“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    

The History Of The Renowned Don Quixote, 4 Volumes, 1719.1719 Ford, Famous & Pleasant History Of Parismus, Prince Of Bohemia, Woodcuts1795 Africa Voyage Le Vaillant Zoology African Ethnology Natural History Giraffe1878 Antique Wild Old West Railroad Indian War Pioneer Texas Utah Lds California1866 1sted Pictorial History Of The Great Rebellion Civil War Lincoln Slavery1867 Wild Old West Pioneer Railroad Indian Civil War Lds California Gold ChineseAntique Freemasonry Books 1921 Occult Rosicrucian Illuminati Free Mason History1795 Africa Voyages Le Vaillant Zoology South African Ethnology Natural HistoryHerbal Medicine Civil War Anatomy Apothecary Opium Quack Nursing IllustratedHillary Clinton Signed Living History Autograph Book President Bill1886 The Underground Railroad Antique Slavery Civil War Slaves Black Americana1844 1sted Pictorial History Of America Buccaneers Indian Massacres Witchcraft1984 Signed Charles Bukowski War All The Time Poems 81-84 Black Sparrow Lmtd EdAntique Bible History Holy Land Palestine Egypt Syria Israel Christian Jewish1878 United States History Revolutionary Civil Indian War Washington LincolnHistory Of Freemasonry Knights Templar Masonic Rose Croix Rose Cross Fine Cond.Sermon To French & Indian War Soldiers Massachusetts Military History Rare 1755Annual Register For 1776 With Declaration Of Independence And War News!History Of Pirates Of The Caribbean Own Shipwreck Captain Kidd Buccaneer Sea WarThomas Keneally Signed Schindler's List Easton Press World War Ii Wwii Rare! 1853 Heroines Of History Cleopatra Joan Of Arc Marie Antoinette Josephine1920 Freemasonry Encyclopedia Freemason Masonic Occult History Knights TemplarOriginal Civil War Era 1863 Dated Soldier's 7" Bible -completeTroubled Asylum Very Rare Tasmanian History By R.w.gowlland 1981 Pb1649 Cornelius Tacitus Annals & Histories Elzevir Roman Empire Rome Nero Classic1676 John Cosin, History Of Popish Transubstantiation, Catholic Church, 1st Ed1843 Thomas Jefferson Declaration Of Independence Slavery Revolutionary War Decline & Fall Of The Roman Empire By Edward Gibbon 8 Vols/2 Slip, Folio SocietyBewick. History Of British Birds. 2 Vols. Newcastle 1804. Contemp. Calf Gilt.Synopsis Of The Roman Empire 1649 Edition History Works William Beckers Nr!Kosb In The Great War, 1930 1st Edition, Captain Stair Gillon [161The Chinese Empire,recollections Of Journey Through Tartary And Thibet 1860History Of Sex Spanking Fetish Punishment Whip Paddle Rod Flogger FlagellationSet Of Leather Bound, Marbled Books, History Of Europe, Archibald Alison- 1864The Great Old West Plains Native Immigrant Indian War Rebellion Buffalo HuntingLe Sage - History And Adventures Of Gil Blas €Crooked And Weedy 1992 Price History Of Chesapeake & Western Railroad Book A Literary History Of Persia, 4 Vols, Edward G. Browne, Cambridge, 1956-59History Of Ancient And Honorable Order Freemasonry And Concordant Orders Masonic1787 Goldsmith, Abridgment Of History Of England, Caesar To George Ii, Plates~ Rare 1847 Pre-civil War Medical Book: Six Lectures On The Use Of The Lungs! ~A History Of Technology, 5 Volumes, Oxford University, Singer, IllustratedTime Life The Civil War 28 Volume Set Incl. Master Index,like NewRare Franklin Library The Great Books Leather Bound ~ The History Of HerodotusWinston Churchill 12-volume Set, Easton Press Leather-bound HardcoversIllustrated London News.1855.crimean War.russia.france. Paris.new York City.xmasM.dcc.xxvi.=1726 Very Old Book Print In London Terrae-filius,history Of Oxford1856 American Indians Hand Colored Plates The New World History Brownell Us BookThe Mysterious Voyage Of Captain Kidd - Landmark Book #122 History Hardcover1900 Ed-winston Churchill-"london To Ladysmith Via Pretoria"-south Africa-nr!!!!Rare Civil War 7 Bound Volumes Of Atlantic Monthly ~ 1862-1866 ~ Leather Bound!Antique Leather Bound Bible Higgins & Bradley 1856 Pre Civil War Inscribed 1850 American Naval Battles Early History Wood Engravings Tripoli New Orleans Antique Revolutionary War History George Washington Military Army United States Antique Civil War Era Photo Album With 49 Pictures. James A. Garfield?Illustrated London News.jul-dec 1854. Crimean War. View Of Newcastle. Sebastopol1919 Rare Wwi World War I Us "the Second Army Air Service Book" W/ LettersGibbon Decline Of The Roman Empire Fine 8 Vol Set, Slipcases, Folio Society 1986Antique Freemasonry Occult Knights Templar Illuminati Rosicrucian Mason HistoryA History Of The Chesapeake Bay Retriever Eloise Heller (1959) Vintage