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Billy Baxter’s Letters
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Billy Baxter’s Letters

By Kountz, William J., Jr.

Red Raven Corporation, Red Raven, PA, 1913; 12mo, 89 pages; First Edition, enlarged; illustrated; illustrated tan cloth boards; untrimmed page edges; top edges gilt. A series of riotous tales relating the escapades of fictional bon-vivant Billy Baxter, written in the form of personal letters addressed to an absent chum, identified only as "Jim." Authored by William J. Kountz, Jr., founder of Red Raven Corporation, manufacturers and bottlers of Billy Baxter carbonated sodas. The stories were first published individually in booklet form as a product promotion between 1888-1889, and made available to the public via post for the price of an envelope and the enclosure of four unused 1¢ postage stamps. (In an ad for the booklets, the author admonishes the public, "Do not lick the stamps and attach them to your letter of request, as at some future date we may need to use same, and the Government foolishly requires a whole stamp.") The booklets achieved instant popularity, and demand for them soared. In less than a year’s time, the author became a celebrated humorist, and over three and a half million copies of the stories had already been distributed. Kountz was deluged with offers for his writing talent from many quarters throughout the United States, but viewing himself primarily as a businessman, and his literary endeavors as merely an amusing sideline, he declined them all. Just days after the completion of "In New York," in August of 1889, William J. Kountz, Jr. died suddenly at age 32. That same year, as a tribute, his firm published a hardback edition containing four stories: "One Night," "In Society," "In Love," and "In New York," with an introductory preface by his brother and business partner, George McCullin Kountz. In 1913 the present enlarged edition was released, containing the four original stories and preface, plus two previously unpublished pieces: "Out Hunting," and "Johnny Black’s Girl," a total of six stories in all. Billy Baxter is notable not only for his urbane sense of humor and misadventures, but as well for his liberal use of an original type of sophisticated slang which predates P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster by some thirty years. Beautifully illustrated with six b&w plates by Anna Burnham, one preceding each story. Frontispiece photo plate of the author, plus a reproduction of a handwritten letter from Admiral George Dewey, thanking the author for a complimentary copy of "One Night." With characteristic wit, Kountz adds a footnote stating that a copy had also been sent to His Royal Highness, Prince Albert, who did not see fit to respond, and thus, "under the circumstances, when he runs for King, we can’t be for him." Fine. Clean, crisp, bright and sparkling. A rollicking book, and a unique piece of Americana.