One thing about being a bookhound is that you are always going to eventually run across something different, something weird, something interesting. Whether it was wood cut prints a few centuries old to books too damaged to be valuable but with crazy illustrations on good pages in the interior or uncut pages, there’s always something new that keeps you learning, keeps you looking, and keeps you going back to the books and favorite sources to learn more.
Uncut pages were something I wasn’t aware was a big thing, in large part because many of the books I focused on were from the 20th Century, when uncut books had become uncommon because of modern printing technology unless they were from a private book binder and a specialized order.
However, if the books were from the 19th Century or the extreme early 20th Century (in some uncommon cases) then uncut pages are something that were much more common and which you can still run into as a collector or a book hound.
So what exactly are uncut pages? Why were books designed with them, and what were they there for? Are books with uncut pages valuable? What should you do with antique books that have uncut pages in them and is a book considered damaged if these uncut pages become cut?
This is a topic we’re going to cover in-depth because if you’ve never run into them, they can definitely throw you off.
Uncut pages are not common even with antique books, so many collectors or book hounds actually don’t know how to handle them. We’ll dive into the topic in-depth so you know everything there is to know about uncut pages in collectible books including whether or not they are valuable.
What Are Uncut Pages?
Uncut pages are generally not an occurrence in modern books but can appear in antique books and especially older books that were bound or folded without being properly cut when they were put together.
Uncut pages are pages in a book that has not been trimmed by rebinding, which was a common practice up through the middle of the 19th century (1850s to 1860s). This would result in pages “connected” at the top which would then need to be “cut” with a letter opener to separate the pages allowing for an easier reading.
Back then most books sold by publishers would sell books with a cheap cloth binding or even a paper binding that was never meant to be permanent. This temporary binding was just to serve as a placeholder for the printed pages and then the book’s buyer would arrange to have the book cut and bound with a professional binder.
This would usually be done with leather, which is why so many old antique books will be bound in leather (and why libraries of these books have such a delightful “antique book smell”).
Since that permanent leather binding might still need to be replaced in the future the pages need to be “re-trimmed” and so a book rebound 6 times from 1830 will be noticeably smaller than a book that was rebound say only twice.
A good succinct explanation can be found at this Biblio.com article.
What Uncut Pages In Old Books Tell Us
If the pages of a book were uncut that means that specific copy of the book has not been read since the pages were never separated. This only needs to be done once, so if an owner at any point had read the book once, all the pages would be cut. In an interesting consideration, this means if a book was partially read but for whatever reason never completed, in some books you would actually know the last page a previous owner had ever gotten to!
This is even mentioned one time in the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby in chapter three where Nick notes that the books in Gatsby’s library weren’t cut. This tells him that Gatsby has never actually read any of those books in the impressive collection, giving an early hint that something was odd.
As mass publishing with clean cut pages and cloth backs for bindings instead of all leather made books a bit more available for a growing middle class that could afford them.
So what do uncut pages do to the value of an old book?
Uncut Pages Don’t Directly Affect Value
The uncut pages themselves generally don’t directly affect value. However, many books with uncut pages are valuable. This is because in large part uncut pages tend to be found in books that are older and thus there are fewer copies. Rare books = valuable.
It’s not the uncut pages themselves that make a book valuable but the actual rare book itself.
The general consensus is not to mess with uncut pages. Anything you do could potentially damage a collectible book which would be a serious problem, and experts like those at Save Your Books have noted that from a pure buy/sell perspective that cutting the pages can slightly lower the value since some collectors love the diea of owning an old book that provably hasn’t been fully opened.
So if the point is collecting for value, don’t mess with the pages. Keep them as is, especially if most of the pages appear uncut as having an old antique book that doesn’t appear to actually have been read can, in theory, increase how much certain collectors want it and therefore how much they would be willing to pay for it.
Careful Not to Damage the Book
While cutting the pages for reading won’t do major damage the value of the book, since cutting the pages was a common practice (think proper use of letter openers for how this was done), it is important to be very careful not to damage the actual pages or book as you do so.
That would actually damage the value of the book as damage to the cover, the binding, or the actual pages would all take down the overall condition of the book. If you don’t plan on reading the old books, then the recommendation is to not cut the pages because there’s no need for it.
Why take the chance of a mistake?
If you do cut the pages to make them readable, simply do so with care and caution. That is the most important thing. Because of this I would NEVER recommend using a knife or scissors. The sharpest object you should use would be a smooth edged letter opener.
However, this video shows that using a stiff index card is a great way to open those pages without the danger of damaging any other part of the page or book and possibly getting a smoother overall look.
Uncut Pages in Very Old Antique Books
Uncut pages are unusual and unopened antique books are an interesting oddity. Not to mention a rarity, because while books were a sign of wealth they were also meant to be enjoyed. If the image of an upper class individual reading a book with a letter opener used on every page seems odd – well history is odd sometimes!
The mystery behind books with uncut pages are interesting to think about! Whose library did these books sit in? Why weren’t they read? Is there a story behind each one? For those books that have some uncut pages but the first half of the book has loose pages because they were cut – what caused the stop.
Was it the story? A life event? So many questions with potential no story answered.
There’s so much history in any book with uncut pages, and that makes them a piece of living history that collectors tend to strongly appreciate.
For this reason if you’re collecting antique books for value or maintaining the highest possible value in case you ever need to sell then it’s best to leave as is since for truly old bound books these antique books can be considered quite valuable. While the book itself is the overwhelming majority of the value, adding some uncut pages can add a little extra originality that bumps that selling price up even more.
When a book is unopened or pages are uncut, or both, the difference between these early states of printing are a fascinating study that while they don’t generally have a direct effect on the value of a work, they can definitely add to it in certain situations depending on the condition of the work, the work itself, the condition of it, and then the additional oddity of uncut pages.
A great academic resource to learn more can be found at:
Uncut and Unopened Antique Books
That article from Colgate University does an excellent job of showing uncut pages, unopened books, and pictures of both so you can get a clear visual picture of what each looks like, and what you can expect to see if you run into them.
Which brings us to the next important point:
Make Sure the Pages Are Actually Uncut
Uncut pages are folded at the top. Not sticky, not stained, not stitched. Uncut pages do not affect the condition or grade of a book, but stuck pages the result of damage would be.
When examining a book or asking questions prior to purchase, make sure to get confirmation that the pages in question are indeed uncut. If they are stuck together or bound together for other reasons then that could be a serious issue.
A few things to look for:
- Type of binding as a leather binding is more likely to have uncut pages
- If the book was published from 1800-1860 as this increases the chances
- Learn the difference between “Unopened” and “Uncut” to determine more on the history
- Gently open the book at look at the top part of the page – is the entire top of the page connected to the next page at the top, but lifts so you can see the two pages, or does it appear stuck in a single point or spot? The first indicates connected paper the second suggests past damage.
These don’t guarantee that you’re looking at uncut pages but going through these can eliminate most of the questionable pages and let you know if it’s something worth looking for.
If the book had been purchased and turns out to be damaged when it was labeled as having uncut pages, this also tells you a lot about the seller, as well.
Uncut Pages in Old Books: The Conclusion
Uncut pages are definitely one of those interesting things that you run across every so often as a collector…or maybe you don’t because if your collecting is mostly 20th century and on, especially later in the 20th century, you won’t run into uncut pages nearly as often. They’re a rare and fascinating part of the history of books and printing and now when you come across one, you know exactly what you’re running into.
To steal a modern saying…it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. So keep that page knife or letter opener off to the side if you’re collecting purely for value, or if you like reading living history, then be gentle with the cut that is fully acceptable to make.
Other Book Hound Articles of Interest