Books Across The Seas

Rationing, food shortages, and the clever ways people got around them are major themes in books about the British home front in World War II, fiction and non-fiction alike. Packages from friends in the United States made life easier for a lucky few. (C.A.R.E. packages came after the war.) I recently learned that books from the United States were another response to war time shortages.

Early in the war, Britain banned the import and export of non-essential goods to free up shipping space for necessities. Printed books were on the non-essential list.

Beatrice Warde was an American writer and typographer who lived and worked in London. Even the quickest dip in the research rabbit hole makes it clear that she deserves a blog post of her own, but for now it is enough to say that she was deeply involved in London’s printing world and was no doubt aware of the ban on the transatlantic book trade earlier than most readers.

In 1940, with the help of her mother, May Lamberton Becker,* the literary editor of the New York Herald Tribune, Warde arranged for friends and acquaintances who had reason to travel to Britain to carry single copies of important new American books to London in their hand luggage—where they competed for space with other scarce items such as coffee, sugar, or stockings. A similar selection of books published in Britain were sent to the United States in the same way. It was the beginning of a cultural and literary movement known as Books Across the Sea.

The original set of books that Ward had smuggled, seventy in all, in were displayed in the office of the Americans in Britain Outpost of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, also known as the White Committee after its leader, newspaper editor William Allen White.** Books were soon seen to be goodwill ambassadors,*** and a formal organization was created to carry on Warde’s work with poet T.S. Eliot as its president. By 1944, the organization had send some 2,000 books to London and 1,600 books to New York.

The organization continued to operate under the aegis of the English-Speaking Union until 1984.


*Another possible blog post subject. If there is one thing I’ve learned in the last four years, it is that lots of women were doing interesting things in the first half of the twentieth century. More than I ever imagined.

**The White Committee was devoted to supporting pro-British policies in the United States that would help Britain in its war against Nazi Germany, essentially the polar opposite of organizations founded by Elizabeth Dilling.  But that’s another story.

*** Duh.

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