In Search of Watty Piper: A Brief History of the "Little Engine"
Celebrating More Than One Hundred Years of Thinking I Can!
Roy E. Plotnick
University of Illinois at Chicago
One of the most popular and famous children's books of all time is
"The Little Engine that Could." Published by Platt & Munk, it has
sold many millions of copies, and appeared in numerous editions, since
its first printing in 1930. Its title, and its theme of "I think I can"
have become part of
the American vernacular. Surprisingly, the origins of the story are
in mystery and controversy. In addition, many other versions of the
have been published over the last 100 years. This brief article
reconstruct the history of this beloved tale.
Little Engine that Could - 1930
By far the most familiar telling of the tale of the Little Engine first
appeared in 1930. Published by Platt & Munk, it was "retold" by
Watty Piper and illustrated by Lois Lenski. Someone named "Watty
Piper" never existed;
it is a pseudonym for Arnold Munk of Platt & Munk and was used on
other children's books published by the firm. The frontispiece and
title of this edition
included the statement "from
the Pony Engine by
Mabel C. Bragg, copyrighted George H. Doran
Co." and a notice of trademark for the title in later printings
(for more details on variants of this edition, see
this article by http://1stedition.net/blog/2007/04/the-little-engine-that-could-identifying-variants.html
Platt & Munk published a new edition in 1954, with slightly revised
language and new, more colorful illustrations by George and Doris
Hauman. Other publishers have also printed this edition. One of
these, by E.M. Hale and Company, contains a biography of "Watty Piper."
Among other things, we are told that: "Born in Europe, Watty
Piper first came to love books as a 14-year old, when he became an
errand boy in a Chicago bookstore, at $2.50 a week." This closely
matches the biography of Arnold Munk.
The story, with different illustrations, also appeared in the
collection Stories that Never Grow Old, a collection of
stories that had been previously published under the name Watty Piper.
Yet another edition, with illustrations by Ruth Sanderson, was
published in 1976. The copyright page claims both the title and "I
think I can" as trademarks of Platt & Munk.
A new version, illustrated by Loren Long, was published
A Controversy Erupts: did "Uncle Nat" write the story?
Beginning in 1949, Mrs. Elizabeth M. Chmiel (d. 2002) of Tucson,
Arizona began to
write publishers claiming that her cousin Frances M. Ford
95 years old) had written the story circa 1910 under the pseudonym
Nat." The story appeared in personalized letters sent to child members
the "After School Club," an educational organization based in
Although Mrs. Chmiel had, at that time, no copies of the letter,
& Dunlap decided in 1953 to publish a version of the tale under the
title of the Little Engine that Could and crediting Mrs. Ford
the author. A 1955 article in the New York Times finally produced an
1912 copy of the newsletter, as well as several other "Little Switch
A large fraction of Platt & Munk's income derived from the Little
Engine that Could. As a result, they vigorously defended their
perceived rights to the Little Engine story, in particular to the
title. They responded to Mrs.
Ford's and Chmiel's claims by:
1. suing Grosset and Dunlap to block publication of a story under
"The Little Engine That Could." This was based on a claim of
trademark protection of their use of the title; and
2. announcing in September 1955, a nationwide search with a $1000
reward, for "information establishing beyond any reasonable doubt the
exact identity of the actual author of the famous childhood classic."
The award notice also listed a variety of then known earlier versions
of the story.
The lawsuit between Platt & Munk and Grosset & Dunlap was
settled in 1955. It was agreed that Grosset & Dunlap could publish
the story under the title The Pony Engine, a title originally
used in 1910 (see below). The lawsuit delayed the publication of the
book until 1957; unfortunately, Mrs. Ford had died in 1956 at the age
of 102. The Pony Engine was
"adapted" by Doris Garn and illustrated by Gregorio Prestopino, with
M. Ford receiving credit. This version stayed in print until
at least 1987.
Ironically, rights to both versions now belong to the Penguin Group. , which has
absorbed both Platt & Munk and Grosset & Dunlap.
Elizabeth M. Chmiel with a copy of
the Uncle Nat letter and the Pony
Ford in 1955
The "Prehistory" of the Little Engine. 1902-1916.
