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Collecting cookbooks: Making a meal of it

A 1671 cookbook by Robert May, ‘The Accomplisht Cook or the Art and Mystery of Cookery,’ sold in January 2015 for about $670. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Nothing speaks of home and hearth more than a well-used cookbook. A favorite recipe for grandma’s noodles, Aunt Betty’s apple crisp pie, Dad’s chili, or Mom’s Thanksgiving turkey is the very definition of ‘comfort food.’ 

Cookbooks didn’t start as nostalgic compilations of beloved family dishes, however. Up until at least the 17th century, instructions on cooking were largely straightforward functional documents created by the (primarily male) lead chefs for the kitchen staffs of prominent households. Those who lacked the power and prestige to immortalize their culinary creations on paper – aka everyone else –passed down the art and science of cooking through on-the-job training at home, one meal at a time.

A 1541 reprint of ‘Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome’ by Apicius realized $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The first authenticated book of recipes in book form is De Re Coquinaria, which is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived during the reign of Tiberius in the 1st century (or maybe the 5th century, according to some scholars). The recipes, written in Latin, were arranged by meats, vegetables, fish and fowl, and even included housekeeping hints, a practice that later cookbooks would embrace.

After the advent of the printing press, cookbooks slowly turned into a distinct genre. Some showcased local cuisines and reflected whether and how its cooks employed spices, and when they prepared exotic animals for the table, such as the peacock. Tips for running a kitchen and a home appeared as well. As these household mainstays moved closer to transcending the role of the instruction manual, they evolved into anthropological documents that reveal and preserve cultural practices and values.

The first cookbook printed in the United States appeared in 1796 and was authored by Amelia Simmons, who described herself as ‘an American orphan.’ An 1808 edition sold for $1,200 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The first cookbook published in the United States was American Cookery, which was released in 1796 and written by Amelia Simmons, an American orphan. Recognized by the Library of Congress as one of the ‘Books That Shaped America,’ American Cookery was the first to rely on ingredients found only in the United States. Simmons identified pumpkin pie, cranberries with turkey, and the cookie (spelled as the Dutch word ‘cookey’) for the first time in a printed work. American Cookery became a bestseller for nearly 30 years and it continues to be reprinted by the Oxford University Press and Dover Publications.

Measurements for ingredients in cookbooks of centuries past were annoyingly inexact, advising home chefs to add a pinch of this or a bit of that without quantifying the size of said pinch or bit. Cooking temperatures weren’t uniform, either. Nor could they be, as cooks of the pre-Industrial age readied meals in open fireplaces in huge pots and kettles that could feed scores in one sitting or feed a smaller group several days’ worth of meals.

All that changed when Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families was published in London in 1845. She specified the amount of each ingredient in her recipes and standardized the cooking times. So obviously useful was this approach to recipe design that subsequent cookbook authors were compelled to adopt it.

A first edition of ‘Pauline’s Practical Book of the Culinary Art for Clubs, Home or Hotels,’ the third cookbook written by an African American woman, realized $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2019. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

In 1896, Fannie Farmer, the director of Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, published The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, which standardized cookbooks once and for all. Farmer’s contribution was a byproduct of the domestic science movement of the late 19th century, which ultimately gave rise to the discipline of home economics. Farmer placed supreme emphasis on giving precise measurements that could be confirmed and delivered by teaspoons, cups, and other purpose-made kitchen tools we now take for granted. Farmer’s focus was so intense, she became known as the mother of level measurements. Nor did she overlook the niceties of the presentation of a meal, or the merits of its nutritional qualities. Her cookbooks were so thorough, comprehensive, and revolutionary as easy-to-follow guides that they are still in print. Well-known 20th-century cookbooks such as The Joy of Cooking, Betty Crocker’s Cook Book, Better Homes and Gardens, and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking followed the format of American Cookery and Fanny Farmer’s works.

