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Early American editions of The Hobbit

The early American editions of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit were published by the Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston and New York. They are very collectible but extraordinarily difficult to identify. This article describes all known printings until the third edition, which appeared in 1966.

Introduction

In this description, "printing" and "impression" are used interchangeably.

Early editions of a book as popular and enduring as J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit inevitably attract the attention and money of both book collectors and fans. Because a publisher cannot predict accurately how the public will receive a new author, they usually print a small first run and follow it with reprints as needed. Often this first run is called a "first edition". Technically, however, the first edition spans not only the first printing but all printings until the type is reset. In the collectibles market, normally it is the first printing that commands the bulk of attention and money. That is because it was printed in small quantity and under risk of failure in the market. The people who bought the first copies pioneered the book's popularity, and those copies are justly considered precious. While the same is true of The Hobbit, the curious history of the book complicates and broadens the market considerably.

Most books either receive immediate attention in the market, or fail. The successful sell most of their copies within a year or two of publication. Now and then a book sells well and continues to sell for many years. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were drastic exceptions to both patterns. Both works sold enough to induce the publishers to continue printing, but for the first twenty-five years of The Hobbit's life, and the first ten years of The Lord of the Rings, sales on both sides of the Atlantic amounted to little more than a few thousand copies per year. It was not until the mid 1960s that social trends flowered an acceptance and even hunger for the modern fantasy, which Tolkien had developed so long before almost on his own. An obscure author, his books suddenly exploded in popularity. Despite the fact that The Hobbit had already gone through fifteen printing runs and two distinct editions by then, suddenly all of them were collectible. By that time, printing presses were churning out more copies every year than had been sold those first twenty-five.

Tolkien's publisher was George Allen & Unwin Ltd. of London (A&U). Houghton Mifflin of Boston and New York arranged to publish Tolkien's books in the United States. Since Houghton Mifflin did not Americanize the text, they were free either to set their own type or to import sheets from Allen & Unwin. In any case they bound their own volumes, usually distinctly from their British counterparts. The American versions differed from the British in one respect crucial to the collectibles market: beyond the first printing, most of Houghton Mifflin's impressions did not identify which printing run they came out of or even a copyright date. This failure has led to intense confusion in the collectibles market. Very few people can identify the Houghton Mifflin second editions, which were extant from 1951 to 1966. Hence people cannot be sure what they have or might be buying and therefore what it might be worth.

Very roughly, earlier printings are valued more than later. In particular, the first edition, with its very different account of Riddles in the Dark, is in great demand. However, the fifth overall impression, or the first printing of the second edition, seems to be garnering prices as high as the British fourth printing, which was the cheapest and most common of the first edition printings. Later second edition printings are valued much less than first edition printings or the first printing of the second edition.

The presence of the matching dust-jacket often doubles the value of any of these printings, particularly if it is in good shape. However, because the second American edition changes its binding color from printing to printing, they gain considerable charm displayed in array without their jackets.

The first edition

Houghton Mifflin Co. of Boston and New York published the first American edition of The Hobbit in spring of 1938 following its September, 1937 debut in the United Kingdom from George Allen & Unwin LTD. For this first edition Houghton Mifflin printed the sheets in the United States, a practice they abandoned in later printings of The Hobbit and all printings of The Lord of the Rings until the mid 1960s.

Some consider the first American edition of The Hobbit to be the most beautifully designed of any edition. Houghton Mifflin chose to print it in a larger size and on heavier stock than Allen & Unwin's first edition, and they chose to include four color plates of Tolkien's original artwork. Margins are ample and the typesetting well crafted for readability. The lettering on the tan cloth cover is printed in deep blue. The bowing hobbit emblem on the front and the dwarf's hood emblem on the spine are filled with bright red. Regrettably, however, the publisher chose to print the end-paper maps in red only, instead of the black and red chosen by Allen & Unwin. They also mistakenly put the Wilderland map in front and the Lonely Mountain map in back, the reverse of the description in the text.

