Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Some Sagacious and Experienced Observers.

                                 In addition to cigarette cards, another form of collectible from the 1930s is the Observer’s series of books. The first two were published in 1937 by Frederick Warne and Co; Number One titled British Birds, and Number Two British Wild Flowers.

British Birds (No 1) 1937 - [1958 edition]

The popularity of these books led to further titles, although wartime shortages limited the production somewhat, (an unnumbered edition on Aircraft was issued in 1942 to aid spotting enemy warplanes), and the early books were largely related to Natural History subjects.

Pond Life (No 24) 1956 - [1969 edition] Note the handy ruler on the back cover.

The range of topics widened in the 1950s to include such titles as Architecture, Locomotives and Flags, and as more people had simultaneous access to cars and the countryside in the post-war years, there was an obvious appeal for cheap, illustrated reference works that could be easily slipped into a pocket on a day-trip, (the books were uniformly 5 3/4 inches by 3 1/2 inches).

British Grasses Sedges and Rushes (No 7) 1942 - [1958 edition]

The one-page one-subject format made the books easy to consult, and the alternating coloured and black-and-white illustrations made for convenient identification of specimens in the field.

Wild Animals (No 5) 1938 - [1965 edition]

The period charm of the illustrations also adds to the appeal of the books today. The first title, British Birds, sold over three million copies over the years, one can’t help but wonder how many copies of 1954s Mosses and Liverworts or 1963s Lichens sold. The early books were bound in cloth, with late books having an imitation cloth cover of various colours.

Wild Flowers (No 2) 1937 - with 'wavy-line' cover - [1959 edition]

From 1953, the word ‘British’ (as in British Birds) was dropped, and from 1971 on Warne’s revamped the format, dispensing with the distinctive ‘wavy-line’ from the book jackets, and settling for a uniform red text and white jacket format, losing the individual character of the series to some eyes.

New style Cacti (No 27) cover 1974 (Original 1958)

In 1979, the books were again given a face-lift, dispensing altogether with the paper jackets, and in 1985, after Warne’s were bought by Penguin, another restyling followed, with books now called Observers (without an apostrophe). Twelve of the most popular books were reissued in 1996, but the series is now out of print.

Common Insects and Spiders (No 17) 1953 - [1966 edition]

As with cigarette cards, Observer’s books were issued in such numbers that they are still readily available, often quite cheaply – from a few pence at car boot sales or charity shops, a few pounds on tinternet, or several hundred pounds for rarities from specialist dealers. Although the whole series is numbered to 98, one book, Number 86 Country Houses, was commissioned but never published, and due to smaller print runs some of the later numbered books are harder to find. Some editions do not have copyright dates at the front, which means they are hard to date, but a rough age can be estimated from the printer’s code at the back of the book. This gives the date when the book was printed (not necessarily published), and can be decoded by looking at the number under the name of the printer.

From Freshwater Fishes (No 6) 1941 - [1954 edition]

The first half of the number is the printer’s own code, the important part is after the decimal point. This gives the month and the year when the book was printed, so, in this example from my copy of Freshwater Fishes (No 6), the number 654 means the book was printed in June 1954, (although the first edition was actually issued in 1941).

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