Having a bit of a clear-out and I came across this: First Editions of To-Day and How to Tell Them, by H. S. Boutell, published by Elkin Mathews & Marrot in 1928. A copy given to E. A. M. Norie for Christmas in that year – a thoughtful present to a young man still at Oxford – inscribed with love from his mother to her son, Evelyn Arundel Medows Norie (1908-1944), who died on active service in France in 1944. I rather think that it’s a book I inherited from my predecessors, Hugh Jones and Cyril Nash. Not a book I have looked at in years, much as I fondly remember it as one of my earliest introductions to the mysteries and eccentricities of the world of rare books, but simply because its contents were later subsumed in their entirety into the more recent compilations of Edward N. Zempel and Linda A. Verkler, published in various ever-expanding editions as First Editions, A Guide to Identification, of which I still have a working copy within easy reach of my desk.
Boutell’s book first appeared at the height of that feverish and curious point in time when, for a few short years, collecting modern first editions was seen as the ultimately cool, sexy and fashionable thing to do. That was obviously always going to end in tears – and it duly did, in the wake of the Wall Street Crash. But the period also called forth a spate of guides to book-collecting, most of them meretricious and memorable only for the spectacularly wrong advice on who and what to collect as the best investment. But Boutell’s book was a little different. It aimed to answer that perennial question – one that booksellers are still asked weekly if not daily – “How do you tell if a book is a first edition?” Boutell’s answer was so obvious that no-one else seems to have thought of it. He simply wrote to all the leading publishers, on both sides of the Atlantic, and asked how they marked their first editions – and then reprinted their answers verbatim.
I shall confine my remarks to the British publishers – I am far more familiar with those – but it is interesting to note that publishers who operated on both sides of the Atlantic tended to do things differently in each jurisdiction. In this country, the long-established Longmans, Green & Co. were confidence-inspiring: “We always date the title page of our books, and unless the book is marked “— Impression” or “— Edition” it is a first edition”. Worth noting here – as Boutell was at pains to point out – is the explicit assumption that a subsequent impression (printing) even of the original edition was not and is not regarded as a “first edition” in collecting terms, whatever its technical status in bibliography. Martin Secker was even more succinct: “Bibliographical entry on the reverse of the title page” – and this was more or less the answer given, albeit at rather greater length, by most of the British publishers. T. Werner Laurie followed “the custom laid down by the Publishers’ Association” – a surprise to find that there were official guidelines. No other publisher mentioned these, but they represented the most common British practice, stating “First published —” on the verso of the title-page and listing (where applicable) consecutive impressions and editions below that.
William Heinemann were among the most reliable of publishers, clearly outlining the publishing history of the book on the verso of the title-page – “We take great pains to get these bibliographical notes accurate and to discriminate carefully between new impressions and new editions”. This had perhaps not always been the case, but was consistent from “soon after 1920”. Methuen, another reliable publisher, had been using this standard system since 1905. What Heinemann did not do, in a splendid old-school example of English haughtiness and condescension, was to “follow the American practice of printing the words ‘First Edition’ anywhere in our books. This I believe is quite a recent idea inspired by the interest taken by the modern American in first editions of modern books”. A strange statement from a business which had become essentially American-owned since the death of William Henry Heinemann in 1920, but such was the view from Bloomsbury. Meanwhile, in Mayfair, the much older and more patrician firm of John Murray was doing just that: they had – “for some years” – been printing “First Edition” on the verso of the title-page – and why no other British publishers seem to have followed them down this fairly obvious route remains a puzzle. But what is unclear from the Murray statement is whether they retained the “First Edition” designation on later impressions of that original edition.
Not all of the publishers were helpful. Chatto & Windus stated that they “use no particular distinguishing sign to mark our first editions”, although I can’t recall their books (at least in the twentieth century) ever being particularly problematic. The same can’t be said of W. Collins, Sons & Co., who likewise did “not adopt any special method”, but it becomes clear from the rest of their statement that although cheaper editions were noted, fresh impressions of the original edition were generally not.
Some publishers – booksellers will know them – were almost obstructive. These are the publishers who cause the problems and where we need to fall back on a wall of bibliographies, the scouring of library catalogues, the skill and expertise of seasoned booksellers, and, not infrequently, a trip to the British Library to look at the copy deposited for copyright (and even that is not always conclusive): – Hodder & Stoughton: “We are unable to help you with regard to our First Editions, as our methods vary with every book”; Hutchinson & Co. – “We do not mark First Editions in any way”. Nor did Hurst & Blackett, while Ward, Lock & Co. also had “no fixed method of designating our first editions”.
