Slater on does and don’ts, fads and fashions,  in book collecting

J. H. Slater was often scathing about certain types of printed book and the dealers/collectors who handled them. However, he was positive concerning which books ought to be valued by collectors. Here are some of his views on what bibliophiles should avoid and what they must appreciate.

Privately printed books.

Slater was not a fan of this class of book.

Privately printed books are those which are issued either from a private press or for the benefit of private friends. They are never published in the ordinary acceptation of that term and cannot be bought at first hand. A good collection of these is of course difficult, though by no means impossible, to acquire; and for the benefit of those who may wish to devote themselves to this department –uninteresting though it undoubtedly is—Martin’s Privately Printed Books ( 1834, 2nd ed.,1854—in 1 vol. 8vo, is readily available . Many of these so- called ‘ books ‘ consist of single sheets of letterpress; others, on the contrary, are more pretentious….

Early printed American books.

‘Early printed American books, or those which in any way relate to the American Continent, provided only they were published during the 16th or 17th centuries, have lately become exceedingly scarce. In June 1888 one small quarto tract, bound in one volume, brought £66by auction, a record entirely surpassed by the preceding lot, which, consisting of twelve similar tracts only, brought no less a sum than £555. These prices of course are highly exceptional; but so great is the desire to obtain books of this class that the amounts in question, exorbitant though they may appear to be, were perhaps not excessive.’

Slater goes on to urge collectors not to pass by books printed in America, or indeed Scotland, before 1700.

‘In both cases it is probable that the specimen offered for sale will have a most unprepossessing exterior , and in some instances the price asked may be small. This frequently happens, since the more uneducated class of dealerscommence by valuing a book from its appearance (since) ….there is nothing about books of this kind which looks valuable. It is no disparagement to the trade as a whole to say that some booksellers, particularly those who carry on business in small provincial towns, are absolutely ignorant of anything more than the first principals of their trade, and it is out of them than bargains are made…

The late bookseller , Henry Stevens, author of a reference work on American books in the British Museum, was one such successful bargain hunter, Slater tells us, but more of him in a future blog.


According to Slater, bible collectors rarely notice editions later than the ‘ Vinegar ‘ bible of 1717. Instead they begin with Coverdale’s issue of 1535 and proceed onward ‘ for the most part arranging their collection not according to date but under the various ‘ versions’. Such is the complexity of the subject, Slater tells us, that guides are essential and two of he best are mentioned. Probably the best of these, Old Bibles (1876) by the ‘ best living authority on English bibles, Mr J. R. Dore, is invaluable.

Classical literature.

In Slater’s opinion, the Greek and Latin Classics, once great favourites with all classes of collectors , have lately ‘fallen considerably from their high estate’. He doesn’t provided an explanation for this decline in popularity, but he does exempt from this downturn one particular edition of Virgil’s works, the editio princeps ( though he doesn’t give a publisher or date),  which went for a whopping £590 at the ‘ Hopetoun House dispersion a few months ago .’

In conclusion, Slater points out that ‘ ordinary ‘ editions of Horace, Virgil, Sallust, Plato, Livy and the rest, ‘ can be bought now at a fourth or fifth part of the sum they would have cost thirty of forty years ago, and from all appearances they are likely to decline still further in the Market.’

These trends persist to this day, particularly regarding early books printed in America and early editions of the Bible, the market for both fields being distorted somewhat by the demand from the United States. 

To be continued.

R. M. Healey   

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