First Editions of Peter Rabbit

January 24, 2011.

One of the most popular children’s books of all time, The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold more than 45 million copies over the past century.  As well as being a beloved children’s story, the book’s publication history is very interesting, with two private printings appearing before the first commercial edition. And as with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,  these early editions are extremely scarce and highly sought after by collectors. What do these early printings of Peter Rabbit look like, and how can you identify first editions? We happen to have a copy of each in stock at the moment, providing an excellent opportunity for comparison:

Peter Rabbit first edition, first printing. December 1901.

Peter Rabbit began as an illustrated letter written by Beatrix Potter for the children of her former governess in 1893. A few years later she offered the story to a number of publishers and was turned down. There had been  significant growth in the market for children’s books with coloured illustrations, and publishers were uninterested in the forty-two pen and ink drawings with which Potter had illustrated Peter Rabbit. Undaunted, she chose to have 250 copies privately printed and bound in simple grey paper covers, all at her own expense. The copy shown above is a particularly fine example; the books were usually given to children so they received a great deal of wear and tear. Each copy included a colour frontispiece (the illustration in front of the title page) depicting Peter’s mother feeding him chamomile tea in bed, and forty-one line drawings like the examples below. These copies are not dated and contain no copyright information aside from the word “copyright”.

Peter Rabbit first edition illustration.

Peter Rabbit first edition illustration.

The 250 copies were distributed to Potter’s family and friends and proved very popular, with Arthur Conan Doyle obtaining a copy for his own children. When the first printing was exhausted Potter arranged for a second private printing, and in February 1902 two hundred additional copies were produced. These look similar to the first printing but differ from it in two ways: the spine is rounded rather than flat, and the title page states “February 1902” whereas the title page to the first printing is undated.

Peter Rabbit first edition, second printing. February 1902.

Peter Rabbit first edition, second printing. Frontispiece and title page. Note the date February 1902.

Comparison of the spines of the first two printings of Peter Rabbit. The first printing (bottom) has a flat spine while the second (top) has a rounded spine.

Peter Rabbit first edition, second printing, 1902.

Meanwhile, a friend of Potter’s brought Peter Rabbit again to the attention of the publisher Frederick Warne & Co., one of the firms that had originally turned it down. They convinced Potter that she should shorten the book, reduce the number of illustrations, and re-illustrate the entire story in colour. Among the bits lost was an aside about Mrs. Rabbit growing tobacco to sell, illustrated with a plate depicting “…a little old buck-rabbit enjoying a pipe of rabbit-tobacco”.

…enjoying a pipe of rabbit-tobacco.

When it came to the production of the book Potter was a very involved author, making careful corrections to the text, suggesting the colours for the endpapers (though her choice was not used) and binding, and designing the cover and title page. The result was the first commercial edition of 8000 copies in various bindings, each with a colour illustration on the cover and 31 colour plates alongside the text:

Peter Rabbit first commercially published edition, first printing. October 1902.

Peter Rabbit first trade edition, colour illustration.

While the privately printed editions, with their simple grey covers, are easy to spot, it can be more difficult to distinguish the first commercial edition of Peter Rabbit from later printings. Some important indicators are the content changes that occurred as Potter refined the book during the first year it was commercially available. In the first three printings of the trade edition the text on page 51 reads “wept big tears”. Potter changed the wording to “shed big tears” for the fourth printing of April 1903. Copies that use the word “shed” are not early enough to be of collectible value.

Peter Rabbit issue point, “Wept big tears”.

“Peter gave himself up for lost and wept big tears…”

The first five printings of the trade edition also include four colour illustrations that do not appear in later printings, including a self-portrait of Beatrix Potter as Mrs. McGregor on page 14. As with “wept big tears”, the presence of these illustrations does not definitively indicate a first printing, but their absence is a strong sign that the copy doesn’t have collectible value.

Beatrix Potter as Mrs. McGregor.

First editions also have unique endpapers printed with a delicate floral pattern. These were discontinued in later printings and are a strong sign that you may have a first edition.

Peter Rabbit first trade edition endpapers.

There are several other important ponts to look for if you think you have a first trade edition of Peter Rabbit:

  • The book should be undated and published by Frederick Warne & Co.
  • Frederick Warne became a limited company in 1917, so any copy with “Limited” or  “Ltd.” after the publisher’s name on the cover or in the copyright information is not a first edition. Lacking the “Ltd.” does not necessarily make the book a first edition, but it’s a good reason to start investigating your copy.
  • The letters O on the spine and cover should have dots in their centers.
  • Any copy sporting a print code or an ISBN number is too new to have collectible value.

