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 very difficult to identify. This article describes all known printings until the third edition, which appeared in 1966.
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 and his books 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 far more copies every year than had been sold those first twenty-five.
Tolkien's publisher was George Allen & Unwin Ltd. of London. 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. This error seems to have been corrected eventually, since properly ordered examples have been seen in the last (assumed) printing of the first edition.
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.
It seems evident that Houghton Mifflin printed the first edition several times. The earliest printing shows on the title page the same bowing hobbit emblem 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. (Some researchers state that the boots the hobbit wears in the emblem were acknowledged to conflict with the text's description of a bare-footed hobbit, prompting the publisher to replace it. While that's possible, it has been countered that the publisher left the bowing hobbit on the cover even while replacing it on the title page.) The first two printings mistakenly identify Chapter VII as Chapter VI on page 118. The third printing corrects the Chapter VII heading. A fourth distinct printing presents the Wilderland and Thor's maps as free leaves rather than end-paper paste-downs.
1st edition, 1st printing
1st edition, later printings
Some refer to these variations as "states" within the "first printing", and acknowledge only two of them: one with the bowing hobbit on the title page, and one with the seated flautist. Hammond and Anderson¹ for instance, only record two states. Houghton Mifflin's practice historically has been to place the publication year at the foot of the title page for the first printings of its first editions. All of the first edition Hobbit printings have the 1938 date on the title page, so researchers have been hesitant to ascribe different printings to them. Others reason, however, that Houghton Mifflin printed the volumes several distinct times between 1938 and the second edition of 1951. As evidence, each of the variations described in the preceding paragraph could not 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.
- First printing: Bowing hobbit emblem on title page. Chapter VII mistakenly titled Chapter VI. Maps pasted down.
- Second printing: Seated flautist emblem on title page. Chapter VII mistakenly titled Chapter VI. Maps pasted down.
- Third printing: Seated flautist emblem on title page. Chapter VII title corrected. Maps pasted down.
- Fourth printing: Seated flautist emblem on title page. Chapter VII title corrected. Maps become free leaves.
All printings of the first edition measure 15.0 x 21.0 cm. They contain 310 numbered pages.
The second edition
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 with the exceptions of the 11th and 12th, which state the full printing history. This makes them very difficult to identify in isolation. The following list of "points" was developed by Strebe² 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.
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 identical to the first edition in design except smaller, differently colored, and lacking the bowing hobbit emblem on the front board.
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. However, no Houghton Mifflin 15th impression corresponding to the Allen & Unwin 15th has been mentioned by any researcher; nor has anyone reported one described or listed for sale. Houghton Mifflin seems to have 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 and may be explained by the publisher's need to print far more copies than they could legally import sheets for. The new format accounts for the 15th through 23rd printings and is described below in Later printings of second edition.
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, people sometimes replace lost or discarded dust-jackets with ones acquired elsewhere. Hence the jacket cannot be considered definitive.
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 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.
5th impression: 18.0mm 6th impression: 20.0mm 7th impression: 19.0mm 8th impression: 17.0mm 9th impression: 16.0mm 10th impression: 19.0mm 11th impression: 20.0mm 12th impression: 22.5mm 13th impression: 24.0mm 14th impression: 23.0mm
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.
Second edition printings 5th-14th, with two 7ths of different color
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: Khaki with a greenish tint. 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 and 11th 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 and 11th impressions are probably identical to each other in color, lighter than the 6th impression, and contain no distinctly blue cast. The 10th impression might be slightly lighter than the 11th. The 12th impression is much lighter than the khaki 7th and includes a light greenish cast. 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.
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.
Second edition final page
Measuring the distance: 38mm
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 38mm). 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.)
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, at latest), Houghton Mifflin added an explicit declaration of the third edition, making them easy to identify. At that time the company also reset the printing numbers to mark which printing they were within the edition, rather than which printing counting from the first impression of the first edition.
Later Houghton Mifflin editions of The Hobbit are readily identified by their ISBN numbers 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.
- ¹Hammond and Anderson, JRR Tolkien — A Descriptive Bibliography, Oak Knoll Press, New Castle DE USA, 1993.
- ²Identifying early Houghton Mifflin printings of The Hobbit (http://www.speakeasy.org/~strebe/HMCo_Hobbit.html)