The Platt & Munk search, as well as independent investigations by
Mrs. Chmiel and myself, have uncovered an extensive publishing history
for the Little Engine story prior to the Platt and Munk publication in
1930. The earliest of these is dated 1906. The association of the
phrases "I think I can" and "I thought I could" with the sound of
a laboring locomotive goes back even further, to at least
1902. Karen Hinz and I have independently noted the possible
to the story of the "Good Samaritan." Some of the most
important versions in the evolution of the
A. Story of the Engine that Thought It Could.
in the New York Tribune on April 8, 1906, this story is attributed
to a sermon by the Rev. Charles S. Wing to the Norstrand Avenue
Methodist Episcopal Church in Brooklyn; the church had just paid off
its mortgage after many years. This is earliest full version I
discovered to date:
In a certain
railroad yard there stood an ex
tremely heavy train that had to be
drawn up an
unusually heavy grade before it could reach its
destination. The superintendent of the yard was
not sure what it was
best for him to do, so he
went up to a large, strong engine and asked
"Can you pull that train over the hill?"
"It is a very heavy train," responded the en
He then went to another great engine and
"Can you pull that train over the hill?"
"It is a very heavy grade," it replied.
The superintendent was much puzzled, but he
turned to still another
engine that was spick
and span new, and he asked it:
"Can you pull that train over the hill?"
"I think I can," responded the engine.
the order was circulated, and the engine
was started back so that it
might be coupled
with the train, and as it went along the rails it
kept repeating to itself: "I think I can. I think
I can. I think I
The coupling was made and the engine began
its journey, and
all along the level, as it rolled
toward the ascent, it kept repeating
"I ---think ---I can. I ---think ---I--- can. I ---think---
Then it reached the grade, but its voice could
heard: "I think I can. I----- think-----I-----can.
Higher and higher it climbed, and its voice
grew fainter and its words
"I -------think --------I-------can."
It was almost to the top.
If was at the top.
It passed over the top of the hill and began
crawling down the
------think------- I------ can------I----- thought------I-------could
could. I thought I could. I thought I could.
thought I could."
And singing its triumph, it rushed on down
toward the valley.
B. Thinking One Can. 1906. This version
appeared in Wellspring for Young People, a children's Sunday
publication. The author is unknown. This was reprinted in 1910 in a
publication. Here is the complete version of the story as it
A little railroad engine was employed
about a station
yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and
off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call
when a long
train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it
the hill "I can't; that is too much a pull for me," said the the great
engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine,
and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. At last in
desperation the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the
grade and down on the other side. "I think I can," puffed the
little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As
is went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, "I
can, I think I can, I think I can." Then as it
near the top of the grade, that had so discouraged the larger engines,
it went more slowly, but still kept saying,
I--think--I--can." It reached the top by dint of brave effort and then
went on down the grade, congratulating itself, "I thought I could, I
To think of hard things and say, "I
can't" is sure to mean
"Nothing done." To refuse to be daunted and insist on saying, "I think
I can," is to make sure of of being able to say triumphantly by and by,
"I thought I could, I thought I could.
C. The Pony Engine. 1910.
The story, which appeared
in the Kindergarten Review, was written by Mary C. Jacobs
This is the first use of this title. A footnote stated that "an
illustration given in a lecture served as the basis of this little
story." Republished virtually verbatim, but with no credit given, in The Child's World Second Reader
(1917; Johnson Publishing Co.).
D. The Little Steam Engine, 1911, appeared in the Riverside
Second Reader. The authors were James H. van Sickle and Wilhemina
Seegmiller. This is the first version to be illustrated. This
version was later reprinted in William Bennett's Book of Virtues
E. The Royal Engine, 1914. Certainly the most outre
version of the story, this appeared in a collection of stories entitled
The Golden Goblet . The author was Rev. Jay
Thomas Stocking (1871-1936). In it, the peaceful kingdom of the
"Locomos" is attacked by the "Automos" and the Locomo King rides to the
Jay T. Stocking (1870-1936).
Mabel Bragg and the Pony Engine
As noted earlier, Platt & Munk stated that The Little Engine
that Could was based on the Pony Engine by Mabel C. Bragg,
noted Boston educator in the field of health education. This story was
published 1916 in the short-lived magazine Something to Do. Ms.
Bragg never claimed to have originated the story. In addition, there is
no evidence that George H. Doran ever owned the rights. Karen
Hinz has a page on Mabel Bragg.
