I spent a lot of time with 20th century American literature when it came to antique books, which made it much easier to date them as even books in the early 1900s generally would have a copyright page from most major or even mid-sized book publishers. This made my search for publication dates easy as it was common practice to have the year, and printing, clearly published on the copyright page.
Not every collectible book makes things that simple. And even with those easy to ID early first printing books I focused in on during by early collecting days, I still needed to learn what numbers counting down from ten meant, when First Edition and First Printing became different things, and certain oddities that certain publishing companies would use to denote a printing run.
That said, there are plenty of options for learning how to date old collectible books to get an idea of how much that antique is worth.
Let’s dive into it!
Common Methods for Dating Old Collectible Books
Multiple methods exist for dating older books. Some are easy to learn, while others take quite a bit of work. One of the most important things to know is that the country of origin, publisher, and year will combine to make a huge difference in how you should go about looking at the original date of publication.
The following are the most common methods for determining the age of old books. Go down the list and see which one is most likely to work for your specific needs and you will find all the information you need to date the book.
For books published 20th century on, and in some cases even mid to late 19th century, the copyright page was a common edition to any printing and often appears towards the very front of the book, to the left of the title page.
This method only works for:
- Books published with a copyright page
- Books stating “First American Edition” are likely international outside the U.S. and published after 1935
- Most publisher began identifying first edition on the copyright page in the early 1900s
- Fun fact: The first copyright concept started in Great Britain in 1710 under the Statute of Anne which lasted 14 years and was the basis for copyright law in the United States Constitution – which was also originally for 14 years.
Look Up the Title
Unlike 20 years ago or 30 years ago there are multiple online resources for old books, rare books, and collectible books. Because of this, a few searches in Google can get you to experts who actually print in-depth details on what a first edition looks like, and what the clues are for later printings or editions.
To be clear: this goes beyond a basic Google search. A simple search of titles on Google will bring back tons of “for sale” listings and generally little helpful. What you’re looking for are actual websites and contact information so you can use email or a phone call to reach out to the actual experts who tend to run antique book stores.
For very old collectible books that do not have a copyright page, a different strategy is obviously needed.
Searching for the title and looking for comparative titles from antique book stores or printings of old official price guide catalogues online can take books from before the era of copyright pages and give you a list of things to look for to get at least a likely or an approximate dating.
Abebooks.com, although owned by Amazon now, started out as a site for bookstores, particularly those focusing on antique and collectible books. This makes it a good backup plan to find antique book sellers who may have information on your book and can give advice or offer services for identification as to the age of the book.
Book Hound Library
There are certain books that have long been seen as a crucial part of a book hound’s personal library. While there are many different online resources, sometimes you just need the encyclopedias of antique book prices, especially the guides that give crucial information that help identify true collectible books and first printings as opposed to later less valuable reprints.
There are some common guides or books that are frequently grabbed by book hounds for identification purposes, ones that just about every collector will have as part of their library, in addition to modern identification apps and online resources.
- Kovel’s Guides
- Collected Books: The Guide to Values (there’s a reason why even older versions of these go for $50+ and often even more)
- Huxford’s Old Book Values
- Various Niche Collector Guides
The reason the old term was “Book Hound’s library” was because no collector I knew had one book of prices. People who barely did this on the side as a hobby in 2005-2008 and had a solid understanding of how to use online resources then still carried 5-7 books when they were bootstrapping it.
I can think of five I always had off the top of my head, and there were a couple of older Collected Books editions that were kept at Mom’s antique shop on top of that for backup resources.
Back when I started this as a side hustle in 2005 there weren’t smart apps, scanners, or any online resources that could be accessed from a smartphone. Even with those tools, which admittedly make years of study and a giant book library less necessary, don’t replace it.
Get a Formal Appraisal
Sometimes there are first editions that have only the smallest of signs they are a first printing or second printing, and with old enough books sometimes you simply need a formal appraisal to know for sure what the actual date of the book is.
This is especially true of older, unique, or really unusual books. Since there are many tens of thousands of valuable antique books out there, it’s nearly impossible for one guide to have all of them especially once bringing in details like descriptions, differences between printings, etc. Even beyond this is the unfortunate but very real issue of counterfeits.
