“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    

Rare History Great Britain *1606* John Clapham 1st Roman Saxon WoodcutsWalter Raleigh *1634* History World Battle Plans Maps Mythology Arabia BindingEnglish Civil War *1702-04* History Rebellion 3v Clarendon Military Battles 1stDaniel Defoe *1754* History Of Great Plague In London 1665 Marselles Disease1783 Rare Book With Early United States Map Revolutionary War John Adams More1796 The Odyssey Homer Alexander Pope 5vl Set Greek Mythology Troy Trojan War $$New, Complete, Universal Body Or System Of Natural History 1785 • Folio/platesHistory Antiquities Canterbury Cathedral *1726* Dart Monastery Engraved Plates !1708 History Ancient Rome Titus Livy 6vl Set Full Leather Italy Europe War Ills Natural History Antiquities Selborne *1813* Gibert White Col Engravs NaturalistsChina: A General Description Of That Empire And Its Inhabitants In 2 Vol's- 18571834*history Of The Highlands*browne*scottish Clans*military*jacobite Rebellion*The History Of Philip Of Macedon, 1806.1704 Clarendon..first Ed..civil War..3 Massive Folio VolsRare 1850 New Testament Holy Bible German & English Side By Side Pre-civil War Revolutionary War Bunker Hill Israel Putnam George Washington Illustrated 1856 The World Crisis (6 Vols) Sir Winston Churchill's Classic History Of World War I1796 The Odyssey Homer Alexander Pope Greek Mythology Troy Trojan War Leather $$Pictorial History, Civil War In America, 3 Vols, Benson Lossing, 1866-74, 1st EdV.rare 1876 U.s. War Dept Report Custer Massacre News Black Hills Dakota Gpo 1st1699 Du Pin Compleat History~banned Books~jansenism~deuteronomy~judaica~gallic1911 Redgauntlet Sir Walter Scott Fine Leather 36 Illus Historical Scotland War Regulations For The Army Of The United States 1861/at The Start Of The Civil WarDietz Co. 1840-1913 Rare Illustrated History Rr Lamps + Lanterns Ny City AntiqueUlysses S. Grant Civil War General President Memoirs Illustrated 1885-1886 1stGeneral Hal Moore Signed We Were Soldiers Once Vietnam War Flat Press Easton Civil War Era Bible 1865 Wallet Style Leather Binding. American Bible Society Orig 1916 German Military Ww1 War Art Book 110 Pics / 80 In Color! No Reserve!!!Rare 1810 Leather Us Vs. Uk Before War 1812 Confederate Congress Civil War Guy1774 Sketches Of Man~home~hume~boswell~scottish Enlightenment~philosophy~warPrivate Eye Detective Confederate Civil War Spy Abraham Lincoln Assassination Pi1882 A History Of Industrial Paterson Nj By Trumbull & Map1861 Civil War Era - The Holy Bible; Old And New Testaments.Record Of The Massachusetts Volunteers 1861-1865 Civil War 2 Volumes 3/4 Leather9 Book Lot Bj Palmer Chiropractor Green Books Visions & Illusions History Making1893 Conquest Of Peru William H. Prescott Fine Leather Map Incas War History $$1945 Wwii Unit History: Company A, 399th Infantry, 100th Division1818 Hudibras Samuel Butler 2vl Set Small Leather Illus Satire English Civil WarWar Speeches Of Sir Winston Churchill 1939 - 1945 (3 Vols)General Hal Moore Signed We Were Soldiers Once Vietnam War Flat Press Easton Winston Churchill, Easton Press, Pair (bio By Henry Pelling)The Ancient History Of The Egyptians, Carthaginians.... By Rollin 1774 6 Vols 2-easton Press - Ferdinand Magellan & Winstion Churchill The History Of Cockfighting Book George Ryley Scott 1975 Ltd 750 Copies No 891770 Guthrie's Geographical Historical & Commercial Grammar History GeographyC.1850 John Howard The Illustrated Scripture History - 100+ Engravings!!!A History Of The English Speaking Peoples By Winston Churchill - 4 Vols Set,1855 Leather Human Anatomy Yale Medical Student In Civil War 251 Illustrations1850 Lyric Gems Of Scotland 1st Edition 500 Songs Sheet Music History Book $$1888 Fine Leather Binding Jefferies The Life Of The Fields Natural History RareHistory Of Chinese MedicineHistory Of Rockingham & Strafford Counties, New Hampshire-1882-hurd-leather-bookThe Conduct Of The Ministry 1756 • Re French And Indian War, Braddock, Adm. ByngHistory Of Wisconsin Documentary 1854 Rare Decorative Jackson Hadley Senate 1890 Old George Washington Abraham Lincoln Grant Us American Presidents History1945 Unit History Seventy Sixth Construction Battalion(seabees), UsnBenigni & Manhes' History Of The 141st Infantry Regiment 1670-19391911 Photographic History Of The Civil War Miller Vol 1-10The Photographic History Of The Civil War In Ten Vols By Miller 1911Scarce History Of U. S. Cavalry Through 1863 By Union Colonel