Collectors of cookbooks have as many options for approaching and categorizing their libraries as there are goods at a supermarket. Unfortunately, it is impossible to own an antique cookbook that contains what might be the best-known line from a recipe: “First, catch your hare.” The wry comment that captures the wisdom of starting at step one has been attributed to Hannah Glasse’s 1747 best-seller The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy, and also to Isabella Beeton, author of the 1861 favorite, Beeton’s Book of Household Management, but the phrase doesn’t appear in either woman’s book. Glasse, however, comes closest in her recipe for roasting a hare, which states, “Take your Hare when it is cas’d [skinned] and make a Pudding.”

Collectors can target books by region, by nation, by language, by era, and by food group. They can concentrate on cookbooks of nouvelle cuisine; on cookbooks that teach how to produce an absurdly wide range of meals with a single piece of kitchen equipment, such as a Dutch oven or a crockpot; and on cookbooks created for religious communities, such as Kochbuch für Israelitische Frauen (Cookbook for Jewish Women) which was published in 1901. The subcategory of the celebrity cookbook long predates the rise of the celebrity chef, and features many authors who made their reputations in other arenas before publishing a tome of recipes.

‘Les Diners De Gala Suite,’ a 1973 cookbook by Salvador Dali that also contained 12 color lithographs and his signature, achieved $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2013. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Diet books have been bestsellers for generations and provide a telling window on the concerns and anxieties of those who first purchased them. Yet another notable cookbook category features one main course or major ingredient, such as The Pescatarian Cookbook, created for people who eat fish rather than any other meat.

Holiday cookbooks are a perennial favorite. Many people who don’t bother with books full of day-to-day recipes clear room on their shelves for seasonal cookbooks, grateful for the refresher on preparing dishes they only make once a year, and grateful for ideas for indulgent, over-the-top dishes that delight the eyes just as much as the stomach. Popular choices in this realm include How to Cook Everything Thanksgiving by Mark Bittman, which was first published in 2012, as well as the annual Christmas with Southern Living titles. Both help steer their readers through the stress of cooking for holiday gatherings. 

An author-inscribed first edition of ‘The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book’ that contained the infamous recipe for hashish fudge sold for $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

One thing that collectors of cookbooks are never required to do is put their prizes to the purpose for which they were published. Sure, cookbooks that feature smudges, smoke-scorched pages, or cryptic handwritten notes in the margin gain an aura of authenticity that a rigidly pristine example lacks, but when it comes to book-collecting, clean copies always win. Perhaps the solution is to gather two versions of the same cookbook – one to keep in mint condition, and another that sports the wear and tear that comes with being loved and trusted by generations who rose from kitchen novices to seasoned experts while turning its pages. 

Bon appetit.

Coffee table books bring out the beauty of reading

A signed copy of Madonna’s book ‘Sex’ sold for $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Hockessin Auction Company. Image courtesy of Hockessin Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

Coffee table books took reading into the realm of beauty. While they convey information, their first job is to sit there and look pretty, giving pleasure even if no one actually lifts the cover. 

The concept of a coffee table book is a relatively recent phenomenon, although Michel Montaigne in his 1581 book Upon Some Verses of Virgil suggests that his essays would only “…serve the ladies …to lay in the parlor window…” In other words, to be seen and only occasionally browsed for amusement.

A signed copy of Helmut Newton’s limited-edition book ‘Sumo,’ which had belonged to Robert Evans, realized $22,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Julien’s. It came with its own furniture, a chrome-plated stand designed by Philippe Starck. Image courtesy of Julien’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Almost four centuries later, art books published by Cailler, Editions Tisne and Éditions Mazenod, among others, combined color images with lengthy text in a folio format a large printing size. The books targeted the art market and were limited in scope, but can still be considered coffee table books by today’s standards.

What we would recognize as the first proper coffee table book debuted in 1960. David Brower, then the executive director of the Sierra Club, promoted a series of nature books in hardbound folios called the ‘Exhibit Format.’ The series featured more photographs than text, a strategy that reversed the approach of earlier large format books, because Brower wanted “… the eye … to move about within the boundaries of the image …” The series began with black-and-white photographs from famed photographer Ansel Adams in This is the American Earth and ultimately encompassed 20 volumes of nature photographs. To see the image was almost as good as experiencing nature itself.

