The Tugboat That Sailed Across a Century


A determined little red tugboat with a bright blue smokestack was emblazoned on my pre-adolescent mind. The tugboat’s name was Scuffy. And if you were a child in America anytime during the last 70 years, the odds are good that Scuffy’s story — a ripping yarn — was part of your childhood.

But high in the hills and mountains the winter snow melted. Water filled the brooks and rushed from there into smaller rivers. Faster and faster it flowed, to the great river where Scuffy sailed.

My own childhood was awash in stories drawn from hundreds of books read to me with gripping narrative flourish by my imaginative, nurturing mom. She is a bookworm, a former English major, and a lifelong church librarian whose maiden name, appropriately enough, is Book. Many of the books my mom read to me, and to the two other little boys who were known to crawl up in her lap during the ‘70s and ‘80s, embedded their stories and images in our minds for decades to come.

For Scuffy the Tugboat, it was the images that stayed with me more than anything. It wasn’t until more than 30 years later that I had the opportunity to revisit the story of Scuffy with the little bookworm who now takes up residence on my own lap.

Scuffy was published in 1946 — incidentally, the year both of my parents were born — during an intense moment in American history. One year earlier, Germany had surrendered, followed later by Japan, thus ending the deadliest war in human history. This charming little golden-spined book hearkened from a different world, and a different America.

A war-weary America. An aspirational America. An industrial, industrious America.

At last Scuffy sailed into a big city. Here the river widened, and all about where docks and wharves.

Oh, it was a busy place and a noisy place! The cranes groaned as they swung the cargoes into great ships. The porters shouted as they carried suitcases and boxes on board.

In the mid-‘40s, Little Golden Books cost 25 cents each and were widely sold in drugstores and supermarkets. The most successful Little Golden Book author may have been Gertrude Crampton, whose first success — and a smashing one at that — was Tootle, a book about a mischievous train that was published in 1945. As of 2001, a whopping 8.5 million copies of Tootle had sold, making it the 3rd best-selling hardcover children’s book of all time. The only books ahead of Tootle on that 2001 list were The Poky Little Puppy and The Tale of Peter Rabbit. To this day, all three remain staples of any properly stocked children’s bookshelf.

But despite Tootle’s stratospheric commercial success, Crampton’s best work was still to come. Scuffy the Tugboat was published the next year, with a story that was both tighter and more emotionally rewarding than the freewheeling Tootle. And its commercial prospects were almost as blindingly bright, as it landed in the 8th spot on that same 2001 list.

To put Scuffy‘s success in perspective, it ranks one spot ahead of a little book you may have also heard of about a cat who was known to wear a hat (and as legend would have it, later came back). That’s right: Gertrude Crampton’s two bestselling works outsold Dr. Seuss himself. Between Tootle and Scuffy, Gertrude Crampton deserves a lot of credit for helping to make Little Golden Books an enduring American institution.

Both bestselling books were warmly and whimsically illustrated by Tibor Gergely, a Hungarian artist who was born in Budapest, studied art in Vienna, and immigrated to America in 1939. There is an undeniable charm to Gergely’s soft but vivid color palette, and the way he manages to infuse the eyes of a toy tugboat with a fairly wide range of emotions.

Gergely didn’t become an American citizen until 1948, several years after cementing his American legacy as the artist behind these two all-time classics along with The Little Red Caboose and others. It was not the first time an immigrant made noteworthy contributions to American greatness without the official mantle of citizenship, and it decidedly would not be the last time.

The history-making collaboration between Crampton and Gergely yielded stories that were distinct but flowed in a similar vein. Tootle and Scuffy were both tales of spirited, mischievous transport devices — one of land and one of sea — whose aspirations to roam free are ultimately reined in by the boundaries and limitations of their vehicular existence.

However, Scuffy is more expansive in its scope. Its protagonist, a toy tugboat, is first afflicted by pangs of intense wanderlust, then exhilarated by the brook’s freely flowing water, then overwhelmed by the untamed expanses of wider rivers and the even wider sea, and ultimately relieved to return home to the provincial safety and peaceful simplicity of his owner’s bathtub.

Scuffy is home now with the man with the polka dot tie and his little boy. He sails from one end of the bathtub to the other.

“This is the place for a red-painted tugboat,” says Scuffy. “And this is the life for me.”

It’s not hard to speculate about the underlying thrust of the narrative. It’s possible that Crampton wrote the book as a soothing post-war catharsis, with Scuffy symbolizing a country that yearned to return to a sense of safety and normalcy after years of tumult. Or perhaps it was an ode to conservative values like domesticity, restraint, industry, and the subordination of the individual will. It may also have been intended as a prodigal-son parable, with Scuffy craving independence from the provincial comforts of family life but ultimately deciding he needs the protection, and affection, it provides.

One could even speculate that perhaps Crampton was a mother who wrote the story as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, with Scuffy as a stand-in for a headstrong child of her own. Regardless of the validity of this admittedly wild speculation, the story rings true on this front. What parent among us can’t relate to the sentiment of a boy longing for the return of his prodigal tugboat?

“Come back little tugboat, come back,” cried the little boy as the hurrying, brimful brook carried Scuffy downstream.

 “Not I,” tooted Scuffy. “Not I. This is the life for me.”

In any of these interpretations, Scuffy the Tugboat proves itself to be far more than just a children’s book. Both its eye-popping artistry and its efficient, affecting story make it a substantial work of post-war art. And the fact that it has retained its appeal to children (and their parents) for the better part of a century make it the stuff of literary legend.

Just think about the sprawling scope of this timeline. My mom read Little Golden Books like Tootle, Scuffy the Tugboat, The Little Red Caboose, The Shy Little Kitten, and The Poky Little Puppy when she was a kid in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. Decades later, she assiduously collected these books from antique stores and yard sales and read them aloud to her enthralled young sons in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. And another few decades after that, in 2018, I had the pleasure of regaling my little boy — who happens to be enamored of trains and boats — with the timeless tales of Scuffy and Tootle and all the rest.

As it turns out, good storytelling never goes out of style. Even as tactile books slowly and sadly drift out of favor in the digital era, here’s hoping that Scuffy and his little golden cohorts manage to keep sailing all the way across the current century and into the next.

One thought on “The Tugboat That Sailed Across a Century

  1. Very interesting. Makes me thankful for mom. Liked your historical perspectives! Of all the books you mentioned, Scuffy and The Little Red Caboose are my favorites. I’ll enjoy being a grandpa!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s