If you think you may have one of these early editions of Peter Rabbit please contact us for further information. You can also browse our full stock of books by Beatrix Potter online. You can read more about Beatrix Potter and view her artwork at the V&A website Peter Rabbit: The tale of the Tale.

Laura joined Peter Harrington in 2009 after completing a master's degree in book history at the University of London. Her special interests are science and medicine, modern literature, and the book culture of the medieval and early modern eras.


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  2. margaret

    May 15, 2014

    do you buy childrens antique books

    • Grace Barham

      Aug 18, 2015

      Hi Margaret,
      Our Selling Rare Books to Us form is a detailed breakdown of the information we require to make an offer or valuation.
      All enquiries should be answered within approximately 7 working days.
      Many thanks,
      Grace at Peter Harrington

  3. eileen taylor

    Oct 23, 2014

    i have 2 copies of beatrix potter one is the tale of peter rabbit lightgray/green cover.
    it has dot in the middle of the o and F.WARNE&Co on front. the line on pg 45 reads and shed big tears.
    reasonable condition, no dust cover only a little damage on top of spine.

    the tale of squirrel nutkin good condiotion, dot in o and F.WARNE & CO. dot under letter o.

    if you are interested please let me know

    thank you

    eileen taylor

    • Grace Barham

      Aug 18, 2015

      Hi Eileen,
      Our Selling Rare Books to Us form is a detailed breakdown of the information we require to make an offer or valuation.
      All enquiries should be answered within approximately 7 working days.
      Many thanks,
      Grace at Peter Harrington

  4. David Shuker

    Dec 01, 2014

    Hello, Laura. Thanks for this very informative and superbly illustrated article. I would just like to take issue with your comment: Any copy sporting a print code or an ISBN number is too new to have collectible value. This is surely too general. Frederick Warne and Co were using print codes from the 1940s and ISBN numbers do not appear until the 1970s. Collectors of various editions from the 1940s might be interested in variations in printers, for example. The prices that such copies attract are not in the stratospheric ranges of the first editions that you sell but then not all collectors have such deep pockets. Best wishes, David

  5. Jane

    Apr 09, 2015

    I have a copy of Peter Rabbit with the following on the title page verso: [copyright symbol] Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd. 1902, Printed in Great Britain for the publishers by William Clowes and Sons Ltd London and Beccles 629.657

    I think this is a post-1950, pre-1960 print run, but not sure. Can you confirm any details? Or let me know where to search for information?

    Thanks in advance for your time and advice.

  6. Michelle piper

    Jun 08, 2015

    I believe I may have one of the earliest the tale of Peter rabbit editions.

    The illustrations are in color. It is a blue hard cover book. And The pic of the rabbit on cover seems to be have glued on? Possibly we not able to print this pic on a cover in that day and age?

    Cover is in okay shape. But this interior pages are in fine condition.

    Please let me know if this Sparks and interest.

    Thank you.

    Michelle piper
    415 378-3794

    • Grace Barham

      Aug 18, 2015

      Hi Michelle,
      Our Selling Rare Books to Us form is a detailed breakdown of the information we require to make an offer or valuation.
      All enquiries should be answered within approximately 7 working days.
      Many thanks,
      Grace at Peter Harrington

  7. Judith Christian

    Jun 16, 2015

    My Tale of Peter Rabbit has no pages 6 & 7
    and has Frederick Warne & Co. , Inc. New York.
    Can you date this for me? Is it more valuable without pages?

    Could you date four Tales that say;
    “copyright in all countries signatory to the Bern Convention
    Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd
    London England
    Printed in Great Britain”

    Another (The Tale of Mrs. Tiggly-Winkle) says ” New York, Frederick Warne & Co., Inc. on the Title Page.
    However, the Copyright is 1905 by Frederick Warne & Co.

    • Grace Barham

      Aug 18, 2015

      Hi Jusdith
      I’m afraid it’s hard for us to date it, but we can certainly assure you that the lack of pages is not going to give it any collectable value at all. Sorry to disappoint you and thanks for getting in touch.
      Grace at Peter Harrington

  8. Nona

    Aug 25, 2015

    I have two, small red bound books each with two stories within.
    The first is Tale of Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle Duck together Frederick Warne & Co. New York (no Ltd. yet) Copyright 1907 but no publication date
    The second is Flopsy Bunnies – Tailor of Gloucester together No publisher information, just a Printed By Edmund Evans, LTD. The Raquet Court Press, London S.E. There are front pages and no pages appear to be missing. There are quite a few blank page breaks within both books. I have not been able to find any information on them. Thank You,

    • Grace Barham

      Sep 02, 2015

      Hi Nona,
      I’ve spoken with one of our experts regarding your query. Would you be able to send some photographs on the binding, cover and title pages to ?
      Many thanks,
      Grace at Peter Harrington

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