Publishers saw the success of the Sierra Club series and produced their own takes on the large, photo-centric and text-light format. They soon discovered coffee table books can sell well without focusing on art or nature. The first book to use the words ‘coffee table book’ in its title was The Coffee Table Book of Astrology, published in 1962.

What makes for a good coffee table book?

Size matters. A coffee table book worthy of the name should boast a trim size of at least 9in by 10in, to accentuate the table it sits on. Anything smaller would disappear into the backdrop. Of course, if it’s too big, the book could overwhelm even the room itself. The double elephant folio version of John James Audubon’s Birds of America series is lush and gorgeous and meets David Brower’s stricture that “… the eye cannot encompass the image all in one glance.” But with pages that measure more than two feet by three feet, it is so large as to be awkward and ungainly – a definite no-no for a coffee table book.

A coffee table book featuring Palm Springs, Florida, inscribed in 1989 by Bob and Dolores Hope to former President and Mrs. Gerald Ford achieved $525 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Another important part of a coffee table book is content. It needn’t be copiously wordy, but there must be some there there. Whatever the content, it must bring out an immediate ‘hmm’ which compels you to pick it up and read. 

‘The Complete Work of Michelangelo,’ an important coffee table book published in 1967, sold for $40 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Dejavu Estate Sales & Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Initially, the accepted range of coffee table book topics was limited to art histories or art-adjacent themes. A prime example is The Complete Work of Michelangelo by Mario Samli, which was published in 1967 and weighs nearly five pounds. Contemporary coffee table books deliver so much more. In a recent list dubbed 38 Coffee Table Books That Are So Beautiful It Hurts, Buzzfeed.com showed how far the coffee table book has come. Number one on the list: sneakers. The Ultimate Sneaker Book tells the story of the iconic footwear in 650 pages and countless images. There are also travel guides, such as ‘City Guides’ from Cereal Magazine that celebrates New York City, London, and Paris with images that makes readers long to pack their bags and go. Others showcase interior design, plants, furniture, food, and any topic that yields fanciful images that transform the seemingly mundane into art objects themselves.

What collectors look for

According to industry records, the fastest-selling contemporary coffee table book is Sex by the singer, actor and producer Madonna. Released in 1992, all 1.5 million copies sold out within three days of the book’s release at $50 (about $95 with inflation). Despite its abundant first-edition production run, it remains the most popular out-of-print book. A copy signed by Madonna sold for $1,100 at auction in 2018.

Conceived by William Henry Fox Talbot, ‘The Pencil of Nature’ was first produced in 1844 as a book of ‘photographic drawings.’ A 1985 reprint of the proto-coffee table book achieved €800 ($940) plus the buyer’s premium in March 2019. Image courtesy of Auction Team Breker and LiveAuctioneers

Of course, collectors of coffee table books seek rarities, too. In 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot produced a book of ‘photographic drawings’ of silver-salted black-and-white prints of daily life. The Talbot publication is considered an early predecessor to the modern coffee table book, and a 1985 reprint achieved nearly $950 at auction in 2019.

Montaigne may have lamented his essays being only fit for a parlor window, but adding exquisitely-shot color images could turn his tome into art fit for conversation at any table, library, online meeting or, why not, even a window ledge.

‘This is the American Earth’ is considered the first modern commercial coffee table book. A copy signed by co-author Ansel Adams sold in May 2016 for $90 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Incunabula: Books from the birth of the printed word

A copy of one the earliest known printed maps of Jerusalem, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, realized $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019.
Image courtesy Winner’s Auctions LTD and LiveAuctioneers

Incunabula, a Latin word that means “in the cradle,” describes books created during the infancy of European printing, an era that spans the years 1455 to 1501.

These early books evolved from East Asian and Middle Eastern textile block prints as alternatives to costly hand-copied, scrolled manuscripts. Though this printing technique reached Europe in the early 1300s, woodcuts, as they became known, entered general use only where paper was available.

The first type of incunabula are block books sets of sheets pasted back-to-back developed from single-leaf devotional and playing card images. They were copied in reverse on wooden blocks, which were then inked, covered with sheets of dampened paper, and hand-rubbed with heavy leather balls. Their resulting impressions were uneven, and with repeated printings, their clarity and crispness deteriorated. Though this early type of incunabula was undated and did not include printer emblems, paper analysis has traced most examples to southern Germany and the Netherlands.

