Page updated 17th August, 2014.
Just ONE page on the Collecting Books and Magazines web site based in Australia.

This article was first published in "Folly"; for more information, click here.
Thanks to the editors of Folly & the author for permission to reproduce this article.

A First for Knowledge
by Sue Sims

When Folly, back in July 1994, blithely promised an article on first editions and how to identify them, we little knew what we were taking on. The more we looked at the subject, the larger and more unwieldy it seemed to grow, and it soon became clear that it would be impossible to deal with the subject fully in less than a multi-volume encyclopaedia. Furthermore, from the letters we received on the subject, it was obvious that no two readers wanted the same thing. Some writers simply wanted to know whether their cherished item was indeed a first edition; one was interested in publishers’ policies, and the precise dates between which war economy editions were produced; and several wrote plaintively to point out that they never had been quite sure what a first edition actually was. Faced with such a diversity, your editors grew slightly panicky.

In the end, we’ve decided to make this an occasional series rather than a one-off article which would attempt to deal with everything and fail conspicuously. In this first article, Sue will begin by looking at some of the words and phrases used in this area, to help the novice collector, and then point out some of the basic ways of identifying editions. Later we’ll look at all the major children’s publishers from the first half of the century: this seemed a more fruitful way of proceeding than discussing individual writers, since a single author may well have used several publishers, each with different policies in this area. Finally, we’ll devote a fair amount of space to tackling your queries - not necessarily on individual books (though we’ll help if we can) but in general terms. As always, we shall value your comments and criticisms.

To begin with, then - what precisely is meant by "first edition"? It helps here to know a little about the traditional process of printing in Britain. First, the metal type was set up in rows, and placed together in frames called "forms", from which an impression was taken to make "plates" - each plate being the original of a page. Then the plate was coated with ink, and impressed on sheets of paper, which were then bound. A publisher decided on the number of copies to be printed initially - let’s say, for the sake of argument, 2,000. That first printing was the first impression - the first time that the plates were used. The plates were then stored. If those first 2,000 copies sold out and the bookshops and libraries clamoured for more, the plates were brought out again (anything from a couple of days to several years later) and a second impression was produced. If those sold out, a third impression emerged, and so on. All these books are technically first editions, in that they have been printed from the same plates; though what the collector is generally after is the first impression of the first edition.

Now it is obvious that the plates gradually deteriorated as they were used, becoming a little more worn each time. With popular books, it follows that at some point a printer needed to re-set the type and produce new plates; and the books printed from those new plates are known as reprints. Often, publishers ordered a reprint not because the plates were worn, but because they wished to revise text or modernise the type-face. Sometimes they wanted to commission another illustrator, or insert new advertisements at the end of the volume. From the 1950s onwards, many publishers acknowledged this with the words "New edition" on the title page; a fact which has led in recent times to the rather confusing practice of dealers’ catalogues listing such books as "first thus". A "first thus" means no more or less than a reprint - it may be slightly more valuable than a later impression of the same text, but it certainly isn’t a first edition.

Often one finds a compromise between a new impression and a new edition: the printer has used the original plates for the main text, but changed the plates for the title pages or end pages, so that a list of the writer’s other books could be updated, or an indication of the book’s popularity ("11th thousand" or "reprinted 1947, 1948, 1949") inserted. Even if printed from the original plates (and it’s very hard to tell this without minute inquiry and comparison), these books are not first editions in collecting terms.

This explains some of the many occurrences where books in all other ways identical differ in colour of bindings, thickness of paper or gilding. In these cases, the publishers have used the same plates (so the title page will often state "1st published 19-" or "Copyright 19-") but altered these outer variables; and they are again not first editions in our sense of the word. Cassell, Warne and Oxford University Press were particular offenders in this area, but it’s found everywhere - the reader who wrote asking whether her copy of New Mistress at the Chalet School (red, saying "Published 1957") or her friend’s copy (blue, saying "Published 1957") is the true first, is one of many in the same predicament. It also explains why my own initial foray into first editions was notably unsuccessful: paying 10 (in 1982, and with no dust-wrapper!) for a "1st ed" of The New Chalet School because, as the dealer correctly informed me in the catalogue, it had "Original Edition April 1938" on the reverse of the title page. It was, as I subsequently discovered, the second impression, without the gilded lettering on the binding, but still printed from the original plates. Chambers must have been the recipient of a large number of curses over the years.

