“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    

Sir Walter Raleigh's History Of The World/*1666/*fine Leather Binding-folio 13"1653 Rare Civil War King James Holy Bible, Cromwell, Miniature, Sombre Binding1888 George Washington American Revolutionary Civil Mexican War Indians HistoryIncunable 1499 Pomponio Leto Compendium Of Roman History Late Empire Byzantine1880 Antique Wild Old West Railroad Indian War Pioneer Texas Utah Lds California1889 Old West Pioneer Indian Attacks War Torture Buffalo Bill California U.s.1865 Beautiful Civil War Set Antique Illustrated Confederate Union Army 1st Nf1876 Old Eccentrics Oddities Freaks Sideshow History Biography Curiosities History Of The Civill Warres Of England/1641/rare 1st Ed/sir Francis Biondi/fineYoungstown Ohio-handwritten Diary-history- School Teacher Daily Journal-1893-oh1856 Colonial Indian Massacre Daniel Boone War George Washington Color Texas 1860 Florence Nightingale Nurse Nursing Hospitals Civil War Medicine 1st EditionWilson History Of Great Britain Life & Reign Of James I 1653 Frontispiece 1st Nr1830 Thomas Paine Revolutionary War American Independence Leather ~ 2 Volumes1897 Uncle Tom's Cabin Negro Slavery First Edition Civil War Antique Book Rare1680 Works Of Machiavelli Art Of War History Of Florence Military Dante1649 Charles I King Of England English Civil War Eikon Basilike Martyr RoyalistColonial Revolutionary War Of 1812 Indians Torture Massacre Witchcraft Mexican1870 Antique George Washington Biography Revolutionary War U.s. President VtgFlavius Josephus 1681 History Of The Jews 228 Beautiful Engravings Very Rare1917 Antique Scotland Castles & Keeps Highlands Islands Kings Clans War ScottishAntique Texas Map From 1844 Kendall's Santa Fe Expedition Vol I History Mexico +1903 George Washington Illustrated Biography Revolutionary War Antique Military1828 History Of Scotland Scottish Clans Wars Jacobite 6 Vols Leather Maps BurnsMassachusetts Connecticut Housatonic Mystic River Deerfield Indian War Colonial Jonas Hanway - A Sentimental History Of Chimney Sweepers In London 1785 • RareKaye Sepoy War In India 3 Vols 1876/77, Illus, Cont. Leather Bindings Vg AsiaWorld War I Ace Edward Rickenbacker Signed Fighting The Flying Circus To His Son1691 Life Of Oliver Cromwell Commonwealth England Elzevir Civil War PuritanWinston Churchill Hand Signed The Grand Alliance 1st Edition Print 19501882 George Washington U.s. Revolutionary War President Patriot American History1681 1st History Of Henry Iv Bourbon France + 1784 Abbot Pietro Chiari Theatre~very Rare 1st Edition Early Ku Klux Klan Book Origin Inner Workings HistoryWinston Churchill Hand Signed The Gathering Storm 1st Edition Print 19481890 Old West Indian Wars General Custer 7th Calvary Civil War Army Military 1st1802 Marmontel, Les Incas, Destruction De L'empire Du Perou, Peru, Binding1771 Belisaire Byzantine Empire Justinian Banned French Novel King Louis Xv1866 Beautiful Civil War Set Antique Illustrated Confederate Union Army 1st VgcRare Jacobite 1748 Edition The History Of The Rebellion 1745 & 1746 By HendersonThe History Of King Ranch By Tom Lea 2-volumes Signed 1957 1 Edition1880 Ku Klux Klan Invisible Empire Civil War Kkk Southern Confederacy SlaveryHistory Of Texas 1685-1892 Original 2 Volumes John Henry Brown New BraunfelsSigned Bennett H. Young "confederate Wizards Of The Saddle" (1914) Civil WarAntique Book About The History Of Milford, New Hampshire From 1738-1901Antique 1855 Bible American Bible Society Miniature Pre Civil War Leather BoundAntique Indian History New England Narragansett Wampanoag Iroquois Pocahontas 1820 John Trumbull American Revolution Revolutionary War M'fingal Patriot PoemsGenuine Works Of Flavius Josephus.w/3books Of The Jewish War/history Leather18411834 Antique Book History Of Arabia - Crichton - Illustrated W/ Map - 2 Vols1910 The Service Of Coast Artillery Corps Us Army History Hardcover1850 Edward Gibbon The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire Fine Bindings MapsCalifornia Bit & Spur A History And Developement By Lou Kosloff7 Antique Books Leather The History Of The Rebellion And Civil Wars In EnglandAnnual Register Of History Politics Literature, 1763 Maps! French & Indian WarThe .45 70 Springfield Book Ii 1865-1893 Rifle Breech Loader History New!Rare Georgia Civil War: Recollections Of A Long And Satisfactory Life By HardinAntique 1846 Recollections Of Mexico Waddy Thompson Texas California History 1stCivil War Godey's Lady's Book And Magazine, Vols. 69 & 70(july 1864-july 1865)Photographic History Of The Civil War - Five Book/ten Volume Set -like NewThe Diary Of Gideon Welles, Secretary Of Navy Under Lincoln & Johnson Civil War