COLLECTING U.S. EDITIONS OF THE HOBBIT
FIRST EDITIONThe Hobbit was first published in Great Britain in 1937 by George Allen & Unwin. The First U.S. Editon was published a year later by Houghton Mifflin. First Editions (including reprints) were only produced in the 1930's and 40's, and are very rare. I advise you to do a thorough search of the Internet before deciding to purchase a First Edition. Remember, a First Printing is much more valuable then a later printing. Be sure you know what you are purchasing.
SECOND EDITIONThere is much confusion about what constitutes an "edition" of The Hobbit. For the purposes of this guide, I will use the edition numbers that basically correspond to the British Editions.
When JRR Tolkien began working on what would be called The Lord of the Rings, it soon became obvious that some of The Hobbit would need to be "corrected" to correspond to what he was now writing. The chapter "Riddles in the Dark" was extensively revised, and a new edition was released in 1951. All U.S. Second Editions are scarce, and highly collectible, but be careful not to confuse them with the even more valuable copies from the 1930's and 40's.
All U.S. copies of The Hobbit released since that time still use the 1966 copyright. (The copyright dates of 1994 or 2001, and others, may also appear.) However, older copies from the 1960's (especially) have more collectors' value than more recent printings. Unfortunately, Houghton Mifflin did not date the printings, so it is difficult to tell what you are getting. Here is a chart that gives a rough idea of when various printings were made. This is based on my research over the years, and may not be precise. Please note that the printing number is usually found in a string of numbers on the copyright page. The smallest number is the printing number.
25 - February 1968
33 - 1977?
40 - 1985
44 - 1991?
50 - 1994 (new copyright date addded)
Around 1988 a blue cover replaced the old familiar green one. I am not sure exactly for which printing number this first occured.
NEWER TRADE EDITIONS
With the lack of color in the Trade Editons that were produced in the late 1960's and 1970's, it was soon apparent that there was a demand for a deluxe copy of the book. In 1973, Houghton Mifflin began to publish a "Collectors Edition" which restored the color paintings. This was nicely bound in leatherette, and came with a nice slipcase. Since the only date that can be found on these is the copyright date, there has been some confusion. The First Printing date can be confirmed by Tolkien collectors, and is affirmed by the Library of Congress number which begins with "73"
Be very cautious when buying this edition. Most printings are very common, so beware of those who try to charge a huge premium for even Book Club copies. Trade Editions will have green speckled page edges, and have some kind of indication to show the printing number--either a direct statement in earlier printings, such as "First Printing Collectors Edition" or a numberline on the copyright page such as "10 9 8 7 6."
First Printings of this edition sell for a premium, and early printings are also desirable, especially those with the "error rune" on the cover. The runes representing "A" and "O" are very similar, so it is easy to see how the error originated. (See picture above.) The error was soon corrected during the third printing--early Third Printings have it, later Third Printings do not.