Typographic books, the second type of incunabula, were created using individual units of cast-metal, moveable, reusable type. Unlike woodcut printing, this technique produced quick, durable, uniform results. It also inspired the development of various typefaces.

The quality of Johannes Gutenberg’s Latin Bible from 1454, the first printed book in the West, did not just establish the superiority of moveable type. According to the Library of Congress site Incunabula, “Gutenberg’s most significant contribution to the history of printing consists of making metal punches, moulds, and matrices by which type could be accurately cast in large quantities. Freeing letters, number, and punctuation from the single woodcut meant that pages could be assembled and reassembled quickly.”

Many collectors seek portions of incunabula. A single leaf from the Gutenberg Bible featuring decorative red and blue initials, headlines, chapter numbers, and capitals, and bound with A. Edward Newton’s essay A Noble Fragment, Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible 1450-1455 in luxurious black morocco leather is a treasure.

Leaf 156 from the Gutenberg Bible, with Old Testament passages in Gothic type, sold for $65,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Printers soon realized that combining metal type with ornamental woodcut lettering and illustrations on a single incunabula page increased its commercial value. As printing presses arose in cities such as Mainz, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Florence, and Venice, many graced their natural history, religious, and allegorical texts with carved woodcut images.

A first edition of the ‘Orthographia,’ the monumental Latin dictionary by Johannes Tortellius sold for £10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2016.
Image courtesy of Forum Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Orthographia, a monumental study of ancient Greek and Latin compiled by Johannes Tortellius between 1449 and 1495, is one example of illustrated text. So is the famed Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, which, in addition to boasting one of the largest print runs of its time, inspired several large-scale pirated editions. This ambitious work depicts the saga of human history, from the Creation through the Last Judgement, with more than 1,800 illustrations from more than 600 woodcuts.

Leaf CCXIX from the Nuremberg Chronicle, featuring portraits of King Adolph of Nassau, King Louis of Sicily, and others sold for $100 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Old World Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In addition to portraying Biblical characters, popes, rulers, and European cityscapes, it features two of the earliest known printed (though imaginary) birds-eye views of Jerusalem, depicting Solomon’s Temple. According to Rehav Rubin, Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University, Jerusalem and author of Jerusalem in Maps and Views, both resemble the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built centuries later. Through the years, charming incunabula images such as these have been reproduced repeatedly to popular acclaim.

This pair of illuminated antiphonal folio incunabula leaves on vellum with staves of music realized $150 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many music-themed incunabula, discussing topics such as plainsong, mathematical aspects of theory, and rules of notation, were illustrated with carved block prints. Liturgical graduals (which we would know as hymnals) and antiphonals (which we would call chants) were needed in great numbers because they were performed during Mass. These publications required specialized graphics staffs of continuous lines marked by symbols at varied heights, making them a challenge to produce. Initially, individual pages were block-printed entirely, or their text was type-printed, leaving space for hand-written melodies. Later, liturgical printers provided pages pre-impressed with evenly spaced staffs in traditional red ink, in the manner of medieval musical manuscripts. After black variously-shaped notes were impressed in place, a second impression added music texts, or vice-versa.

Oldest panoramic view of Erfurt, from the 1493 book, the Nuremberg Chronicle, realized $385 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

Some collectors seek incunabula by language, illustrations, country, city, edition, printer, or provenance. Others seek incunabula featuring specific subject matter, like science, mathematics, literature or religion. And still others value incunabula for their own sake, the sake of history. What unites them is a passion for the printed word in its earliest form, before people truly understood its formidable power to shape and change the world.

Jasper52 book auction examines US history Sept. 16

The liquidation of an antiquarian book dealer’s private collection continues in a Jasper52 auction on Wednesday, Sept. 16. The auction, which contains many items never listed before in any forum, has many titles focusing on U.S. history.

The title page of Henry Howe’s landmark two-volume encyclopedia of the state of Ohio, 1896 updated and expanded version of the original 1847 edition. Estimate: $95-$115. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

British recording artists star in online book auction Aug. 18

Fans of British pop music will be tuning into a Jasper52 rare book auction that will be held Tuesday, Aug. 18. Books relating to David Sylvian and the new wave band Japan, and singers-songwriters Kate Bush and Marc Almond are featured.

