Some books, like Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, possess a lasting appeal to both readers and collectors alike. Buoyed by universal themes and imaginative storytelling, such books are treasured by generations.
Textbooks, on the other hand, tend to have much, much shorter shelf lives. New data can quickly render scientific texts obsolete. The social sciences are subject to continual reinterpretation in light of archaeological and documentary discoveries and even by faddish theories (remember phrenology?). And while a very few subjects, such as Latin and Logic, remain essentially unchanged over time, the truth of the matter is that most textbooks quickly end up at recycling centers, are donated to educational charities, or serve as material for art and other projects.
One category of texts that is the exception to the rule is that of children’s school books. Some individuals will retain or acquire a grammar-school reader as a memento of a happy childhood, or a primer will be handed down through the family as a keepsake of a previous generation, but the major attraction lies in the books’ illustrations.
Most school books are collected for their illustrations. While it is true that some series were historically important from an educational standpoint – the McGuffey readers (1836 to present) taught using phonics while the Dick and Jane series (1930s to 1970s) used the “whole word” or “look/say” method – the real reason most people collect grammar school texts is for the pictures.
In fact, there is a collector subset based upon the books’ illustrators. Many of the illustrators of children’s school books were actually well-known artists in their times, and it is not uncommon for someone to acquire an antique or vintage school book simply because it’s a cross-collectible: they collect anything by their favorite illustrator.
Of course, prices for children’s books are dependent upon condition, but it is highly unusual to find any specimens in exceptional shape. The books saw heavily repetitive use and, children being children, were often written in or marked in some fashion. Nonetheless, the secondary markets for the books remain quite active, with many specimens falling in the $10 to $50 range, while some rarer and better-condition pieces can fetch much more.
Interested in learning more about this popular collectible? Check out the resources listed below, and
A History of the McGuffey Readers, by Henry Hobart Vail – Free Kindle edition is available.
1930s Elson-Gray Basic Readers (eBay buying guide) – Helpful introduction and identification guide to the early Dick and Jane readers.
Back to School Primer on Collecting Vintage Children’s School Books (Inherited Values) – Nicely done article covers major points; illustrated.
BIGWORDS.com – Price bot for buying and selling used textbooks, CDs, DVDs, games, more. Just type in your book’s ISBN.
Dick and Jane: Story of These Early Readers (America Comes Alive) – Well-written, illustrated overview.
How to Get Rid of Books with Little or No Value (Flipsy.com) – Offers tips and lists of venues for disposing of your unwanted books.
Selling Back Really Old Textbooks Online (My Money Blog) – Rewarding tips.