“History repeats itself. Historians repeat each other.” So said the early 20th-century biographer Philip Guedalla, who, as something of a historian himself, knew what he was talking about. But history books are collected for more than their occasionally plagiarized contents. And when it comes to vintage and antique titles, the ever-evolving narrative of world events, from the rise and fall of the Roman empire to the settling of Australia by Westerners, can reveal how the biases of the times can affect what ends up on the printed page.

Some of the oldest history books are those that documented the numerous voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries. In general, antique books from these centuries are judged by their condition and completeness rather than whether they happen to be first or subsequent printing. In addition, histories about these voyages were generally collections of numerous sailings rather than a dutiful diarist’s account of just one. One of the most famous examples of this form is Samuel Purchas’s “Purchas His Pilgrimes,” published in 1625.

Like many similar tracts, “Purchas His Pilgrimes” was reprinted hundreds of years later by the Hakluyt Society, whose original members in 1847 included Charles Darwin. Named for Richard Hakluyt, whose “The Principal Navigations Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation” was published in 1589, the society reprinted accounts of voyages undertaken by Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Captain James Cook, Vasco da Gama, Sir Francis Drake, and George Vancouver. Later, in the 20th century, Argonaut Press and other publishers did roughly the same thing.

In fact, this sea-faring genre of historical non-fiction was so popular, its titles were often remade as children’s books. The “Historical Account of the most celebrated Voyages, Travels and Discoveries,” 1796, was published by E. Newbery, who enjoyed so much success with the series aimed at younger readers that it grew to 25 volumes. Other works, such as John Josselyn’s “An Account of Two Voyages to New England,” which was published by Giles Widdows of London in 1674, are inadvertent histories (the main goal of this document was to catalog the flora and fauna of the New World).

Some voyages, and even their leaders, are genres all their own. For example, each of Captain James Cook’s three voyages in the 18th century were well documented. John Hawkesworth wrote the official account of Cook’s first voyage in the Southern Hemisphere (1773), but Sydney Parkinson’s version is more prized by collectors, mostly because as the draftsman on the HMS Endeavor, Parkinson’s includes hand-colored engravings. Books focused on expeditions in North America include “The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition” of 1803 (13 volumes were published in 1983 by the University of Nebraska Press), as well as Captain John C. Fremont’s probes into the Rocky Mountains—antique copies of these titles from the 1840s are collected in no small part for their illustrations and maps.

Then there are books about our obsession with the north and south poles. While there’s some debate about whether Dr. Frederick A. Cook or Robert E. Peary reached the north pole first in 1908 or 1909 respectively (see “True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole,” by Bruce Henderson, 2005), history-book collectors often seek out the account by Rear Admiral William Edward Parry, whose “Narrative of an Attempt to Reach the North Pole in Boats Fitted for the Purpose and Attached to His Majesty's Ship Hecla in the Year MDCCCXXVII, Under the Command of Captain William Edward Parry, RN, FRS” was published by John Murray of London in 1828. The 12-volume record of Robert Scott’s 1901-1904 expedition to Antarctica, includes color plates by Edward Wilson, while Sir Ernest Shackleton’s “Aurora Australis, (1908) was produced entirely by Shackleton and his crew.

Cookbooks and titles on enology can also be windows on history. For example, “The London Art of Cookery,” 1783, by John Farley, is a time capsule of late-18th-century tavern fare. Cyrus Redding’s “A History and Description of of Modern Wines,” 1833, was enlarged to include port in 1836. And Henry Viztelly’s “History of Champagne,” 1882, is obviously a specialized history within the broader subject of wine...

Still, for many, history books on wars remain the biggest prizes, although sometimes the most interesting titles are the ones that are the least official. For example, there are lots of books about the Civil War, including “A Stillness at Appomattox” by Bruce Catton, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954, and Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative,” published in three volumes between 1958 and 1974. But Civil War regimental histories are of more interest to some collectors because they were written by the actual soldiers on both sides of the conflict who witnessed battles firsthand. Originally published in the late 19th century, sometimes in limited editions, a lot of these regimentals, as they are sometimes called, have been reprinted in recent years, which has made these historical accounts more accessible to collectors.

Of course, World War I was famously documented by Winston Churchill in “The World Crisis,” a six-volume set published between 1923 and 1931. Churchill’s six-volume follow up about World War II was released between 1948 and 1954. Though not as rare as the English versions, the United States editions conjure nostalgic memories for some collectors—the checkered effect of the jacket spines was instantly recognizable in American libraries and dens throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Great War Dust Jackets

Great War Dust Jackets

Alan Hewer's comprehensive site is devoted to World War I books and dust jackets from 1914 to 1939. Most of the boo… [read review or visit site]

Google Book Search

Google Book Search

Want to do one quick search and pull up the mother lode of vintage books? Try Google Book Search, a database filled… [read review or visit site]