A true expert who has specialized in selling antique books for 30+ years will know how to spot the inconsistencies or red flags that even experienced amateur book hounds wouldn’t be able to figure out.
A formal appraisal of a rare book can also be used to confirm that the book in question is an original, or which valuable version of the book it is, as some titles might be valuable in multiple printings, multiple runs, or even from publication in different locations. In other words, sometimes you just need a professional specialist to nail down the exact value of what you’re looking for.
The average cost of a formal appraisal can vary greatly. Most vintage book stores offer appraisal services but seeing as how these checks can take time to confirm, the appraisal will likely be charged on a per hour basis and depending on the expert, the location, the amount of work, it can take $30 to $150 an hour.
Contact the rare book stores closest to you and call them to see if they offer appraisals, and what the pricing is for such services. Sometimes this is simply the best solution to finding out about your book.
The Date of When the Antique Book Was Published Matters
Published copyright pages are common practice in modern times, and in some countries that goes back a few decades while for others this has been a practice for well over a century.
If you’re dealing mostly with American or European books published in the 1920s and beyond then for the most part you shouldn’t have a lot of problems identifying when a book was published, as almost all of these books will have copyright pages.
In fact, there are many books in the late 1800s to early 1900s that either have a copyright page or have a year on the title page that can let individual collectors know when that particular printing was released.
Books printed before that can take more work to properly identify especially if printings took place over multiple years or the collectible book is old enough where individual printings may have taken place bit by bit.
The date of the book has a major impact on the value when you go far enough back and also an old enough book can actually take some effort to properly date.
The Type of Antique Book Matters for Dating the Book
If the book you’ve acquired was commonly printed in the 1600s and is bound between leather covers, well that is well before any concept of copyright existed and thus makes for a very interesting piece to try and date. Especially if it is a work that was common for nobles and merchants and an educated upper class to read over a long period of time.
The same title could be published hundreds of years apart depending on the region, the binding, and other factors. All of which might affect the overall value of the book, not to mention the fact that dating becomes much more of an issue.
These types of old antique books were generally out of my budget in my early collecting days, so this was an issue in book dating that I didn’t run into nearly as often as some other collectors I know.
The Country of Origin Matters for Dating the Book
Some countries have had copyright pages for years, but it’s also important to remember that having most big companies as international is actually a relatively new idea. This was not overly common a century ago much less even further back.
If the old book is from the United States then the conventional printing practices were different than say Italy, Germany, Japan, or Mexico. If your collection is very old and international this could make things more complex when it comes to trying to get a common practice for how to go about dating books.
Most standard practices in relatively modern times are based on publishing companies if we’re talking about mass produced runs of books, while very old books that may have been hand printed one page at a time are going to take more effort to pinpoint.
Methods of Dating Older Books
Multiple methods exist for dating older books. Some are easy to learn, while others are going to take serious study, expertise, or in some cases you will straight up need to bring in a professional who has the tools and knowledge to properly date a book.
We’ve already gone after the most common methods in this article. Modern books make it easy thanks to copyright pages and common standard practices in publishing. On the other hand, older books are going to give more of a challenge.
Part of the reason an appraisal might be needed is sometimes figuring out a publishing date (or range) can only be determined because Expert Y that Rare Book Store Owner has worked with for 30 years knows that the commonly used printing press at Town X had a slightly off-kilter Q for two decades, thus putting the printing in that particular range of dates.
Sometimes a detail literally as small as how a letter is set or a misspelling on a single page can be the only clues that let one know when the publishing of an old book took place. If you don’t have access to this in-depth information, then you won’t be able to accurately date the book on your own.
Rare book dealers know the importance of keeping an old collectible book in as pristine condition as possible and will not use any methods or practices that result in damage to the book.
Depending on the country of origin, date of publication, and common publishing standards of the time, dating antique books might be easy once you know what to look for or it might take some training to learn what exactly to look for to narrow down the date. The good news is that with most antique books it is relatively easy to learn how to narrow down the actual date of the book, and if not there are more tools than ever to help with your search.
Don’t underestimate Google, whether it’s finding another example of your old book online that gives the date, actual information on how to identify first editions, or even the contact information of a local collector or rare book store who may have more experience and resources, and will be able to help give you all the information you need to properly date it.