Surviving dust-jackets on the first edition are exceedingly rare. It is not known whether that is because of attrition or because some printings were not jacketed or because lots directed to some markets did not come with jackets. What is known is that jackets have been reported on more than one of the printings and most commonly on the first printing. The jacket is a medium blue field all around. The front announces the title in white, beneath which appears, in color and framed in red, Tolkien's illustration of Hobbiton. The reverse displays Tolkien's illustration of Smaug on his trove, also in color.

A series of changes to the book suggest Houghton Mifflin printed the first edition several times. The earliest copies show the same bowing hobbit emblem on the title page as is visible on the cover, but in outline. At some point, however, the publisher replaced the emblem on the title page with the rather less appealing seated flautist. This earliest printing also has no half-title page. The first two printings mistakenly identify Chapter VII as Chapter VI on page 118, a defect corrected in the third. While generally similar in all the variants, the binding's cloth changes in color and texture in step with other changes. The first printing's table of illustrations lists Thrór's map as the front endpaper, in accordance with the text (page 30) but contradicting the actual order. The later printings of the first edition list the Wilderland map as the front endpaper, in accordance with the actual order but contradicting the text. This mess was not fully straightened out until the second edition.

(Regarding the bowing Hobbit emblem, some say the boots the hobbit wears conflicted with the text's description of a bare-footed hobbit, prompting the publisher to replace it. Yet the device comes directly from Tolkien's picture of Bilbo bowing to Smaug on his horde of treasure. Tolkien defended the boots to an astute reader by explaining that Bilbo had acquired them along the way.)

Early Tolkien bibliographers refer to these variations as "states" within the "first printing", and recorded only two: one with the bowing hobbit on the title page, and one with the seated flautist. Historically Houghton Mifflin's practice has been to place the publication year at the foot of the title page for the first printings of its first editions. All of first edition Hobbit copies show the 1938 date on the title page, perhaps discouraging bibliographers from ascribing different printings to them.

Others, however, reason that Houghton Mifflin must have printed the volumes several distinct times between 1938 and the second edition of 1951. They point out that none of the variations could have come about during the course of a single printing run. Also, thirteen years elapsed between the first printing and the appearance of the second edition; it seems improbable that Houghton Mifflin would not have reprinted the book (presuming the arrangements with Allen & Unwin permitted). And finally, while the bowing hobbit (first printing) version appears on the market uncommonly, first editions as a whole show up scarcely less often than all the printings of the second edition combined.

Corrections to the text block as described above account for three distinct printings. A strong case can be made for at least one more. Some books with third printing characteristics come bound in one of three tan book cloths that differ from those used in the other printings. The earlier bindings contain a yellowish-green pall that two of these later bindings lack completely. Another difference from earlier printings can be found in the endpaper maps. They are printed on stock that has not been calendered as smoothly as the earlier printings. Lastly, slight deterioration of the printing plates betrays their age. Type defects apparently unique to this last printings are:

  • p. 193: Line 8, the "t" in "into" is broken.
  • p. 193: Line 10, the "o" of "of" is broken.
  • p. 205: Line 5, the "e" of "else" is broken.
  • p. 237: Last paragraph, there are spots of thin ink toward the left, especially the two (s)s of "darkness" as well as "the" below. [Not seen on all copies.]

This last printing may have consisted of several printing runs or perhaps was contracted out to different printers. While no changes in the text block have been noted, the binding cloth and the text block's paper stock both changed at times. One of the cloth variants is similar to the first printing's, but even yellower. Another shows a weave that's tight horizontally but loose vertically, with light, very even oatmeal coloring that can even seem faintly pink in some light. Yet another variant carries a variegated simple weave much like linen wherein individual threads can stand out for several centimeters. This latter is as dark as the binding of the third printing (while lacking the yellow cast), but the coloring is so uneven that it might be mistaken as soiled even when clean. Soiling on the light variant, on the other hand, is immediately apparent. Its cloth shows deep, vivid blues in the lettering, whereas the blue ink on the other two looks obviously paler.