Page 50 of ‘Japan – A Foreign Place – The Biography (1974-1984),’ by Anthony Reynolds, published by Burning Shed, 2009. The book, which is in like-new condition, has a $250-$300 estimate. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Harry Potter casts spell on bibliophiles

NEW YORK – Perhaps more so than any other series, the Harry Potter books have woven their magic on readers. They have spawned legions of fans with fond remembrances of midnight release parties and thumbing through dog-eared, well-loved copies. It usually takes several decades for a book to become collectible but these books already rank are among the most desirable to book collectors.

First and special editions are highly prized and the last four books in the series sold about 11 million copies in their first day of release, setting records.

A rare hardback Bloomsbury first edition of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,’ author-signed with misprint of Joanne Rowling on copyright page, attained $120,000 in November 2019 at Hindman, the second highest price ever paid at auction for Rowling’s work. Photo courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

“The Harry Potter phenomena is credited with many things, such as making reading cool again, but I believe it also introduced a generation to the idea of collecting books,” according to a blog by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. The association notes that, while aimed at young adult readers, the books gained a loyal following from adults as well. As a result, many different covers and editions were issued over time with different illustrations used to appeal to more adult audiences. The cover art illustrations of Thomas Taylor and Mary GrandPré were vastly different yet did much to introduce new audiences to Harry Potter.

This American publication of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,’ 2000, features a cover illustration by Mary GrandPré. Photo courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

“Where Taylor’s depiction of Harry waiting for the gleaming red Hogwarts’ Express on a smoky platform 9¾ helped visualize the boy with the lightning-shaped scar for audiences of adults and children alike … Grandpré’s cover for the U.S. book was the first to depict the young wizard in action, chasing a Quidditch snitch on his broomstick with the majestic turrets of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the backdrop,” according to an Observer article.

J.K. (Joanne) Rowling published the first of her seven fantasy novels starring Harry Potter in 1997 with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone through British publishing house Bloomsbury. The book was renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by American publisher, Scholastic and in the film series.

AbeBooks has sold many copies of Rowling’s books at robust prices, including a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that sold for $37,000. The bookseller notes that demand has continually stayed high even though the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published more than a decade ago, in 2007. “One simple guideline to collecting Potter books: anything signed by J.K. Rowling has significant financial value. A book signed by one of the illustrators is much less valuable,” according to the website.

A complete set of all seven UK Harry Potter books signed by the author brought $11,000 in April 2016 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Catherine Payling, director, Books and Prints Department, Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va., said when collecting investment-grade books, the most important consideration is rarity. “The most valuable book of all is the first British edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was published by Bloomsbury on June 30, 1997, and only 500 were printed [most reportedly went to libraries],” she said. “Some of those will have been lost over the years, making it even more uncommon. A signed one will be even more valuable since, at the time, J.K. Rowling was not well known and signed a small number of the books.”

Four U.S. editions by Scholastic of Rowling’s Harry Potter. Photo courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

With all the books, wherever printed, the first edition and first printings are worth far more than later print runs, especially the first book, she said. Later titles in the series were published in huge numbers as Rowling’s fame grew exponentially so they are not rare. There are also Book Club editions on the market, which have little value.

Different hardcover editions were issued over the years. “There are signed DeLuxe editions, which have some value, especially the UK editions,” Payling said. “Again, the first editions, first printings, will be most desirable. In this series, The Prisoner of Azkaban is especially rare and commands a higher price—fewer were printed.” Some of the hardcover first-run copies were released before it was noticed that the copyright page said Joanne Rowling not J.K. Rowling so the “Joanne” versions in pristine condition can go for over $10,000, according to AbeBooks.

“As with all things condition is important, since collectors will prefer a book in mint condition over one that has been handled a good deal,” Payling added.

