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The Most Printed and Read Book of All Time



I recently purchased an old Bible at an antique show. It’s one of those big Victorian pictorial family ones and seems to have all kinds of features besides just the Old and New Testaments. As far as I can tell, the copyright date is 1881 from George V. Jones of Boston, Massachusetts. The presentation page says a woman gave the Bible to a man, most likely her husband, on Christmas Day in 1882. While the exterior shows some wear, the interior is in pristine condition. I also own two other Bibles from the second half of the 19th century. What can you tell me about this particular Bible and perhaps others like it?




From what I can tell about your Bible, you may possibly have a winner. In the world of Bibles, especially those from the later 19th century, only a few stand out.

George V. Jones of Boston did indeed print your Bible. This particular edition includes the Old and New Testaments, as well as the Concordance, Aprocypha, and Psalms. In all, it contains 2,500 illustrations. But what makes your Bible stand out is that it won a Diploma of Merit at the International Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia in December of 1881.

Bible History
Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and utilized movable type in 1455. Books could now be mass-produced instead of individually hand-written. The first book ever printed was Gutenberg’s Bible in Latin.

William Tyndale published the first complete English translation of the New Testament in Germany in 1526. But the Church of England considered it heresy and destroyed copies. It wasn't until 1535 that the entire Bible—both the Old and New Testaments----appeared in English.

The King James Bible, ordered by King James I, was the third English Language version authorized by the Church of England and the most famous one in English.
But prior to its printing, at least 239 editions of the English Bible were in print. Since 1611, the number of English versions has exploded. Though the King James Bible first appeared in 1611, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the English Revised Version became the first Bible to gain popularity. At the same time, Bibles began to omit the 14 Apocryphal books. Formerly, all Bibles had 80 books, but by the 1890s they only contained 66.

The first Bible published in America was the Eliot Bible, printed for the Natick Native American tribe in their own language in 1663. The first English-language Bible printed in America (a King James version) was published in 1782.

The Appearance and Contents of Antique Bibles
Large family Bibles from the 19th century, particularly study Bibles with illustrations, maps, and commentary are very popular with collectors. But what do old Bibles include? Surely, the Old and New Testaments, but there’s often much more. Bibles published for various Christian religions may include different features, such as a Bible Dictionary, a History of the Religious Dominations of the World, and detailed studies of the events and persons in the Bible’s text. Then there’s the endless variety of translations. For most Bible collectors, figuring out how to narrow the scope of their collection can be a challenge.

Gustave Doré was one of the most acclaimed and popular illustrators of the 19th century, and his illustrated Bible is a landmark in the field. He made more than 200 engravings, illustrating the events of the Bible with great detail. The first edition appeared in France in 1866, but publishers like George Jones reprinted his work throughout the following decades. This Bible features the engravings of Gustav Dore.

Ninety percent of all Bibles, including this one, are standard "Quarto" size printings, measuring about 7 to 10 inches wide by 9 to 12 inches tall by 3 to 4 inches thick. Larger pulpit "Folio" size printings are ten times as rare, and therefore more expensive.

Old Bibles were always hardbound. Most had full leather covers and spine while some had leather spines and corners but fabric centers on the front and back covers. Armored or ornamented bindings with metalwork at the corners and center and clasps and latches that hold the book shut also adorn some of these Bibles. Most old family Bibles also had raised bands on their spine known as a “hubbed” spine.

Bible makers used two decorative techniques—blind stamping where an impression is stamped into the leather resulting in a design or "Gold-Stamped", where gold has been applied into the groove of the stamping, such as the words "Holy Bible" might be stamped in gold on the spine. The cover of this Bible has extensive gold stamping.

Older Bibles often include a “concordance,” also referred to as “The Table of Names and Table of Things.” This is essentially an alphabetical index to the scripture which helps readers locate a passage based on what words appear in that passage.

Some older Bibles offer a 36-page illustrated "Family Tree of Man" which traces every generation of the first 4,000 years of mankind, from Adam and Eve through Noah through David to Joseph, Mary, and Christ.

Collecting Antique Bibles
There are many types of antique Bibles that are collectible for various reasons. The most popular are: Beautiful or ornate bindings, large vellum clasped folios, gorgeous full-plate illustrations, early 15th to 17th-century woodcuts, maps, later steel engravings, chromolithographic printings, and specific language translations.

As the most widely read book in Western civilization, the Bible offers a variety of collecting possibilities. Many collectors pursue specific themes, including very old Bibles, family Bibles containing family trees, maps, or notes, and interesting translations.

Condition Makes All the Difference
The Bible is not only the single most printed book in history but it’s also the most read. Therefore, condition is important in determining the value of an antique Bible.

Collectors prefer exceptionally old Bibles. However, the older the Bible, the less important condition becomes. Due to the relative scarcity of antique Bibles in decent condition which are 200 or more years old, their value and collectibility rises.

Determining the Value of an Antique Bible
Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, printed around 1455 using “moveable type,” is probably the most valuable printed book, with single leaves selling for $60,000 to $100,000. Bibles are the most common book in the world, having been translated into 698 languages.

Rarity plays a big part in the value of an old Bible. In general, a Bible published from around 1820 to 2000 has little or no value unless there’s something special about it, such as if it’s finely bound or has some special characteristic which sets it apart from others. However, the elaborateness of the binding doesn’t affect a Bible’s price. A Bible’s value depends mostly on its completeness, condition, content, and the size of its pages, not on the age of the piece of leather that it happens to be bound in at the time. Many collectors prefer a new leather binding, to one that’s worn and less attractive. They’re more interested in the quality of the pages of text.

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