The textblock's paper stock for the lighter cloth variant is brighter than the other two. This is most apparent when comparing the text block edges of the three variants. It is known from owner inscriptions that the variegated linen appeared on the market no later than 1942, and the lighter, tighter linen no later than 1946. No dates have been seen on the yellower variant.

It is known from Hammond & Anderson that the first printing appeared on March 1 1938. A library copy of the third printing has been seen with a check-out date of November 28 1938. If we accept, then, that the first edition consisted of multiple runs on the evidence of emendations to the text block, the most surprising fact arising out of the dating is that the first three printings appeared within nine months of each other. It is not known whether a planned larger, single run was shortened and broken up for the corrections, or whether demand was simply strong enough to warrant new runs with corrections made opportunistically.

Examples have been found with the maps as free leaves, rather than pasted down. Invariably these have been a library edition, bound in orange cloth. The front cover mimics the first edition dust jacket, silk-screened in black. Because several identical examples of the library edition have been reported, and because the endpaper maps show no evidence of having been glued down originally, the library edition is assumed to have come from the publisher rather than to have been bound ad-hoc by libraries. Not enough specimens have been examined to know if library bindings were supplied for all the printings. The library edition trimmed a full 5 mm from the text block's outside margin and a combined 3 mm vertically.

All printings of the first edition measure 15.0 x 21.0 cm. They contain 310 numbered pages.

First edition identifier

Use the table to identify first edition printings.

Printing characteristics matrix
printing emblem half-title binding page 118 map order† map stock map leaves type flaws date††
1 hobbit none book cloth A Chapter VI Thrór front smooth paste-down clean 03/1938
2 flautist present book cloth A Chapter VI Thrór back smooth paste-down clean
3 flautist present book cloth B Chapter VII Thrór back smooth paste-down clean 11/1938
4a flautist present book cloth C Chapter VII Thrór back rough paste-down broken 12/1942
4b flautist present book cloth D Chapter VII Thrór back rough paste-down broken 06/1946
4c flautist present book cloth E Chapter VII Thrór back rough paste-down broken
library either? either? library either? either? either? free either? any?

†Note the explanation below: this is not the order the maps appear, but, rather, the order stated in the List of Illustrations. In all first editions the Wilderland map appears as the front paste-down.
††Earliest confirmed date as seen in publisher's records, owner's inscriptions, or library stamps.

  • emblem
    • hobbit: Center of title page shows a bowing hobbit emblem.
    • flautist: Center of title page shows a seated flautist emblem.
  • half-title
    • none: Volume has no half-title page.
    • present: Volume has a half-title page.
  • binding
    • book cloth A: Yellowish-tan with slight greenish cast. Even color, tight weave in both directions.
    • book cloth B: Similar to Book cloth A, but lighter.
    • book cloth C: Variegated tan, lacking any greenish or yellowish pall. Tight weave in both directions.
    • book cloth D: Light tan, lacking any greenish or yellowish pall. Tight weave horizontally; loose vertically.
    • book cloth E: Very similar to book cloth A, but even more yellow.
    • library: Deep orange with jacket design silk-screened in black.
  • page 118
    • Chapter VI: The chapter title is mislabeled.
    • Chapter VII: The chapter title is correct.
  • map order
    • Thrór front: The List of Illustrations mistakenly states Thrór's map is the front endpaper.
    • Thrór back: The List of Illustrations correctly states Thrór's map is the rear endpaper.
  • map stock
    • smooth: The paper the maps are printed on is smoothly calendered.
    • rough: The paper the maps are printed on is no smoother than the text block.
  • map leaves
    • paste-down: The outside leaf of each map is pasted down onto the inside of the cover.
    • free: The outside leaf of each map is a free leaf.
  • type flaws
    • clean
      • p. 193: Line 8, the "t" in "into" is normal.
      • p. 193: Line 10, the "o" of "of" is normal.
      • p. 205: Line 5, the "e" of "else" is normal.
      • p. 237: Last paragraph, there are no spots of thin ink toward the left.
    • broken
      • p. 193: Line 8, the "t" in "into" is broken.
      • p. 193: Line 10, the "o" of "of" is broken.
      • p. 205: Line 5, the "e" of "else" is broken.
      • p. 237: Last paragraph, there may be spots of thin ink toward the left, especially the two (s)s of "darkness" as well as "the" below.

