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Happy 85th Birthday Billy the Bookworm

By Casey L. on Jul 1, 2024 12:00 AM

2024 is Billy the Bookworm’s 85th birthday!  As many of you already know, Billy was the mascot for our former summer reading program, called the Ancient Order of the Bookworms (AOBW).  The AOBW was active from 1937 to 1977.  As the Special Collections Department has been working on processing our institutional archival records, we have discovered more details on Billy’s history with the AOBW. 

While the AOBW officially began in 1937, Billy arrived a few years later, in 1939.  On July 1, 1939 “Billy the Bookworm” made his debut presiding over a Milwaukee Public Library scripted children’s radio program every Saturday morning.  AOBW club members participated in those summer broadcasts.   

[North Milwaukee Community Press, June 15, 1939]

While he is depicted in AOBW materials in 1939, his image doesn’t appear again until 1947. [AOBW event flier with Billy conducting, 1947]












[Billy with his fellow Tall Tales librarian hosts, 1956]

Then it was almost another decade before a puppet version was created to help with an MPL television program, “Tall Tales”, a children’s storytelling program which aired during the summer in 1956 on Saturdays.  This early puppet version looked like it was made of paper mâché and had freckles.

[Billy with handler circa 1956]




In 1958 the Billy puppet got a makeover.  This is the version we often see depicted in photos and in library television programming like “Billy’s Showboat”, and others. 

[Billy the Bookworm, circa 1959]

The artist who redesigned this Billy was Alfred Martin, a local German-style puppet maker.  At the same time, a smaller, hairier version (presumably also by Martin) was offered in the Milwaukee Public Museum gift shop and by mail order (remember the Museum was here in Central Library until the mid-1960s).  You could own your very own Billy for just $2.95!   



This leads us to today, and this mail order/gift shop puppet is the only Billy version we have left.  While the plastic he is made of is starting to fail, and he has more of a “creepy” appearance these days, he is still a very beloved figure among staff and the AOBW club members he grew up with.  [Gift shop/mail order Billy the Bookworm puppet, circa 2014]

Recently, through MPL’s social media pages we have been thrilled to reintroduce and share him with a new generation of fans as well as bring awareness to MPL’s history and archival collections.

In honor of his 85th birthday, the Special Collections Department has made some buttons of many of Billy’s likenesses over the decades.  You can pick one up at any of the Special Collections Department’s June programs, while supplies last.

[AOBW program folder from Billy's 25th Birthday, 1964]

Art Book Club at Central
Saturday, July 27, 2024 - 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM

Beyond Books: Exploring Archives at Central
Monday, July 29, 2024 - 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM

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