Olive B. Miller and My Bookhouse
The "Watty Piper" version borrowed heavily from The Little
Engine That Could, the first story under that title, that appeared
in 1920 in the book series My Book House. This
series was edited, partly written, and published in Chicago by Olive B.
Miller. The 1920 edition credited Mabel Bragg, but this was
dropped in all later editions. The illustrations in this
publication are very similar to the Lenski illustrations used in the
later (1930) Platt & Munk publication. The trains and scenery are
designed to resemble toys. I have recently uncovered the "dummy book"
for the Platt & Munk edition, which was used by Lenski to prepare
her illustrations. The handwritten text is directly copied from
My Book House.
The Little Engine that Could was also distributed separately by
House as a promotional item, starting as far back as 1923. A
number of versions of this exist, including a miniature book. A recording
of Sally Hamlin reading the story was released on the Victor label in
My Book House was extensively revised in 1935; the first two
volumes. Including the Little Engine that Could, received new
Numerous recorded versions of this story have appeared over the
years. An RCA recording narrated by Paul Wing and a Disney record
are fairly common. A recording of the Ford/Garn Pony Engine,
narrated by Boris Karloff, also exists. See discography below.
Who Wrote the Story?
It is now more than one-hundred years since the earliest known
publication, by an unknown author, or the story of the determined
little engine. More than 50 years of research have not proved, to
general satisfaction, who originated the story. Nevertheless, the
question is, as it should be, irrelevant to
the generations of children who have enjoyed it.
A Matter of Gender
Since I made this page available, the most frequent
question I have received is whether the little engine was male or
female. Many seem to remember the engine as male in the Watty Piper
are surprised to discover it is female. For example, Prof. Laura
teaches a class on gender, where they analyze children's books. She
in 2000 that "of the 400+ students I have asked, less than a dozen
the engine as female". One possibility is that since the Little Engine
is blue, young readers implicitly assume it is male.
This question has been surprisingly contentious. In
a 1976 letter to the New York Times, Judith Weinstein asserts
the Little Engine story was sexist, because the "`big strong' males do
important work and can't be bothered with children's concerns and that
the `little, kind' female can be relied upon to help out children and
a part of their world.". On the other hand, an article in Publishers
Weekly has called it a "good example of pioneer
lore." More recently, Stefan Kanter, writing in Men's Health in
complains that the "thrusting locomotive, one or the most obvious
symbols in the lexicon, was now female." According to Diane Ravitch in The
Language Police (2003), a version of the story contained in a
reader was criticized by California school
textbook adopters because the engine was portrayed as male.
I have done a quick analysis of the available
versions of the story, focusing on the genders of the unhelpful "big,
strong" engines of the helpful "little engine." All possible variants
are found. For example, in Thinking One Can (1906) and The
Pony Engine (1910, 1916,1957) all locomotives were neuter. In
Switch Engine (1912) the little engine is identified as
"he." The Little Steam
Engine (1911) and both the My Book House and Watty Piper
of Little Engine that Could (1920, 1930) have the big engines
and the small engine as female. Interpret this how you want!
For more details
the history of the story, see:
R. E. (2012). "In Search of Watty Piper: The History of the "Little
Engine" Story." New Review of Children's Literature and Librarianship
And a recent NPR story: http://www.npr.org/2014/07/08/329520062/in-little-engine-that-could-some-see-an-early-feminist-hero
A Call for Help:
I am still looking for earlier (pre-1905) versions of the story. They
may have appeared in a Sunday school publication or a reader. If you
come across one, let me know! Also: I do not give advice on
whether you can legally publish your own version of the story - I am
not a lawyer!!
Bibliography and Discography
Story of the
Little Engine That Thought it Could New York Tribune, April 8,
1906, p. 6
Thinking One Can. The Wellspring for
Young People, Pilgrim Press, Boston, Vol LXIII, no.42, October 20,
- reprinted in: Sharpe, Estelle Avery. 1910. Foundation
Stones of Success, vol I: Conversational Lessons on Social Ethics.
Howard-Severence Co., Chicago.
Jacobs, Mary C. 1910. The Pony Engine. Kindergarten
Review, Milton Bradley, Springfield, MA, vol 21, Sept. 1910.
reprinted (with minor changes and without
credit) in: The
Child's World, Second Reader 1917. B.F. Johnson Publishing
Company, Richmond, VA.