The second edition

Basics

Tolkien began work on The Lord of the Rings in the years after The Hobbit's publication. As the story evolved, Tolkien realized he needed to change how Bilbo and Gollum interacted in The Hobbit to suit the plot of The Lord of the Rings. Allen & Unwin prepared a new edition of The Hobbit for release in 1951, and Houghton Mifflin followed suit. These American impressions from the 5th through the 14th were bound from sheets printed in Great Britain, corresponding to the same George Allen & Unwin Ltd printings of the second edition. Unlike the AU printings, the American copies do not state the printing until the 18th in the second edition, making them very difficult to identify in isolation. The only exceptions are the 11th, 12th, and one of the two variants of the 5th impression, each of which states the full printing history. The following list of "points" was developed by Strebe by comparing unknown American printings to known British printings. Steve Frisby untangled the 9th printing, which differs from its Allen & Unwin counterpart on page 315. (This divergence likely resulted from the cancel title pages AU was obliged to supply when they converted 9th printing sheets intended for British domestic use into Houghton Mifflin sets.) Information regarding the print run sizes of the Second American Edition of the Hobbit is reported at TolkienBooks.net and is derived from Allen & Unwin records.

The American second editions from the 5th through 14th printings measure 12.7 x 19.0 cm, contain 315 numbered pages, and have end-paper maps printed in black, white, and red. The frontispiece is printed in color, but the remaining color plates of the first edition have been eliminated. With the exception of the 5th printing, the cover design is similar to the American first edition, only smaller, differently colored, and lacking the bowing hobbit emblem on the front board. Both variants of the 5th printing, on the other hand, are bound identically to the British printings, with the only distinction being the notation "Houghton Mifflin Company" at the base of the book's spine.

It would be natural to surmise that Houghton Mifflin put out a 15th impression corresponding to the Allen & Unwin 15th, which is the final British printing of the second edition. But in fact Houghton Mifflin abandoned the practice of importing sheets from Allen & Unwin after the 14th impression. This decision coincides with the rapid rise in Tolkien's popularity in the United States in the mid 1960s. With larger runs, printing locally while paying AU an "offset fee" was cheaper than importing. Interestingly, the decision also coincides with a change of printer on the British side: through the 14th printing (excepting only the 12th printing, contracted out to Waterlow & Sons), Unwin Brothers Limited printed the sheets. Starting with the British 15th impression, C. Tingling and Co. Ltd., took over the printing, though the publisher remained George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Perhaps the change of printer is relevant to Houghton Mifflin's decision to print their own sheets. In any event the new format accounts for the 15th through 23rd printings and is described below in Later printings of second edition.

Printing runs

The following table lists the printing dates, export dates, and number of sheets exported from George Allen & Unwin to Houghton Mifflin across the second edition, as determined from George Allen & Unwin records. The Stated date is the date listed in the corresponding UK impression's printing history on the copyright page.

Impression Printed Stated Exported Copies
5a 1950 1951 January, 1951 1,000
5b 1950 1951 March, 1953 700
6 1954 1954 August, 1954 1,000
7 1955 1955 June, 1955 1,000
8 1956 1956 March, 1956 1,000
9 1957 1957 June, 1957 1,000
10 1958 1958 March, 1958 2,500
11 1959 1959 May, 1959 2,500
12 1960 1961 December, 1960 2,500
13 1961 1961 November, 1961 2,500
14 1963 1963 March, 1963 4,000

5th printing variants

Houghton Mifflin issued two distinct variants corresponding to the British 5th printing.

The earlier variant (5a) is constructed in a similar style to the subsequent American printings of the second edition. That is, the title page states "Houghton Mifflin Company - Boston, The Riverside Press - Cambridge", and the book lacks the printing history and colophon entirely. Even so, the sheets for the text body came from A&U and thus are identical to the British 5th printing.