It should now be clear that none of the obvious signs of a first edition are, in fact, reliable. Certainly if a book says "First published 1924" or "Copyright 1950", the chances are that it is; but there are so many exceptions that further evidence is often needed. The rest of this article will look at ways of finding this evidence.

First, those of you who collect more modern children’s books should be reassured. Since the late fifties, publishers have gradually become very helpful, and most books published since about 1960 will have a clear publishing history, recording the first publication date and all subsequent impressions and reprints, including this particular impression. The further backwards you move, though, the more murky the situation becomes. Nineteenth century books are notoriously difficult to date by internal evidence alone, and can be very hard to date even from copyright libraries, as they were often acquired some time after publication, and the date assigned to them by the library will then be the date of accession. Nevertheless, with any pre-1960 book, the copyright libraries must be the first port of call (see Folly 4 for full details.). Their catalogues will give a reasonably full list of any writers’ books (they won’t always be complete, and it’s worth looking at several catalogues) and a date for each book which, with twentieth-century books, is generally accurate to within a year; and if you can get a reader’s ticket, you will be able to examine the books and note the details of appearance which will help you identify copies you later come across. In the case of New Mistress , discussed above, both the Bodleian and the British Library have the blue copy rather than the red copy, which would indicate that the blue is likely to be the true first.

However, you may not live within easy distance of such a library. How do you cope? To start with, the authors you’re collecting may well have been researched at the copyright libraries and their books described by someone else. I’ve put together lists describing the first editions of Brazil, Brent-Dyer, Oxenham and Bruce (this is not meant to be a sales pitch, honestly) and lists describing Biggles, Rupert and several other major series are available from various enthusiasts. These lists eliminate most problems of identification, though not all, since in some cases even the British Library, the Bodleian and others may have a reprint, or not have the book at all.

Secondly, once you know the approximate date that the book was published, internal evidence from the book itself can be used, though it’s often negative evidence. If the famous writer Gladys Smelly published The New Girl at St Hilarius in 1927, and To Battle, St Hilarius! in 1929, it follows that any copy of the former which lists the latter on its dustwrapper or inside the volume must be a later impression. If St Hilarius Fights On emerged in 1940, and your copy has a War Economy symbol inside (indicating that the book was printed between about 1943 and 1946), it isn’t a first. If St Hilarius Gets Done for GBH (1936) is published by Spring Books, who specialised in buying up copyright from other publishers and reprinting the books extraordinarily cheaply in Czechoslovakia, I have to break it to you that it isn’t a valuable early edition.

You must also beware of deceptively helpful inscriptions. Cell Block St Hilarius has an inscription on the end-paper reading: "To my dear little Pugnacia, from her loving Aunt Dodo, Christmas 1943". Does this mean that the book was published around that period? Alas, no. It was not at all uncommon, particularly during the book-scarce war period, for donors to give books from their own shelves, and often from their own childhood. Clearly, however, an inscription can provide a terminus ad quem: a book inscribed "1897" is unlikely to have been published in 1911. Mind you, one correspondent wrote with an inquiry about a copy of Amy le Feuvre’s Probable Sons , published by RTS in (according to the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature) 1905. The inscription in her copy is dated "July 1903"! In fact, this isn’t so odd as it sounds: the Companion probably took its dating from the British Library catalogue, and, as pointed out above, many earlier children’s books were acquired well after publication and dated from accession.

To conclude this initial article (I was going to call it an idiot’s guide, but decided that it’s poor policy to offend one’s subscribers), one has to raise the question which should properly have been asked right at the beginning - why should anyone bother with collecting first editions, given the problems of identification, the agonies of disappointment and (often) the drain on bank balances? Well, it wasn’t asked at the beginning because I assumed that anyone who didn’t know the answer wasn’t going to bother with the article - but if any reader has dutifully plodded through all these dull facts and has reached this stage with the question still nagging at them, they deserve some recognition.

Mind you, I don’t know the answer, really: all the explanations I’ve ever come up with are rationalisations rather than reasons. The first edition is generally more beautiful as an object - true, but it’s the text inside we’re really concerned with. The first edition won’t have any textual revision or omissions (like many of the Oxenham reprints or the Brent-Dyer paperbacks): yes, but even when we know that the reprint is textually identical, we still want the first edition. The first edition, to quote the article in the Skoob Directory (fourth edition!) "represents the book as the author himself first saw it and as it made its impact on the world" - but that’s begging the question, as it’s really saying that a first edition is desirable because it was the first. There can, in theory, be any number of reprints: a first edition is a finite - and indeed dwindling - resource. This is clearly true, but is a reason most likely to appeal to those who collect as an investment - and no true reader of Folly could possibly be classified among such investors!

