allen (Liveright): Highly controversial book exposing behind-the-scenes in politics. Originally published anonymously. Eventually, Pearson would write a long-running syndicated column by the same name. Frequently accused of not allowing facts to get in the way of a good story. (He would have loved Twitter if he were still alive.)

And, by the way, Zondervan Publishing was founded in 1931 by Peter and Bernard Zondervan, nephews of publisher William B. Eerdmans.

12 Responses to The First New York Times Bestseller List

  1. Terry Whalin October 7, 2021 at 5:17 am #

    Dan,

    Thank youy for this fascinating post and the history. The final detail about Zondervan’s start made for a terrific conclusion–and the same year.

    Terry
    author of Book Proposals That $ell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success (Revised Edition)

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 7, 2021 at 5:23 am #

    Way back in nineteen thirty one
    people did what people do,
    read for interest and fun,
    and to learn a thing or two.
    We think those times benighted,
    black and white and down on luck,
    but look what folks then writed;
    why, they had Pearl S. Buck,
    and even Willa Cather,
    telling tales of Old Quebec,
    or, if you would rather,
    DC gossip, and what the heck,
    if you’re on the Jesus Plan,
    that year saw birth of Zondervan

    • Cole Powell October 7, 2021 at 6:35 am #

      Andrew, this is the first time in a while I’ve had a moment to peruse the comments here, and I’m delighted to see you’re still in top form. Well done, sir!

  3. Pam October 7, 2021 at 5:52 am #

    Interesting!! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Pam Halter October 7, 2021 at 5:57 am #

    Very cool! I read The Good Earth in high school …. waaaaay back in the late 70s. haha! For only being 17, I liked it, although found it a little disturbing. I should reread it now. It would be interesting to see how I feel now, 45 years later.

  5. Cole Powell October 7, 2021 at 6:31 am #

    Wonderful post! Of all these books, only The Good Earth has survived the test of time. I think there’s a lesson in there about writing for the masses of the moment versus writing something that will transcend time and generations.

  6. Bob Hostetler October 7, 2021 at 8:44 am #

    Man, I wish I could slip a Bohemian Rhapsody allusion into a blog post. Let’s see, maybe my next post will mention Galileo. Or Figaro.

    • Dan Balow October 7, 2021 at 8:52 am #

      It would be you who caught that. So predictable.

  7. Kristen Joy Wilks October 7, 2021 at 10:33 am #

    So fascinating!!!

  8. Anne Braly October 8, 2021 at 10:04 am #

    It’s good to know about these best sellers. Thank you.

    Anne Braly

  9. Kay DiBianca October 10, 2021 at 7:33 am #

    Thanks for this interesting list. I wonder how many books had to be sold for a book to get on the list back in 1931.

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