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Condition and Values

Caveat emptor, quia ignorare non
debuit quod jus alienum emit.

Relatively few of the hundreds of thousands of novels printed by Beadle and other publishers are in existence today. They were read and discarded as are our modern magazines, for no one at the time gave a thought to the fact that at some not distant day they would be treasured for their fairly truthful pictures of a red-blooded and lusty era—pictures probably far more truthful than those in the "authentic" histories of the period. There are other reasons also for the rarity of these novels. Many were folded, carried in hip pockets, traded repeatedly, and literally worn out. The few novels that escaped these perils still ran the risks of fire, dampness, mice, and mildew. Novels issued in the 1880's and thereafter were printed on basswood pulp, and these late copies, unless bound shortly after they were issued, almost invariably are browned and brittle and partially disintegrated. The earlier novels, fortunately, were printed on better paper and doubtless will long outlast the later issues. Having escaped as many perils as did the heroes of the novels, is it any wonder that the few remaining copies command high prices?

The value of a novel depends in part upon its condition, in part upon the edition, and in part upon supply and demand—and the supply is extremely limited, perhaps the demand also. It is almost impossible to obtain a complete mint set of even one of the shorter runs of the Beadle novels; in fact it is much easier to assemble a set of first editions of Dickens, or Lever, or Scott, or Ainsworth, than a complete run of the original yellow-backs regardless of edition; and a set of original Irwin's American Novels is actually less easily obtained than a collection of letters of the Signers—which is not saying that it would command a higher price!

In the numerical Lists in the preceding pages, the prices realized at auction sales have been given for the relatively few copies that have been placed on the market. As for the rest, who can say what they are worth! What you are willing to pay for a novel is its value to you. But condition is a very important factor in governing the value of a novel, much greater perhaps, than it is for cloth-bound books, for the difference between a mint copy and the average copy offered for sale is much greater. The broadleaves, especially, are likely to be in poor condition—taped, repaired, and marred by rubber-stamping, but more especially half disintegrated. A novel may be worth five dollars in mint condition and not be worth thirty cents if browned and brittle. Likewise, a patched, folded, and worn novel, though of worse appearance, may be more valuable than the same novel in unopened condition but brittle. Miscellaneous novels, bound together, are usually of less value than the same novels loose, condition being the same, but unbroken runs in consecutive order with no missing numbers and bound shortly after publication and therefore white, may be worth double or triple or more than the same number of loose copies on account of their superior condition due to their greater protection against dampness and gas.

Clipped corners are found on many loose broadleaves, but this, per se, does not greatly decrease the desirability of a novel. Such clipping indicates that the copy was not one sent directly to a subscriber or a dealer, but was sent on special orders, therefore "not returnable." The missing corners, however, may indicate at the same time that the novel is a reissue, consequently from that standpoint indicating decreased value.

Needle perforations along the hinges of some broadleaves also reduce value, in part because such novels are usually also closely trimmed, for they have been removed from volumes that were bound by stitching through the leaves—a cheap way of binding, although in some cases the only way possible unless one goes to the expense of having the hinges strengthened by narrow strips of paper before binding.

In buying novels, do not depend too much upon the seller's statement of condition; the viewpoints of buyer and seller are different. A brittle novel of good appearance which cannot be touched without breaking the paper, may often be spoken of by the seller as in mint condition, although, as a matter of fact, it is absolutely worthless. To have a batch of novels for which a good price has been paid come through the mails as a handful of paper chips, is not an uncommon experience. If the seller claims that the novels were in good condition when shipped, nothing much can be done about it—except to avoid buying more from the same source. No buyer will find fault if the seller will honestly state the condition exactly as he would have the condition reported to him if he were the buyer. Caveat emptor, however, seems to be the motto of many who have novels for sale. Regular book dealers, in general, are much more likely to give fair descriptions of condition than are collectors, although there are, of course, many exceptions.

Occasionally a defect may increase the value of a novel. Thus I have an old novel with the name of a soldier in the Civil War and the number of his regiment and company written on the title page. This, for sentimental reasons, greatly increases its value in my estimation. Several other novels are blue-pencilled, indicating that they were used as printers' copy in reissues in abbreviated form. They are valuable for comparison with the reprints, for they once belonged to the publishers themselves. Generally, however, pencil or ink markings are detrimental.

But aside from condition, dime novels differ in value in other ways. First editions are more valuable than later editions, although most novel collectors, as yet, pay no attention to this feature. The novels are so rare that any edition of some of them is desirable. By turning down a late edition, one may be rejecting the only copy in existence. The later issues of some of the "libraries" are marked at the top of the first page with the number of the edition, but this is far from being true always or even in general. I have a copy of Half-Dime Library, No. 205, marked 19th edition, Usually one may be able to determine the first printings of the broadleaves, and in some cases of the booklets, by the advertisements at the back. The early editions announce not more than two or three numbers in advance of the number of the novel in hand. In later printings, the advertisements may list ten or a hundred or more numbers beyond the novel's own number.

