Early Sinclair Lewis Book Collecting Guide

Sinclair Lewis was a giant in American literature and one of the major voices of the 20th century. Also he is among the most forgotten, which is definitely strange when you look at how big an influence he was in culture, literature, and politics.

Sinclair Lewis Public Domain Portrait
One of the very few known portraits of Lewis.

Lauded as a huge influence to John Steinbeck, among many others, Lewis’s life was as interesting as his incredible array of novels. And he spent many years working to make a living as an author.

Which means some very valuable, very collectible first printings out there of Lewis’s work from the years before he became a household name for several decades.

The most valuable Sinclair Lewis first edition books are those published before 1920. These are books like Hike and the Aeroplane, Our Mr. Wrenn, and The Innocents which came out before his smash hit Main Street in 1920.

Sinclair Lewis Antique Books: What You Need to Know

There’s no denying the influence that Sinclair Lewis had in American literature. However, as is common when looking at collectible first edition books it’s the lesser known works when Lewis was an unknown author that are most valuable.

Less were printed, more were likely to be lost in the beginning of circulation, and less were saved over time. That makes them way more valuable because they are rarer than his novels that took off and have tens of thousands of first editions printed.

Because of this, the most valuable first edition Sinclair Lewis books are most likely to be those that you have never heard of.

There are some quite valuable first editions of his breakout novel Main Street, as well as early hits with limited printings like Babbitt and Arrowsmith, but for the most part we will be looking to the really early Lewis works here.

Most books will have their average value determined with no dust jacket, though if there is information on the value of the super rare dust jackets available I’ll do my best to provide that information.

Hike and the Aeroplane (1912) Book Value (by Tom Graham)

Right away, if you ever see a very old copy of the book Hike and the Aeroplane for cheap like at an estate sale…try not to shout out loud and give yourself away.

Then buy it immediately.

Aside from just how cool it is to see airplane spelled “Aeroplane,” in no small part due to the fact this book was published less than a decade after the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, this was the first book Sinclair Lewis wrote although he penned it under the penname Tom Graham.

Hike and the Aeroplane first printing book

From one perspective that makes it so cool to me because of its close ties to history in the making – but it also makes this a super valuable book.

Only 800 copies were ever printed. There are very few left since this was not a big name author. Estimates are only 32-38 copies still exist, only two of which have the fragile original dust jacket.

If another one exists it’s likely in a very old trunk in an attic, with a collection of incredibly old books from a family estate sale decades ago.

A first printing of Hike and the Aeroplane with no dust jacket starts around $3,000 in Fair Condition and prices from $5,000-$7,500 in good condition and around $10,000 for VG+ to near fine. If another dust jacket was found in nearly any condition that could be $25,000+.

There was a limited facsimile made in 1979, which is easy to tell apart from the original.

Defining Features:

  • “August, 1912” date on copyright page
  • Frederik A. Stokes & Co.: New York
  • The book itself is cloth bound (grey-beige in color) with black lettering for the title

Our Mr. Wrenn (1914) Book Value

There were originally 800 copies printed and this one is quite a bit more commonly available. It is also the first book that was printed under Sinclair Lewis’s actual name.

Pricing on this, as with many of the early Lewis books, can vary quite a bit based on what’s available at the time.

Many first printing copies of Our Mr. Wrenn in Near Fine condition are selling at around the $750 range, with the more common Very Good/VG+ selling at around $300. These are prices without the rare dust jacket.

A very good copy with dust jacket would likely be $8,000+.

These are generally available in Good condition, so if your first printing is only good condition then the value is more in the $100-150 range in most situations.

Defining Features:

  • “PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 1914/M-N” printed on copyright page
  • Original issue price was $1
  • Harper & Bros: New York is the publisher
  • Conventional gray cloth bound book but there is gilt lettering and a gilt heart on the front board (condition varies)

The Trail of the Hawk (1915) Book Value

The Trail of the Hawk is one of the harder to find early Lewis books, which is why despite having around the same number of first edition printings as the others here it is often priced higher.

Much like when I sold a copy of The Innocents for double listed market value, there just aren’t usually many copies available so the demand is much higher for a copy that is in very good or near fine condition.

Generally for The Trail of the Hawk first printing in Near Fine can fetch prices up to $1,500 without dust jacket. VG copies are often in the $1,000 range with no dust jacket, and good copies in the $750 area.

The price on this particular first printing is more volatile than many others on the list.

If you’re willing to hold onto it for a long time to get the right buyer the numbers could even be much higher. For whatever reason, a true first printing of this Sinclair Lewis book is just so hard to find.

Defining Features:

  • “Published September, 1915/H-P” on first edition copyright page
  • This book is bound in dark blue cloth, and has gilt littering and a gilt tree on the front board
  • $1.25 original price
  • Harper & Bros: New York is the publisher
  • Actually quite a bit harder to find than “Our Mr. Wrenn”

Tennis As I Play It by Maurice E. McLoughlin – (1915)

This actually won’t be found under the name Sinclair Lewis, and it might have a bit of controversy on this list, but I believe it belongs here.

While that meant this book “by” a popular athlete, and it has never been 100% confirmed this is Sinclair Lewis, the overwhelming consensus when analyzing the text and writing style is that Lewis almost certainly ghostwrote this book.