The later variant (5b) is identical to the British 5th printing in every regard except for the "Houghton Mifflin" notation at the base of the spine. In particular, the title page states "London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, Museum Street"; the colophon shows the A&U St. George and the Dragon insignia and the addresses of the publishers offices worldwide; and the title page verso shows the full printing history.

Dust-jackets

American second edition dust-jackets are nearly identical to British, except that Houghton Mifflin is printed at the bottom of the spine instead of George Allen Unwin. The design is basically unchanged from the original 1937 edition of The Hobbit. Dust-jackets declare the impression and often may be used to ascertain at least the approximate printing of the book. Sometimes, however, the publisher put dust-jackets from one printing onto books of a neighboring printing. Also lost, damaged or discarded dust-jackets are sometimes replaced with ones acquired elsewhere. Hence the jacket cannot be considered definitive.

Collation

The 5th and 6th impression signature marks are at the bottom center:
[B] on page 17, henceforth incrementing one letter every 16 pages.
[*] on page 307.

The 7th, 8th, and 9th impression signature marks start with [B] on page 17, henceforth incrementing one letter every 32 pages.
[*] on page 307.

Signature marks change on the 10th impression: [A*] at the bottom of the Table of Contents; [B] at bottom left of page 33 etc. These signature marks remain unchanged through the 14th impression.

Paper

Paper weight varies from printing to printing. Generally the earlier impressions are thinner than the later. Measurements exclude the binding and end papers; they start from the half-title page and extend to the last story page. The leaves should be pressed tightly when measuring. Measurements are rounded to the nearest half millimeter.

Impression Paper weight
5th impression 18.0 mm
6th impression 20.0 mm
7th impression 19.0 mm
8th impression 17.0 mm
9th impression 16.0 mm
10th impression 19.0 mm
11th impression 20.0 mm
12th impression 22.5 mm
13th impression 24.0 mm
14th impression 23.0 mm

Binding

The 5th through 14th impressions come in a variety of colors. Generally all the books from one printing are bound in the same color, but exceptions may have been found, perhaps when bindings intended for one printing were left over and found use at the beginning of the next printing. Hence the color of the covers cannot conclusively identify a book.

Impression Binding
5th impression Bound identically to the British impressions. Green with mountains and dragon bordering.
6th impression Light blue-green. The 6th impression is the first of the American-style covers.
7th impression Some in khaki; some in rust brown with a slight orange cast.
8th impression Rust brown with a slight orange cast.
9th impression Teal.
10th impression Very light green.
11th impression Very light green.
12th impression Very light green.
13th impression Slate blue with a greenish tint.
14th impression Saturated grass green.

The 6th impression's blue-green is medium light and distinctly blue. The 7th impression's khaki binding, on the other hand, shows no hint of blue or green. Its color is considerably darker than the 10th through 12th impressions. The rust color of the 7th impression seems slightly darker than the 8th. Also, the 7th is lacquered whereas the 8th is not, which probably accounts for the color difference. The covers on the 10th through 12th impressions are very similar to each other, lighter than the 6th impression, and contain no distinctly blue cast. The 10th impression might be slightly lighter than the 12th, and the 12th might be slightly lighter than the 11th. However, not enough copies have been seen to be confident that the differences apply across each entire printing. The 14th impression is a heavily saturated grass green, distinctive and unmistakable. The grain of the cloth is finer and has been lacquered to smoothness.

Advertisements

Commencing with the 7th impression, the final page of the story advertises The Lord of the Rings. The distance between the advertisement and the main body of the text varies from impression to impression. Here the distance is measured from the baseline of the last line of the story's text down to the baseline of the first line of the advertisement.

Impression Distance
7th impression 52.0 mm down.
8th impression 53.0 mm down.
9th impression 53.0 mm down (this differs from the A&U 9th impression's 38 mm).
10th impression 51.5 mm down.
11th impression 38.0 mm down.
12th impression 38.0 mm down.
13th impression 38.0 mm down.
14th impression 42.0 mm down.
15th impression 15.0 mm down.