It may be easier to determine that some novel is not a first edition than it is to determine that it is. The publishers had a habit, which is fortunate for the collector, of printing on the wrapper of the booklet type novels, the address of the firm at the time of its reissue. While this was not always the case, it was generally true. But apparently the novels "were not always enclosed within the wrappers at the time they were printed, consequently the title page may have an earlier address than the wrapper. On the other hand, it occasionally, though rarely, happens that a new printing was made of the novel while there yet remained on hand a stock of wrappers, consequently in such cases the wrappers have an earlier address than the title page. The early, though not necessarily only the first editions, must have the firm name and address the same on title page and wrappers, both front and back, and this must be the one proper to the time at which the booklet was first issued. A rare exception to this occurs when a novel had just been printed before the publishers moved to a new address, and the wrappers were printed and attached afterwards. To check these, use may be made of Figure 11, to the "List of the Principal Beadle Publications" in the Appendix, to the "Dates at which the Firm Changed Names and Addresses," also in the Appendix, and to the dates of issue given under each novel in the Numerical Lists of Part III.

There is another factor in determining the value of a novel, and that is the story itself. Opinions differ as to the relative importance of the different groups or novels. The late Charles Jonas(1) divided the broadleaves into five groups, and considered the first as of greatest value and the last of least. His divisions are as follows:

I. Early Colonial and Indian items; tales of the Revolution; pioneer days; Ohio River flatboat and broadhorn days; tales of the times of Boone, Wetzei, Kenton, the Girty Brothers, the Harpes, etc.; biographical sketches of famous characters in romance form; later pioneer days.

II. Western pioneer and Indian items; gold-rush and prairie-schooner days; days of the old scouts and Indian fighters of the West; trappers, prairie, forest, and mountain men.

III. "Westerns"; tales of the mountain camps, roughs, toughs, and bad men generally; stagecoach days, overland and pony express days; tales of Wild Bill, Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Custer, etc.

IV. Sea tales with historical backgrounds.

V. Tales of city life, detective stories, character novels, bootblack stories, etc.

And love stories, I presume, should go at the bottom of the list.

Certain novels, as for example the "Joaquin Murieta" tales, have special values. Certain authors, also, are much more popular than others, and not always because they were better writers but for some obscure appeal. Some of the more popular writers were extremely careless in their diction.

Taken as a whole, the quarto Boy's Library is probably the rarest of the broadleaves, and the Half-Dime Novelette the rarest of the booklet novels. A set of the former, in mint condition, bound when new, may be worth in the neighborhood of $1,000. The Novelette in good condition should bring $50 or more. I know of but three copies. A mint set of the Half-Dime Library (1168 numbers) should be worth about $2,000, and of the Dime-Library (1103 numbers) about $3,000 to $3,500. Probably it would be impossible to purchase either set at the prices indicated, for in a recent catalogue an incomplete run of the former, only part in original bindings, was priced $10,000.

The original yellow-backs are rarer than the New Dime Novels or the Pocket Novels, but all of the booklets are scarce. Probably the maximum price ever paid for a single Beadle booklet was $475 for the Dime Book of Fun, No. 3, containing the first printing in book form of Mark Twain's story, "Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog." The next highest auction price was $62 for Dr. Frank Powell's "Old Grizzly Adams," No. 11 of the quarto Boy''s Library. "California Jo," No. 54 of the same series, should be still more valuable. Fifteen numbers of this "library," at the O'Brien sale in 1920, brought a total of $301, and these novels could have been bought less than forty years before for 75 cents!

In general, one pays according to his desire for a particular item, or according to the reluctance of the possessor to part with it, perhaps also upon the ability of the seller to "squeeze" the buyer. Henry Huntington is said to have paid $15,000 for the dime novels now in the Huntington Library at San Marino, California †.While booksellers' catalogues frequently list a few dime novels, and while there have been occasional lots put up at auction, only one entire auction sale was devoted to these early American thrillers, namely, the O'Brien sale in 1920, but prices have enormously increased since then, and as one swallow does not make a drunk, so one sale does not establish prices. Much depends upon who happens to be present at a sale and how much someone desires a particular item. If each of two individuals needs a certain book to fill out a set, and both are determined to have it, that is just a piece of good luck for the seller, and a record price may be established. Booksellers' catalogues generally show prices averaging from three to ten times those realized at the O'Brien sale.

One word of warning. Quite recently piano-graphic reprints have been made of a number of novels, and while most of them are rubber-stamped "Reprint," or are otherwise marked, some have been let loose unmarked. The paper, of course, differs from the original, but new collectors may not be aware of this and unknowingly may have reprints in their collections in the place of originals.


1 In litteris, 1939.

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