The son of Robert and Mary Sholtey Littleton was born on December 4, 1886, in Bloomington, Illinois. He graduated from Bloomington High School in 1905. Between graduation from high school and his matriculation at the University of Illinois in 1907 he worked as a station agent and telegraph operator for the Chicago & Alton Railroad Company.
He received a bachelor's (1912), a master's (1918), and a doctor's (1931) degree from the University of Illinois. He was an accountant with Deloitte, Plender, Griffiths & Co. from 1912 to 1915. He joined the University of Illinois in 1915, serving as instructor (1915-18), assistant professor (1920-24), associate professor (1925-30), and professor from 1931 until his retirement in 1952. He was certified as a CPA in 1919 (Illinois). While teaching, he also served as assistant dean of the College of Commerce and Business Administration (1919-21) and as assistant director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research of the College of Commerce (1921-42).
With the support of the department head, Professor H. T. Scovill, he drew up the first graduate courses in accountancy at the University of Illinois. These were first offered in the fall of 1921 and the first Master of Science degree in accountancy at Illinois was awarded in 1922. Under his direction the first Ph.D. program in accountancy in the United States was developed at the University of Illinois and the first such degree was awarded in 1939. For many years he was in charge of graduate work in accountancy at the University of Illinois. Of the total graduate degrees in accountancy (M.S. - 225; Ph.D. - 26) granted by the University of Illinois to the year of his retirement (1952), he had supervised 76, or 34 percent, of the M.S. theses and 24, or 92 percent, of the Ph.D. dissertations.
He was active in professional organizations, particularly in the AAA in which he served as vice president (1936), director of research (1940-42), president (1943), editor of The Accounting Review (1943-47), and member of the Executive Committee (1940-47). He also served the AICPA on its Committee on Accounting Procedure (1939-41), Selection of Personnel (1943-47), and Accounting History (1946-47). He was national president of Beta Alpha Psi (1927-29), which he and Professor Scovill founded at the University of Illinois in 1919. He also held membership in Beta Gamma Sigma.
He wrote more than 200 articles for professional journals and he authored a number of books including Introduction to Elementary Accounting (1919), Accounting Evolution to 1900 (1933), An Introduction to Corporate Accounting Standards with William A. Paton (1940), Structure of Accounting Theory (1953), Studies in the History of Accounting with B. S. Yamey, editors (1956), Essays on Accountancy (1961), Accounting Theory, Continuity and Change with V. K. Zimmerman (1962), and Significant Accounting Essays with Maurice Moonitz, editors (1965). An Introduction to Corporate Accounting Standards was selling 2,000 copies a year a quarter-century after its publication in 1940. He continued to publish long after retirement. His last article appeared in the July 1970 issue of The Accounting Review at which time he was 84 years old.
After his retirement from the University of Illinois in 1952, he did some part-time teaching at the University of Denver, Michigan State University, University of Colorado, and Arizona State University. In 1934 he was given an award of merit by Beta Alpha Psi for the most outstanding contribution (Accounting Evolution to 1900) to the literature of accounting for the year ended May 1, 1934. In 1954 he received the Alpha Kappa Psi Foundation Accounting award. In 1967 he was awarded the honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the University of Illinois.
He married Bonnie Ray on August 21, 1916; they had two children. In his leisure time he enjoyed reading literature but he also enjoyed the out-of-doors life as a fisherman, hiker, canoeist, and lover of nature. He spent many of his vacations in the woods north of Lake Superior. In his retirement he took up painting. He died January 13, 1974 at the age of 87.