“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]

Bookscans.com

Bookscans.com

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    

Divi Britannici; A History Of Britain 1675. King Arthur, Uter Pendragon &.Sandys Journey *1637* Turkish Empire Holy Land Engravings Palestine Egypt Travel1737 History Of Knights Templar Hospitaller Of Saint John Crusades Malta Rhodes 1663 Sansovino, Venetia Citta Nobilissima, Venice, History Wars Vellum, WoodcutsHistory Of The Crusades Michaud Gustave Dore 2 Vol Rare 1880 Illustrated LeatherHistory Of Freemasonry Knights Templar Masonic Rose Croix Rose Cross Fine Cond.1698 Memoirs And Observations Made In A Late Journey Through The Empire Of ChinaRebels No Saints *1661* Regicides King Charles Civil War Letters Speeches Prayer1642 Panvinio Rome History 'de Ludis Circensibus'Rare History Colonna Family *1675* Italian Noble Vellum Engravings Latin DukesCorpus Historiae Germanicae, 1730,burkhard Gotthelf Struve, Buder,german HistoryWilliam Dugdale *1681* History English Civil War 1st Late Troubles Battles EngrvEnglish Civil War *1646-7* Mercurius Rusticus Ryves Battles Sieges Barwick Lists1850 History Roman Empire Charles Merivale 1st Edition 7vl Set Maps War God Book1844 Texan Santa Fe Expedition G.w. Kendall 1st Edition 2vl Set Indians War U.s.Sermons Horrid Murder Charles I *1662* Samuel Linch Civil War Royalist RebellionRare Young Juba *1748* History Bonnie Prince Charlie Stuart Rebellion Battles Rare 1889 History Of The United States Discovery Revolution Civil War WashingtonRare 1871 History Of The World Great Condition Numerous Steel Engravings1878 Pictorial History Of The World Babylon Greece Rome Reformation Crusades1858 Life Thomas Jefferson 1st Edition 3vl Set Illus America Colonies War Govt $History Of Knights Templars Crusades Masons Freemasone Masonic Masonry ~ Addison1865 Potomac Army Signed Henry N. Blake 1st Edition Civil War Union Military $$History Of America, In Two Books Jedidiah Morse Americana 1795Indian War Horrors Torture Iroquois Seminole Wyandott Pawnee Kickapoo BlackfeetThe History Of Magic 1914 Levi Occult Symbols Kabbalah Grimoire Witchcraft DevilVery Rare! 1876 1sted Life Of George A Custer Civil War Indian Massacres Wars1865 Atlas Duke Of Marlborough Campaigns Battle Plans Spanish War Of Succession1934 History Of Bourbon King/harris/george Ford Morris/saddlebred Horse/breeding1586 Histoire De L'eglise Et De L'empire By Jean Sueur Hardcover Book X735 Pj1855 Huc Chinese Empire Map Of China First Edition1845 History Scotland Sir Walter Scott 2vls 2 Fore Edge Paintings Holy Island $$Dennis Wheatley - The Secret War - Signed 1937 Uk 1st Dj Abbey Illustrated Scarce 1882 Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass Slave Slavery Civil War Lincoln1811 Miniature Bible History New York S. Wood Leather Tiny Book Print 1823 History Bishop Burnet 6vl Set England Full Leather Civil War Royalty Govt $Recueil D'emblèmes Divers 1646 Occult Mythology History Symbols Monster1882 Civil War * Gettysburg * Confederate Prisons Andersonville Illustrated  1879 U.s. History American Revolutionary Civil War Indian Washington Lincoln SetHistory Of The Ottoman Empire, 1829 2 Vols, With MapAntique Charterhouse & Oxford Leather A H Tod Books History England Molesworth1879 History Of Rome V. Durury 7vl Set 2600 Illus Color Maps Roman Empire War $1885 Life And Public Services Of General Grant Civil War Slavery Lincoln LeatherNoblespirit No Reserve 1894 Harper's Pictorial History Civil War 18x Vol Coll.1869 6 Volume Leather Set Popular History Of France From Earliest Times - GuizotRare!!! Vintage 1900 Richard Carvel By Winston Churchill Signed!!! #637 Of 1,000History Of England From Accession Of James Ii Folio Society 2009 5 Vol Nr1562 Aristotle De Historia/partibus Animalium Natural History Animals Zoology 1783 History Of England By Barnard Over 90 Copperplate Engravings & 3 MapsHistory Of Hastings Castle, 2 Volumes, 1909, Plates, Charles Dawson, Collegiate1609 The Iliad Homer Full Leather Greek Mythology Troy Trojan War Ilias Odyssey1885-86 Personal Memoirs Of U. S. Grant Rare Old Civil War Books First EditionThe Strand Magazine Lxi - Sherlock Holmes/conan Doyle, Churchill/wodehouse, 1921Antique Book- (1885) Bancroft's Colonial History Of U.s.-cover Is Stunning!!History Of Boothbay, Southport And Boothbay Harbor, Maine. 1623-1905Numerical Strength Of Confederate Army 1861-65 Civil War By R Mckim 1912 Hc 1stThe Tigers History Of The 10th Armored Division Ww2Vintage History Of Indiana County, Pennsylvania 1745 - 1880 Caldwell OriginalThe War Of The Worlds By H. G. Wells Easton Press Scifi Series Collector's Notes1886 Civil War Confederate Prisons Libby Andersonville  Belle Isle  Illustrated