Herbert Jenkins were not much better, although they claimed that first editions were dated, reprints marked, and cheap editions undated – collectors of P. G. Wodehouse may know otherwise. There were other publishers too who made claims that might raise an eyebrow. J. W. Arrowsmith reported that fresh impressions of their books were clearly marked. This may conceivably have been true in 1928, but it certainly was not back in the 1890s, when their best-sellers like Three Men in a Boat, Diary of a Nobody, and The Prisoner of Zenda first appeared. All three – and especially the first – are distinctly problematic. A. & C. Black were another to state that “subsequent editions and impressions are so noted” – a remark patently untrue at that time, as is witnessed by Colin Inman’s bibliography of their Colour Books and the later spin-offs.
Boutell’s enquiries obviously gave a number of publishers pause to think. Some, like the Poetry Bookshop, promised to do better or to be more consistent in the future: W. & R. Chambers promised they would henceforth print the words “original edition” in the first impressions of their books. They reiterated that this was their practice in two later editions of Boutell, so I assume that this was the case. I can’t recall ever having seen a book so marked, but then I don’t appear to have had a book published by Chambers published later than 1896 pass through my hands for at least twenty years, so I can’t be sure.
The most entertaining entry comes from Frederick Warne & Co., who stated mysteriously, “We did at one time mark first editions of our publications with a private mark, but we are afraid the habit has been discontinued over a number of years now, and we have even lost trace of the private marks”. Given the number of tiny variations in the Warne first editions of Beatrix Potter, I suspect this may be true, but on the whole, I think I would rather believe that this was a delicious hoax designed to give booksellers and book-collectors sleepless nights. But does anyone know anything about these private marks? – do share.
[UPDATE] Peter Allen of Robert Temple Antiquarian Booksellers now writes to say that he thinks their private mark used in the 1880s and 1890s may have been an initialled shield stamped in blind on the back cover. He has generally found it only on books from their file library, one of which, at least, was apparently never published due (probably) to a copyright dispute – and in one instance on a copy of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (1886) not from that source.
Perhaps oddly, in that this was a book for collectors published at the height of the issue-point mania of the time, none of the publishers appears to mention the ever-present possibility of different issues within that first impression. Boutell would appear not to have asked the question. His introduction in fact makes no real distinction between issue and impression. The book offers no help in cases where, perhaps, the first impression appears in two or more different bindings, or variant dust-jackets, or where, say, some copies have cancelled leaves, but that said, in its quiet way, this was an invaluable book for collectors, at least in sorting the sheep from the goats in the publishing world.
What of H. S. Boutell himself? – a man in whose debt we genuinely remain. Most striking of all is that he was just twenty-three years of age when he produced the book. Born at the American Legation at Bern in Switzerland on 11th August 1905, Henry Sherman Boutell (1905-1931) – grandson of the American lawyer and diplomat of the same name – is recorded variously as writer, literary agent, and bibliographer. He seems to have had some connection with the London Mercury and co-authored a piece on Robert Frost for The Colophon in 1930. His name turns up in the passenger lists on a number of transatlantic crossings in the 1920s, as well as in Hawaii and New Zealand, sometimes in the company of his parents, the lawyer Roger Sherman Gates Boutell (1881-1962) and his wife Avis Burley (1883-1962), who had married in Chicago in 1904 – and sometimes too in the company of Anita Day Porterfield, née Day (1895-1972), an American literary agent ten years his senior, whom he was to marry in 1930, the year before his own shockingly early death in London on 23rd March 1931 at the age of twenty-five.
The later editions of 1937 (some authorities give 1939) and 1949, both published in the United States, were enlarged and expanded by Roger Boutell – I assume his younger brother, a second Roger Sherman Gates Boutell (1914-1993), but his father was still alive at this point, so I am not entirely sure. A fourth edition, revised and enlarged by Wanda Underhill, appeared in 1965. The whole corpus of accumulated material from the first three editions, together with material from their own 1977 A First Edition? Statements of Selected North American, British Commonwealth, and Irish Publishers, was absorbed into Zempel and Verkler’s First Editions, A Guide to Identification, which itself ran through four editions between 1984 and 2001. Get a copy of any of these if you have a mind to. Some of the more obscure methods of designating first editions employed by some of the more transient publishers are things of joy. But better than that, these statements direct from the publishers take you deeper into the books they published and, in their waywardness and idiosyncrasy, make you relish them all the more.