Van Sickle, James. H. and Wilhelmina
1911. The Little Steam Engine. pp. 102-106 in: The
Riverside Second Reader, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
William J. Bennett, 1993. The Book of Virtues. Simon
& Schuster. p. 530-532.
untitled "Little Switch Engine Stories", in
“Uncle Nat” letter from The After School Club of America,
dated April 18, 1912.; other stories in letters dated August 8th, Oct.
1912; Jan. 23, 1913. attributed to Frances M. Ford.
Stocking, Jay. 1914. The Royal Engine, p.
49-58 in: The Golden Goblet. Pilgrim Press, Boston.
Bragg. Mabel. 1916. The Pony Engine.
Something to Do, Bennett Publishing, Boston, vol II, no. 5,
p.306-308, January 1916. -mentions prior versions by Jacobs and
reprinted in: Eleanor Skinner and Ada Skinner, 1918,
Happy Tales for Story Time. American Book Company, Chicago. p.
80-82. In acknowledgments “To the Pilgrim Press for
Engine,” retold by Mabel Bragg, from a story by Jay Thomas
Miller, Olive B. 1920. The Little Engine
that Could. In: My Book House. The Book House for
Children, Chicago. vol 1. In the Nursery; numerous other
- 1929 Minature book. 2 1/8 x 2 1/2
inches. Green leatherette cover embossed with a scene from the story.
- ca. 1923, 1930 Advertising flyers (small format)
(thanks to John Barresi for the 1923 version)
- 1937. and later editions, p. 200-207. In volume 2, Story
- 1946, 1951 Advertising flyers for My Book House.
(full size reprint format)
- 1954. in The Spray, vol. XIII, no. 1
Christmas 1954) Enamelers and Japanners, Chicago
The Helpful Engine, in Herman Dressel, M.
Madilene Veverka, and May Robbins, 1928, The Laidlaw Readers Book Two,
Laidlaw Brothers, Chicago.
Piper, Watty. 1930. The Little Engine that Could.
ill. by Lois L. Lenski. Never Grow Old Series. Platt & Munk, New
York. Several versions, including:
• full color dust jacket,
color illustration glued on front; may or may not have “Trade
below title on front cover;
• full color dust jacket; red
embossed illustration on front cover
• a boxed edition
1954. illustrated by George and Doris Hauman, Platt
and Munk , New York. “Silver Anniversary Edition” ;
versions, inc. Little Golden Book and Wonder Books editions.
An edition published by E. M. Hale and Co., Eau
Claire, WI contains a biography of "Watty Piper."
1959 in: Stories that Never
Grow Old. Platt & Munk.
1976. illustrated by Ruth
Sanderson. “I think I can” claimed as trademark.
2005. illustrated by Loren
Gray, William S.And May Hill Arbuthnot. 1941. The
Little Engine. p .128-133. in More Friends and Neighbors.
Scott, Foresman and Co., Chicago. Acknowledgments given to Mabel
C. Bragg “from the Pony Engine.”
Garn, Doris. 1957. The Pony Engine, ill. by
Gregorio Prestopino. Grosset & Dunlap, New York.
“From Frances M. Ford’s version of the
story.” Various editions, including Wonder Books, Nursery
Treasure Books (large format),
Dandelion Library (w/ Bedtime Stories by Thornton W. Burgess).
------------------- 1957. in Read-aloud Train Stories. , ill.
by Art Seiden. Wonder Books.
The Little Engine that Did! Ca. 1976.
Rock Island Railroad. - public relations pamphlet for their new diesel
Milton Pascal and Gerald Marks. The Little
Engine that Could. Note says based on 1930 Platt and Munk version.
M. Witmark and Sons, N.Y. 1951.
Sally Hamlin. narrator. The
Little Engine that Could. Victor
21824. released June 1929. 78 rpm spoken word. (thanks to www.recordsmith.com
for providing this recording!)
Paul Wing ,narrator. The
Little Engine that
Could.. 2 discs, Red Label, 78 rpm. Label credits Mabel
Bragg. Cover indicates by special arrangement with Platt and
Munk. Inside illustrated.. RCA Victor Youth Series. Y341 - this
was a best selling record. Released ca. 1948
---------- 45 rpm. same.
are yellow RCA Victor Youth Series.. WY341
----------- same, except with read along illustrated
book inside jacket. Music by Norman Leyden conducted by Henri
René. RCA Victor Little Nipper Series, WY 384.
