Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Our Boys: The Quest for a First Edition

In a few recent posts, I have cited to Our Boys: The Personal Experiences of a Solider in the Army of the Potomac by Archibald F. Hill.  This war memoir, first published in 1864 by John E. Potter and Company of Philadelphia, offers interesting insights into life in the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves.  I have found the descriptions of Camp Pierpont in Langley particularly useful in researching Northern Virginia history during the first winter of the war.  Given that I am an avid bibliophile, it should come as no surprise that I immediately began a search for a first edition of Our Boys to add to my growing collection of antique Civil War books.

My searches on eBay, AbeBooks, and other on-line booksellers turned up few 19th century editions of the book, although a multitude of print-on-demand editions were being offered for exorbitant prices.  Imagine my delight when I found an affordable copy on AbeBooks, which was being billed as a "scarce" edition published in 1864.  When receiving the book a couple weeks later, however, I soon began to doubt that I had acquired a first edition of Our Boys.

A few differences immediately stood out from the 1864 edition available on Google Books.  The title page in the first edition lists a publication date of 1864.  The edition I purchased has no date on the title page, although a copyright date of 1864 appears on the reverse side of the title page.  The first edition has a frontispiece of a scene from the book; my version has a portrait of the author instead.  The 1864 edition also contains a flowery dedication to Gen. George B. McClellan, but the same tribute is missing from my copy.  Finally, I noticed that the 1864 edition includes advertisements at the start of the book, with Our Boys listed first in a series of books that "[e]very friend of the soldier wants."  The advertisements in my book appear at the very end, including one for Life and Public Services of Abraham Lincoln by Frank Crosby.  With a little detective work, I discovered that this book on Lincoln was first published in 1865, a dead giveaway that I did not have an 1864 edition of Our Boys

Frontispiece and title page of the edition that I purchased.
So, if I did not purchase a genuine first edition, then what edition do I own?  For the answer to this question I turned to the expert at my neighborhood used book store, the Old Book Company of McLean.  (If you are ever in the area, be sure to check out the impressive collection of Civil War and military history books at this store!)  Phil took a look at my volume, listened to my legwork, and agreed that I had not acquired a first edition.  He then consulted Tom Broadfoot's Civil War Books: A Price Checklist With Advice (1996).  This classic reference work listed three editions of Our Boys: 1864, 1865, and 1890.  All three books were published in Philadelphia, but the name of the publisher was not provided.  After digging around and examining on-line listings, Phil seemed to think that I had the 1890 edition, particularly in light of my book's blue cloth binding and the gilt decoration on the spine.  According to Phil, I paid a fair and reasonable price for the version I owned, even if I didn't get a first edition.  There is a silver lining to the story after all! 

Spine of my circa 1890 edition, showing gilt design and lettering.  The book is in good condition, with slight cocking and signs of rubbing on the covers.  The binding is still relatively tight. 

Cover of 1890 edition by Keystone Publishing Company of Philadelphia (courtesy of Books of Valor).  This book is a first edition of the Keystone printing of Our Boys.  Note the slightly different title of Our Boys in the Army.
Additional research back at HQ generally confirmed the assessment by the Old Book Company.  I located an 1865 edition on Google Books, and this version was printed with 1865 on the title page, as well as different advertisements at the start of the book.  I also noticed that Keystone, another publisher out of Philadelphia, printed an 1890 edition, although this version has a pictorial cover of three soldiers that my book does not.  Listings in AbeBooks point to circa 1890 editions by Potter, as well as Keystone.  It is unclear whether the Broadfoot listing covers the Keystone or Potter version, or both. 

I am glad to have found a 19th century edition of Our Boys.  It certainly has the authenticity that those expensive print-on-demand versions cannot offer.  Of course, I've gained some additional insights into on-line book purchasing.  Claims of "first edition" should be thoroughly investigated.  When in doubt, take the time to ask questions and have the bookseller send pictures.  (AbeBooks has a valuable guide on this topic.)  For now, the search for a first edition of Our Boys continues.  Perhaps I will find a copy the romantic, old-fashioned way, while spending a rainy afternoon in a used and rare bookstore.


DW@CWBA said...

Hi Ron,
I know the frustration. Even on places like ABE, which supposedly is populated by knowledgeable professionals a cut above Amazon and Ebay 3P sellers, you frequently find outfits that cannot accurately grade books or properly determine edition even when it is straightforward. I also love it when sellers call their items scarce or rare, when the book is listed alongside a half dozen others...LOL.


Ron Baumgarten said...

Hi Drew,

Thanks for the comment. It certainly is frustrating. Maybe a maxim should be to avoid any book dubbed "scarce"! I've become more and more suspicious of on-line sellers the more I learn about antique books, which is a relatively new hobby for me (and an extension of my Civil War one)! This most recent experience confirms the need to be diligent about claims that are being made. At least eBay posts photos, but on AbeBooks one usually has to write to the seller to get them (a transactions cost). But in all honesty, if I can figure out what is or is not a first edition, I would expect that a "professional" could too! In any event, the book was valued fairly, so at least I was not overcharged.

Richard said...

Fascinating stuff - not only researching by looking at books, but researching the books themselves. That's got to be pretty tough.

I know I don't have a lot to add to the topic, but seeing those photos leads me to say how beautiful that book is and how many antique books have such beautiful covers. I do see some good dust covers on modern books, but rarely anything that beautiful. I guess "don't judge a book by its cover" applies here, but that is a cool-looking book

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for the comment, Richard. I am glad you found the post interesting. You hit on a few of the reasons why I love book collecting so much. There is the element of learning about the published work itself, which in some cases requires more research than anticipated. The Internet makes things a lot easier than I imagine they used to be. (For example, until Google Books, or other on-line libraries, there would have been no way to figure out what the first edition looked like short of going to actual libraries, and even they likely did not have every book available.) As you point out, old books can be just plain beautiful. Printing was quite an art at one time, and there is something special about collecting such visually appealing publications. Lastly, holding, touching, and owning a book from a certain time period is a way to reach back and feel connected to the past in a personal way. I like to think that even in an age of e-readers, collectors are helping to preserve physical books for future generations. Some day my boys--just 20 months now--will benefit from my collection in an age when actual books may be a distant memory!