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 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”.
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.
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”.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.