  • The 5th impression advertises Farmer Giles of Ham on the reverse of the half-title page.
  • The 6th through 13th impressions advertise Farmer Giles of Ham and The Lord of the Rings on the reverse of the half-title page.
  • The 14th impression advertises The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Farmer Giles of Ham, and 'The Lord of the Rings'' on the reverse of the half-title page.
  • The 15th impression of the Allen & Unwin British edition advertises The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Farmer Giles of Ham, The Lord of the Rings, and Tree and Leaf on the reverse of the half-title page. Houghton Mifflin probably did not issue a printing from these sheets.

(Note that the 6th impression advertises The Lord of the Rings on the reverse of the half-title page but not on the last page of the text. This distinguishes the 6th impression.)

Printing flaws

Starting with the 7th impression, the first "o" on page 22 is broken at 5:00 o'clock.

The 13th impression, on the bottom of page 315, displays an illegible "ab" in "you will learn a lot more about them". The 7th through 12th impressions, on the other hand, are clean. The illegible "ab" persists throughout remaining printings of the second edition, both British and American.

Later printings of second edition

Houghton Mifflin enlarged the book to 14.0 x 21.0 cm commencing with the 15th printing, probably in 1964. At that point they abandoned importing sheets from George Allen and Unwin LTD. Parallel to the single British 15th printing, Houghton Mifflin reprinted The Hobbit nine times from their own plates until the advent of the third edition. They dropped the red color from the maps and removed the color frontispiece so that no color remained in the book's interior. The 15th and remaining printings of the second edition are bound in light green with lettering in dark blue. Beginning with the 18th impression the volumes state the printing number on the reverse of the title page, but the 15th, 16th, and 17th printings do not seem to have any unique marks to distinguish one from the other. The 23rd impression is the final impression of the second edition.

(The 23rd printing belongs to the second edition, since the text is unchanged. The 24th printing, though it does not explicitly state so, clearly belongs to the third edition: it replaces the second edition's description of the revised edition with a description of runes; the type is completely reset; and the page count increases to 317.)

While the Allen and Unwin sheets appear to have been printed from Linotype plates, clues suggest that Houghton Mifflin opted to filmset the later printings of the second edition. They did not phototypeset new plates; rather they seem to have photographed the 14th impression. While the sheets are larger, the type block itself is identical. All the print surface flaws that the Allen and Unwin plates had accumulated up to that point were faithfully reproduced in film for the remaining printings. Because any number of copies of the film can be made and stored for future use, the type does not degrade from printing to printing the way it would with Linotype. If the film tears or loses its crispness, it may simply be replaced with a duplicate. Hence, comparisons of type degradation to sort out the 15th, 16th, and 17th impressions would seem fruitless. Indeed the 23rd impression's type block seems just as effectively identical.

By settling on a single binding color and dropping all color from the interior, Houghton Mifflin cheapened the book and killed the charm of the second edition. These later printings are not considered to be as 'collectible' as the earlier printings.

The third edition

The first few printings of the third edition are not marked as such. Instead, they list their printing on the reverse of the title page in the original succession dating all the way back to first UK printing. They are bound identically to the later printings of the second edition. The first impression of the third edition is the one marked as the 24th printing with a copyright date of 1966. Second editions contain the original description of the revised edition, beginning with, "In this reprint several minor inaccuracies...". The third edition's forward, on the other hand, describes the runic characters seen on the maps and in the text. It commences with, "This is a story of long ago." Also, third editions contain 317 numbered pages, as compared to the 315 of the second edition. After some number of printings (the sixth of the third edition, or 29th overall, at latest), Houghton Mifflin added an explicit declaration of the third edition, making them easy to identify.

Later editions

Later Houghton Mifflin editions of The Hobbit are readily identified by their ISBNs and copyright page. They are not generally considered 'collectible', although first printings of the 1973 "Collector's Edition" in green simulated leather occasionally go for a bit of a premium. See English-language editions of The Hobbit for a complete list.

References

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