September 4, 2016
As a rare book dealer, I get calls on a weekly basis to provide valuations of first editions. These requests usually involves some household names of authors of the 20th century from Faulkner to Hemingway and Steinbeck to Fitzgerald. One of the first questions that comes up is “does the book have the dust jacket?” This often leads to great disappointment as it is difficult for someone not familiar with the antiquarian and rare book market to fully appreciate the value of a dust jacket on a literary first edition. Once can see a copy of a particular first edition online for $20,000 and it can be incomprehensible how merely missing a piece of paper wrapper can reduce its value to a few hundred.
I won’t get involved in this brief post as to why dust jackets are so valuable. Suffice it to say, they can both be extremely rare given their ephemeral nature and beautiful as icons of graphic art. Here, I would rather focus on an early type of “dust jacket.” The earliest-known book dust wrapper dates from 1829 and was intended to protect a finely-bound gift book entitled Friendship’s Offering. You can read about that Bodleian treasure here. The dust jacket was therefore born as a simple protective wrapper and only later evolved into works of art and tools of marketing. Oftentimes, the earliest jackets were used to protect expensive volumes bound in fine materials such as leather or silk.
The book below is not one of those finely bound volumes but a rather inexpensively produced and issued American imprint. Specifically, it is a 1814 Boston edition (a first American edition) of “Some Details concerning General Moreau”, the French general who helped Napoleon to power, but later as a rival was banished to the United States and whose abode near Trenton eventually became the refuge of many political exiles. Nevertheless, despite this rich history and actually being a scarce imprint in commerce, the book itself is not particularly valuable if one takes values in the auction databases as a gauge. In fact, I bought it in a lot myself at the very modest price of $20 from an antique dealer at the fun DCFlea.
One can notice in the photo a sort of dust jacket on the book that is almost contemporary with the date of publication. That does not make it the earliest such jacket as I would have to make the reasonable assumption that this was not a wrapper issued by the publisher but rather placed on for protection slightly later by a reference library in Bath Maine of the American Colonization Society. The book is inscribed by Jonathan Hyde who was one of the society’s earliest members. Most interestingly, the American Colonization Society promoted the relocation of free blacks to West Africa and transported 12,000 blacks to Liberia.
So, in keeping with the theme of this blog, I do try to place a monetary value on the work and give some indication of how I arrived at a figure. Despite it being a relatively early American imprint of French history, it probably would not have a market value of anything more then $100 or so. Still, with the added value of the early paper wrappers as well as its provenance and historical connection to free blacks, it has broader appeal both as a bibliographical curiosity and to the African-Americana collectors. As such, I would place a fair value more likely in the $400 range.
Monetary value aside it, it is a wonderful example of how by unfolding the story of a simple unnoticed paper jacket, history itself unfolds.