Ghostwriting was a very good way to start earning money as a writer, and honestly still is even a century later.

So while this isn’t often seen as a Lewis book, enough collectors are convinced that this can fetch a decent price. Good copies aren’t all that valuable and probably cap at $50 however first printings in VG+ or NF conditions can fetch prices of $300 to $700.

Defining Features:

  • George H. Doran Co. Publishing Company
  • Bound in dark green cloth
  • Original black and white photographs/illustrations in the book

The Job: An American Novel (1917) Book Value

The Job was another early Sinclair Lewis novel that showed he was a good enough writer to have a lasting career, but he was also still searching for his voice.

This is a book that doesn’t pop up too often, but it is slightly more common than Trail of the Hawk or The Innocents. This was a book that would garner a little more attention and set Lewis onto the path to literary stardom he would eventually accomplish.

A VG to NF copy with no dust jacket goes for about $550-$750 right now on average. With a true dust jacket even in good condition current prices are $5,000 and up.

Defining Features:

  • “Published February, 1917/B-R” on first edition copyright page
  • Full bound green cloth with gilt lettering
  • $1.50 original price
  • Harper & Bros: New York is the publisher
  • If it comes with a tipped-in sheet advertising the novel Main Street then it is a Remainder copy

The Innocents (1917) Book Value

This is actually one of the most difficult original Lewis books to find, and my first big success story with being a bookhound. All the way back in 2004 I found an amazingly good looking (technical term) copy that I ended up grading as VG+ and in retrospect could have called NF-.

Bought it on eBay for around $60 when insurance, shipping, everything else was figured in. Noticed on my Abebooks.com store that the only two other copies were priced way above what my price guides said it was worth, and mine looked better than theirs.

So I put up a price of $775. It took 3-4 months, but received some email questions from a collector in Connecticut and then sold it.

I was hooked.

For today’s prices of a first printing of The Innocents is all about the details. Without dust jacket NF is selling a touch above $1,000 while VG is selling for around $700, and G for $500 range. The rare dust jacket jumps this up to the $6,500 – $8,500 range.

If you can find an original hardcover of The Innocents by Sinclair Lewis at a good price you should definitely go for it.

Defining Features:

  • “Published, October, 1917 / F-R” on copyright page
  • $1.50 original price
  • Harper & Bros: New York is the publisher
  • This is a fully bound book in light gray cloth, gilt lettering on the front

Free Air (1919) Book Value

You can make a pretty good argument this is the first modern road trip novel. If by novel, you mean a travel novel focusing on that shiny new invention: the automobile.

This is also Lewis’s first book after moving to publisher Harcourt, Brace & Howe, who would push Lewis harder and publish his smash best sellers that would follow soon after Free Air.

Free Air did get some attention, and many more books were printed of this one than the earlier works. Because of that finding a first printing copy of Free Air without the dust jacket is actually pretty easy (At one point I had four of them).

Without the dust jacket copies sell from $75-150 depending on condition. With an original dust jacket a first printing of Free Air can go for $4,000 to $6,000.

Defining Features:

  • Full bound in blue cloth with gilt tree and lettering on the front board (often worn)
  • $1.25 original price
  • Does not have “Reprint” stated on copyright page
Free Air book sinclair lewis

Why Sinclair Lewis?

Why not? More seriously, many of us who ended up as book hounds whether it was to collect for ourselves or to find incredible treasures that then were flipped for major profits, the interest started elsewhere.

Maybe you loved antiques and then found out the wide world of book collecting was a passionate thing many decades before the flipping craze.

Maybe you were like me and loved literature and history. Antique book collecting sort of hit both areas at once.

In my case, family trips went by Suak Center Minnesota, the town sign of which brags as being the birthplace of Sinclair Lewis, and this was actually how I ended up getting into buying, selling, and flipping antique books.

Considering Lewis’s life and literary career was incredibly fascinating and it was a great way to dive head first into this wonderful world.

Where to Find Sinclair Lewis Books as a Collector

This is actually much easier than when I started because of just how much the Internet has connected to everything over the last 20+ years.

As a buyer or collector the first two places to go should be simple:

  • A local antique bookstore if one is nearby (nothing like being able to talk to an expert in person)
  • Abebooks.com

If you’re searching for deals hit garage sales and yard sales although those will rarely pull up great books. However, estate auctions or small town auctions can do surprisingly well.

The town my parents lived in of 3,000 people in Iowa frequently had monthly auctions at the auction house and I was amazed how often I found valuable collectible books there. Not the $20,000 garage sale find, but $75-$250 first editions?

Surprisingly often.

You’ll also find eBay is your friend. While it’s not the Wild West of 20 years ago with more people aware of what they have, and more searching for deals, there are still plenty of options if you pay attention. Same for other auction sites trying to carve out a niche.

Giant used book stores, the kinds with tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of books, will not have time to check every single one. These can be another great place to find a vintage Sinclair Lewis first printing.

Think Long Term

Look, it might not be a home run but if you buy a first printing Sinclair Lewis book on eBay for $100 (shipping/insurance included), put it on your online bookstore at Abebooks, and sell it for $250 plus shipping and handling, that’s still a $150 profit for a single book.

Multiply 1,000 times in a year and you’re going to be quite happy.

With this as your starting guide you’ll be able to start off that awesome collectible book collection with some really amazing Sinclair Lewis first printings.