An uncorrected proof copy of a first edition ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ sold for $11,531 at Bamfords Auctioneers & Valuers in May 2019. Photo courtesy of Bamfords Auctioneers & Valuers and LiveAuctioneers

AbeBooks noted that prices for first edition first printings of the Sorcerer’s Stone (American edition) average $4,000 to $5,000 and can fetch up to $6,500. By the second book, Chamber of Secrets, prices for hardcover first edition first printings were going as high as $9,000, with deluxe editions bringing more if signed. As the series went on, Rowling signed fewer books so those with her signature claim robust prices.

For all those collectors who wish they had been gifted with their own admittance letter to Hogwarts, Rowling’s books continue to delight audiences of all ages.

Signed Andy Warhol 1st edition offered in rare book auction Dec. 11

Jasper52 will host a rare book auction of nearly 150 lots on Wednesday, Dec. 11. The auction includes leather-bound books, sets, fine bindings and treasures in every price range. Featured is a signed copy of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol from A to B & Back Again by Andy Warhol.

‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol From A to B & Back Again,’ 1975, hardcover, inscribed by Andy Warhol to Nicci (Nicola), wife of Kenneth Jay Lane, first edition. Estimate: $900-$1,100. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Sets of literary classics star in Jasper52 auction Sept. 24

A Jasper52 antiquarian book auction on Tuesday, Sept. 24, includes many sets of literary classics in fine bindings. With treasures in every price range, this sale offers collectors the opportunity to add rare volumes to their collections.

Jane Austen, ‘The Novels,’ published by Chatto and Windus, London, 1917, 10 volumes. Estimate: $2,500-$3,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Yearbooks: Not So Embarrassing When They’re Collectible

Remembrances have been around for centuries in the form of scrapbooks containing special things – ribbons, drawings, handwritten stories, dried flowers, even hair. Bound together, these items have a way of keeping memories alive.

A new way of commemorating personal experiences was introduced in 1806 with the publication of the first college yearbook. It was produced by Yale and titled “Profiles of the Class Graduated at Yale College.” There are no known surviving copies of the book. The “Signia,” a yearbook from the 1823 graduating class of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, is believed to be the oldest extant college yearbook. As for the oldest high school yearbook, that honor goes to the 1814 edition of “The Cue,” from Albany Academy in Albany, New York.

It’s not certain what each of these yearbooks contained, but a best guess is that they might have been formatted in scrapbook style and focused only on the graduates.

1877 university scrapbook with remembrances and advertising cards. Images courtesy of Uniques and Antiques Inc., and LiveAuctioneers Archive

Photography would change how yearbooks looked. As early as 1826 or so, a practical image was made from a camera obscura by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce. His View from the Window at Le Gras is considered the earliest surviving photograph. Since yearbooks are all about visuals, Niépce’s invention would change and define the yearbook over time.

Early Photographs

The 1845 edition of “The Evergreen” is the oldest surviving high school yearbook issued by Waterville Academy in New York City. Highlighting its academic and other activities, the yearbook also allowed daguerreotype images to be tipped in by hand.
When the daguerreotype fizzled out by the end of the 1850s, George K. Warren, a photographer specializing in portraits in and around Boston, moved on to the more useful tintypes where more copies could be produced from a single negative – a useful breakthrough. Concentrating on college portraits, patrons bought several copies of their image and passed them around to their friends. Your friends then gave you a copy of their photographs, and after amassing a selection, you could have them bound in a book of your own.

However, yearbooks were only for seniors at college and high school and were quite expensive to produce. This remained the case until the 1870s, when the albumin process made it easier to mass-produce photos.

Gravure Printing

By 1880 or so, printing by the offset process made mass production of books, newspapers, and advertising more economical and commercially available. Utilizing an intaglio process, photographs could be more easily reproduced and rendered in higher quality using a photogravure process. Because such images were produced by hand, it was limited to fine prints.

Princeton University Yearbook of 1899 showing then-new rotogravure printing of half-tone photos. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers Archive

However, it is the rotogravure process that enabled photographs and images to be printed using a rotary printing press. With this process, yearbooks became more widely available, with images and photographs using the half-tone printing process. By 1920, all yearbooks included more than just the graduating class; they also included club activities, sports teams and individual graduate poses.

