As I mentioned in a previous post, my strategy when tackling huge used book sales is to go to the old books first. But I wonder why? What is it that makes the old books such a delight to me? It was probably my mom who instilled in me a love for old things that stand the test of time, and how I appreciate that, because otherwise I may have skipped the old for the new and missed such joys!
What really excites me is that a hundred-year-old book feels like my little piece of history; these bundles of paper have survived—with little or no aging—for a century! What else do we have that is a hundred years old? For example, can you imagine that the book you hold in your hand with the hundred-year-old copyright was ON THIS EARTH when the Titanic sank, all during World War I (did a soldier have your book in his backpack?), when the first talking movies were invented, when Alexander Fleming was discovering penicillin (could he have owned it?) and during the stock market crash of 1929?
Who bought it first? And how did it get from its first owner to its most recent owner (me)? Did it get handed down to a relative, who loaned it to a friend, who lost it while traveling on a ship and it was eventually found by another passenger years later, who kept it safe and sound in a drawer until giving it to a library, which eventually put it on a bargain table where someone bought it for an antique-lover, who finally donated it to the Calgary Crossroads Book Sale where I bought it?
Here is the first really old book I found, McGuffey’s Eclectic Fourth Reader, published in 1853 by Winthrop B Smith. In about 1990 I was browsing around one of the wonderful used book stores on 16 Avenue NW (that is no longer there), and when I told the owner that I collected old school readers, he said he didn’t have any upstairs, but I could look around in the basement. I picked through boxes and bags of books and found this gem. I think I paid $5 for it.
The spine is in rough shape, and it shows another document under the spine and the top left corner of the front cover. If anyone knows what that practice was for, let me know.
The front cover has a name stamped on it, my best guess being “J. Bruce Smith, HC CALGARY”. It makes me wonder if the schools stamped each book with the student’s name, or if that particular student stamped his own name on it. Or is the Smith on the cover related to the publisher Smith?
Inside the cover on the first page is an inscription (I love inscriptions!). It looks like “Elias N. ___, Jan. 3rd, 1859”.
It actually looks like 1839 to me, but in the text it says it was published in 1853.
The Table of Contents is filled with “Directions for Reading” and interesting-looking Prose and Poetry Lessons, some by authors we still read today. Here is a readable version of the Table of Contents.
In the back there is a refund notice: “Refund 2.50 if returned before June 20, 1932, A.W. ___”. It’s interesting to think that around 1932 the book was already 80 years old, so perhaps it was in the reference section of a library.
Wow, this book was around during the California Gold Rush, and in the same year the Washington Territory was created from the Oregon Territory. Maybe some of the children in the covered wagons did their schooling from my book. Vincent Van Gogh was born, in 1953, and Napoleon was married that same year. This book on my shelf was published almost 10 years BEFORE the U.S. Civil War began. Did a ten-year-old student worry about his father fighting in Gettysburg while turning these very pages?
Enough pondering. I would so love to hear about some of your favorite old books! I hope you’ll post a comment below, or even send me photos, so we can trade stories.