---------- same, on LP The Little Engine that
Could. RCA Camden Cal-1008 1960.
Art Gilmore, The Little Engine that Could.
Music by Billy May, version credited to Warren Foster, talking train by
Sonovox. 78 rpm. Copyright by Capital Records, 1954. Capital Records,
Learning is Fun Series, CAS-3205.
Rufe Davis,. The Little Engine that Could.
song by Milton Pascal and Gerald Marks. Orchestra conducted by Milton
Franklin. “Bozo Approved” 78 rpm. Capital Records CAS
Burl Ives w/ Percy Faith Orch. The Little
Engine that Could. song by Gerald Marks and Milton Pascal. 78
RPM . Columbia Children’s Records, MJV-113.
The Little Engine that Could. 45 rpm.
Pickwick Int., Mr. Pickwick. MP 19
Cricketone Players and Orchestra The Little
Engine that Could. 45 Rpm. Pickwick Int., Cricket C-116.
The Little Engine that Could and other Railroad
songs and Sound Effects. LP, Pickwick Inter., Happy Time Records.
Frankie Starr w/ the Peter Pan Orchestra, directed
by Vicki Kasen. The Little Engine that Could. 78 rpm Synthetic
Plastics Co., Peter Pan Records, 385. 1955.
Frann Weigle,. The Little Engine that Could.
narrated with music and sound effects; a “Star-Bright Musical
Fun, with Unbreakable Record, Punch Outs, Coloring, Puzzles, Story to
Read” 78 rpm. Children’s Press, Chicago. R-1015
Anne Lloyd, The Sandpipers, Mitch Miller and
Orchestra. The Little Engine that Could. 45 rpm. Little Golden
Record FF 682.
---------------------- same, on 45 rpm “Three
EP” Train Songs, credit to Pascal/Marks on
Simon and Schuster, Golden Record EP 318, 1956.
Larry Groce, The Little Engine that Could.
Story and song. Story is Watty Piper version, with accompanying
storybook. 33 1/3 rpm. Disneyland Record, A Little Golden Book
and Record, 216. 1976.
The Little Engine that Could. Show
Tell. Picturesound Program, record and filmstrip. Gabriel 1980.
The Golden Singers and Orchestra. The Little
Engine that Could. on LP of same title. , A.A. Records, Wonderland
Records. LP 193. 1974.
The Little Engine that Could. LP.
United Artists UAC 11037.
The Little Engine that Could, in LP of same
name. story adapted by Richard Holland, narrated by Peter Fernandez.
MGM Great Children’s Stories, CH 507.
The Little Engine that Could. in LP The
Little Engine that Could and the Submarine Streetcar. LP with
storybook inside cover. Credit Platt & Munk. Disneyland, 1969.
Boris Karloff, narrator, The Pony Engine, on
LP The Pony Engine and other Stories for Children. . Credited
Doris Garn. Caedmon TC 1355. 1963?
---------- same, Cassette, Harper Collins, Harper Audio. 1994.
Film and Video
Little Engine that could. Adapted
by Margaret Friskey; illustrations, Katherine Evans.
Chicago: Society for Visual Education,; 1953. Filmstrip( 40
Abstract: The story of a little engine which
conquers all obstacles in order to bring a merry Christmas to the good
little boys and girls who live on the other side of the mountain.
Little engine that Could. Chicago
: Society for Visual Education, 1966. Filmstrip (42 frames)
and sound cassette .
Little Engine that Could. Chicago:;
Society for Visual Education, Edition: Golden anniversary ed. 1976.
Filmstrip (59 frames) and sound cassette (11 min.).
Little Engine that
Could. Old Greenwich, CT ; Listening Library,
1984. Filmstrip (71 frames .) and sound cassette (14
The Little Engine that Could. Coronet
Instructional Films.; Coronet Film & Video ; Columbus, Ohio.
16 mm Film: 1963; VHS -1985. 11
min. Tells the story of the little engine that pulled a trainload
of toys up the side of a mountain and the children waiting on the other
The Little Engine that Could VHS MCA/Universal
Home Video. 1991 A little engine named Tillie helps the big
engine Georgia deliver a cargo of toys to eagerly waiting children.
Plotnick, 1996.; revised 1999.2003, 2006, 2012, 2014. This material
copied or distributed without my permission.