Ultimately, the itch to obtain first editions of the books you love is as inexplicable and irrational as the fact that you love those books in the first place. In fact, it would have been not just tactless but incorrect to call this article an "idiot’s guide"; the true idiots are not those who are ignorant (because they’ve never felt the urge), but those of us who, despite all common sense, persist in our pursuit of the Perfect Collection of First Editions.

First editions: Second Impression

Sue Sims

Having provided a general introduction to the concept of first editions, we thought the most helpful way of proceeding was by discussing individual publishers in alphabetical order; so in this article I’ll be looking at the most prolific Bs. The small publishers and vanity publishers, who have been numerous, are actually more likely to date their title pages - and rather less likely to bring out reprints.

Three warnings before we get down to the nitty-gritty. First, my own knowledge of the field is based mainly (not entirely) on girls’ school stories, and that means that publishers who specialised in those are treated more fully than others. I’d welcome comments/articles from those of you who collect in other areas, and I hope you’ll forgive any omissions. Second, much of the advice given below can’t be applied unless you know, at least roughly, when the title was first published. The introductory article in Folly 14 suggests ways of discovering publication dates. Finally, I have ignored dust-wrappers in the ensuing discussion. This is mainly because the majority of children’s books offered for sale don’t have them; and it’s extremely frustrating being told all about a wrapper when your copy doesn’t have one.

That having been said, it’s down to business: I spy with my little eye publishers beginning with B.

A & C Black

Black are generally very helpful, and put the publication date on their first editions. I haven’t yet come across anything that actually says "reprinted", though, so it is possible that they reprinted without acknowledging the fact. All the Black books in my collection which have inscriptions or refer to other titles, do seem to be dated correctly.


200 years old now, and a major player for most of that time. A name to conjure with in the world of children’s books - at least in quantity! But for the seeker after first editions, Blackie books are a huge problem.

Chronologically, first editions of Blackie's children's books were normally dated until about 1912; reprints were undated. The problem comes between 1912 and about 1956. Unlike the majority of publishers, who used different bindings when reprinting, Blackie re-used the cover design of a first edition over and over again, and it is not normally possible to tell the edition just by looking at the cover. There are certain books - Evelyn Smith is an example - where they did a Chambers trick, and used the same design on reprints, but in monochrome rather than colour; but this is the exception rather than the rule. However, there are one or two tips for identifying first editions which may be helpful: these are based mainly on the books of Angela Brazil, which were one of Blackie’s biggest sellers, and reprinted many times.

One useful trick is to look at the number of plates. Blackie varied in the number they used, but in any given period it’s pretty consistent; and you mostly don’t have to spend time hunting through the book looking - they’re normally listed after the contents page. A rough guide to the number of plates you might expect in a first edition is given in the table below. Note that the number is an overall total, and includes the frontispiece.

Before 1908 3 - 4 plates
1909 - 1912 5 plates
1912 - 1932 6 plates for Brazil in first eds;
4 for most other girls' books.
1933 - 1959 4 plates
1960 onwards Drawings, rather than plates; 3 is most common

There are quite a number of exceptions, unfortunately, but the guide is reliable in 90% or so of cases. Editions which do not correspond to the above table are likely to be reprints. The Angela Brazil reprints published in the 50s and 60s, for example, will normally have just a frontispiece.

The next useful trick is to check the front end-paper. With prolific writers there will often be a list of their other books; Angela Brazil is particularly notable for this. The general rule here is that if the book you’re looking at is mentioned in that list, it’s not a first. Of the 11 Brazil exceptions to this rule, 7 list themselves as the first title. My guide to Brazil’s 1st editions gives full details.

Be wary, too, of 20s and 30s editions described as "Blackie’s Splendid Half-Crown Series", or "The New Crown Library". Frequently these are reprints, though there are some which do seem to have been first published as part of these series - I have one or two "Sceptre Library" editions which by all other checks seem to be firsts. Later books don’t generally come in named series. Brazils which have a monogrammed "AB" are always reprints, as are those books with a cover design of thistles and stars within a vaguely lozenge-shaped hatching. These come from the 50s and 60s, by which time Blackie was dating all its first editions. They are generally much thinner than the earlier books, and the pages are often browned and crackling, as they used cheaper paper.

There’s a lot more one might say about Blackie; but space forbids!

Any problems or questions? Email John at chiefchook@gmail.com

Back to Collecting Books & Magazines main INDEX.