It’s the birthday of publisher Clifton Keith Hillegass, born in Rising City, Nebraska (1918), the man behind CliffsNotes, the black- and yellow-striped pamphlets that students have used for literary study guides or substitutes for the real thing since 1958. He started the company in his basement with a $4,000 loan, and used advertising slogans like “Juliet, Baby, it’s easier with Cliff’s Notes,” and “Shafted by Shaw? Mangled by Melville?” Cliffs Notes has printed more than 50 million guides.
Hillegass didn’t write the summaries himself, but he loved literature, from classics to science fiction to mysteries. He wanted his books to make literature more accessible to students. He did not intend for CliffsNotes to replace reading the book in the first place, and was upset that they had gained a reputation as cheat sheets. He put a signed note in each pamphlet that read: “A thorough appreciation of literature allows no shortcuts.” When the company was bought for $14 million in 1998, the new owners kept the bumblebee-striped design but dropped the note.