Lithography

Beginning in the 1930s, high school and college yearbooks became much more affordable for the average family thanks to offset lithography. They began to be produced for graduating classes everywhere.

Availability to Collectors

It isn’t difficult to find 19th-century scrapbooks at auction. Most are filled with clips of newspapers and other items of personal interest, but they contain virtually no photographs or advertising to tell a more compelling story.

Almost all vintage yearbooks that show up at auction are from the beginning of the mass-production movement, which started around 1920. They include individual images, sports activities, clubs, histories, personalities and even advertising.

The Seminole, 1946 and 1947, University of Florida yearbooks. Courtesy Florida Estate Sales LLC and LiveAuctioneers Archive

Collecting yearbooks, particularly those from high schools, is a favorite pastime for fans looking for early photographic depictions of current celebrities. Having an insight on stars and public figures at a time when their personalities were not fully formed adds an interesting dynamic to the individuals we now know.

For example, Neil Armstrong, who, in 1969, became the first man to set foot on the moon was something of a recluse later in life, choosing privacy over the trappings of celebrity. His autograph became harder to obtain, as he refused all requests for his signature. A 1947 high school yearbook that recently sold for $2,050 shows a handwritten signature in capital letters. Very unusual.

Neil Armstrong signed his Blume High School (Wapakoneta, Ohio) yearbook in all caps. The description of Armstrong reads: “He thinks, he acts, ’tis done.” The book sold for $2,050. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers Archive

Yearbooks provide a snapshot in time that goes beyond the embarrassing senior photo. The advertising in yearbooks, for example, provides a frame of reference for local histories. The activities or clubs that were important at that time may have disappeared, and athletic achievements may have been forgotten.

Yearbooks are plentiful; in fact, the supply is overwhelming. There are about 17,000 to 25,000 or so high schools in the United States. If each school produces a yearbook with an average of about 500 students or so per graduating class, that could mean about 8.5 million to 12.5 million yearbooks published per year and that’s not including colleges and universities. Most yearbooks continue to sell at auction in the $10 to $30 range. A premium is paid for any that contain a student who later became famous, whether an actor, politician, athlete or other public figure.

Examples of albumin photo processing are seen in this 1870 West Point Officers yearbook. Image courtesy of Alderfer Auction and LiveAuctioneers Archive

Additionally, yearbooks now encompass more than just colleges and high schools. Military graduating classes such as boot camp, specialized training, and naval tours all have their individual yearbooks commemorating the class or event. Businesses also have created yearbooks for anniversaries and yearly conferences, and so do sports teams. The New York Mets have issued a yearbook annually since 1962.

The New York Mets baseball team has issued yearbooks since 1962. Image courtesy of Baker’s Antiques and Auctions, and LiveAuctioneers Archive

Lastly, unlike other collectible categories, there are no specific price guides for yearbooks or organized collecting associations. However, there is no shortage of collecting opportunities with yearbooks. They encompass art, culture, language, advertising, and personalities. They also tell the story of printing and photography. That’s what makes collecting yearbooks a fascinating and long-lasting avocation – one year at a time.

______________

Sources:

Konkle, Bruce E., A Preliminary Overview of the Early History of High School Journalism in the U.S.: 1775-1925, University of South Carolina-Columbia, 2013

Yearbook History: https://photoographybriana.weebly.com/yearbook-history.html; NPR https://www.npr.org/sections/pictureshow/2010/06/03/127412786/yearbooks

About George K. Warren, J. Paul Getty Museum:

http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/2878/george-kendall-warren-american-1834-1884/

Firsts by noted authors featured in vintage book auction Aug. 22

First editions penned by many of the 20th-century’s greatest authors, including George Orwell’s 1934 Burmese Days, Ernest Hemingway’s Men Without Women and Jack London’s Call of the Wild – all three with dust jackets – are featured in a book auction that will be conducted by Jasper52 on Wednesday, Aug. 22.

‘Junkie,’ William S. Burroughs, first edition, first printing, softbound, bound dos à dos with Maurice Helbrant’s ‘Narcotic Agent,’ Ace Book Inc., New York. Estimate: $1,200-$1,500. Jasper52 image

View the auction.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.