Bruce Black's gallery of paperback book covers from the 1940s and 50s. With help from numerous contributors, he's a… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Massacres Of France 1574 16th Century Rare Elizabethan Huguenot History £1 No RAntique Confederacy History 1898 Civil War Confederate Csa Slavery Folk Myth OldEaston Press - The History Of America Complete 16 Vol. Set - Fine1795 History Of India Hindostan Thomas Maurice Shiva Krishna Hindu Hinduism Art1698 History Of Medieval France Illustrated Mezeray French Wars Portraits Kings1861 Veil Of Isis 1st Edition Mysteries Druids Celtic History Freemasonry Xrare 1670 Sylva Sylvarum Francis Bacon - Natural History Ten Centuries - Fine BindingHistory Of The Crusades, 3 Vols., Easton Press1843 'natural History Of New York' De Kay Crustacea Mollusca Conchology First1863 United States Hardee Confederate Infantry Tactics Civil War Rifles GunsShelby Foote's The Civil War, Easton Press Edition, 3 Vols.1871 General Robert E Lee Biography Civil War Confederate Soldier Antique C.s.a.Winston S. Churchill Marlborough His Life And Times 4 Volume Set Folio Society1738 Universal History Of Apparitions Daniel Defoe Spirits Occult IllustratedUncle Tom's Cabin Confederate 1st Edition Slavery Us Civil War Antique Book RareThe History Of Sindy Britain's Top Teenage Doll BookRomae Antiquae Notitia *1699* Antiquities Of Rome History Basil Kennett Plates1483 Legendary History Of The Cross - 64 Woodcuts Bound In Fine Vellum - Wow!Antique Freemasonry Books 1921 Occult Rosicrucian Illuminati Free Mason HistoryFreemasonry History Antique Rosicrucian Of Knights Templar Free Mason Illuminati1889 American Civil War Union & Confederate Army Letter Reports Maps 102 Vols1862 Civil War Soldier Songbook, Beadle's Dime Knapsack Songster1683 History Reformation Church Of England Gilbert Burnet Illus Leather Royalty$Bruce Catton's Civil War Trilogy + Bonus Book-easton Press-no Reserve!Confederate Bonnie Blue Stars Dixie Rebel Stripes Southern Us American Civil War1930 The Medici Fine Full Gold/leather Italy Renaissance Florence War History $$1947 Winston Churchill Signed Inscrb Dated Maxims & Reflections, First, 2 Photos* Volume Set Of Classic Naval History From Easton PressRare Freemason Book, History Of Freemasonry And Concordant Orders 18921873 United States Navy Gunnery Manual Ordnance Naval War Ships Broadside Guns 1596 History Of France Pierre Matthieu Henry Iv Military Huguenot Wars Religion1862 - Union Soldier's Pocket New Testament - Civil War, Patriotic BookplateEusebius - The History Of The Church - In A Boxed Folio Society Edition1896 U.s. Civil War Soldiers Veteran History Union Confederate Army Battles 1st1866 Abraham Lincoln Memorial Funeral Book By Congress Very Rare Civil WarEaston Press The History Of America 16 Volume Set Complete Factory Sealed New1685 Folio Early English History King Arthur Holy Grail Glastonbury 1st EditionThe Real War - President Richard Nixon - Signed - Autographed Edition - BookHerman Wouk Easton Press Editions - Winds Of War And War And Rememberance 1884 Three Vols - History Of Philadelphia From 1609 T0 M1884 - Plates Maps Easton Press Signed Civil War Stonewall Jackson Man Legend Soldier Leather1862 Civil War Soldier Songbook, Camp-fire Songster, Suited For Camp Or MarchSix Classic World War Two Books From Easton Press - No Reserve!1862 Confederate Prisoner Of War Letter Washington, D.c. Gettysburg Key To The Painting Of Longstreet's Assault 1870 Civil War Book 1937 History Of Box Elder County Lydia Forsgren 1st Edition Lds Utah PioneersLeslie Charteris Prelude For War A Saint Novel Doubleday Crime Club 1938 1st DjRare 1857 Pliny Natural History 5 Volumes Mythical Animals Gold Silver Alchemy1877 History Of 124th Regiment New York Infantry, Signed By Charles H. Weygant1861 Original Civil War Soldier Songbook, "the Yankee Doodle Songster"History Of The Jesuits, 2 Vols, Andrew Steinmetz, 1848, Lea, Pope Clement XivHistory Pittsylvania County Virginia Danville 1848 Bunsen Egypts Place In Universal History Rare Old Leather Book Plates Vol IRedlands California 1888-1938 Golden Jubilee Book History Geneology Excellent1861 Original Civil War Soldier Songbook, Camp Songs For The VolunteersLot 8 Easton Press "the 100 Greatest Books Ever Written" Leather War & Peace Etc1st Edition The History Of The German Steel Helmet 1916-1945 By Ludwig BaerRhode Island New England Colonial History 1846 Life Of Roger Williams Signed 1stDelano Pa History A Story Of Three Score And Ten 1861-1931 Mahanoy City Rr Coal1896 History Of Onondaga County Ny