If you spend some time looking for, or looking at, Tauchnitz Editions, it won’t be long before you come across one or two that are bound in vellum, with old albumen tourist photos of Italy bound in at various places throughout the text. They’re often attractively decorated on the front cover, sometimes very elaborately, and often still in relatively good condition for books that are well over 100 years old. Booksellers seem to have very little idea of how to value them, and I’ve seen them for sale at prices varying from two or three pounds to many hundreds of pounds.
From a book collector’s point of view they’re a nuisance. The same titles are found over and over again, almost all Italian-themed novels or travel books, almost always reprints and usually with the half-title page missing. Or anyway from my point of view, as someone who collects Tauchnitz first printings, they’re a nuisance. I guess there may be some book collectors who find them more interesting than the standard unadorned Tauchnitz editions. I assume most of the copies priced in the hundreds of pounds go unsold, but there may be some buyers out there to justify the high prices.
The most famous Tauchnitz collectors of all, William Todd and Ann Bowden, who compiled the Tauchnitz bibliography, did have some time for them, if only as a curiosity. Alongside their main Tauchnitz collection, which ended up at the British Museum, they put together a separate collection of the extra-illustrated editions, which is now at the Princeton University Library.
The books seem to have been produced and sold as travel souvenirs, to some extent almost as guide books, with tourists visiting the sites mentioned in the stories. Although produced in huge numbers, each book seems to be almost a one-off, with no two copies identical. The cover designs all seem to be slightly different, and the choice of photographs is always different too, as is the number of photographs, which can range up to almost 100. Did customers design their own book in some way, making their own choice of photographs and of design, possibly pasting photographs onto blank leaves inserted into the binding?
The choice of books though seems to be much more limited than the choice of designs. The most common title by far is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Transformation’, which has an alternative title of ‘The romance of Monte Beni’ on the title page but is often referred to as ‘The marble faun’ on the covers, the title by which the book is known in America. This book alone accounts for 37 of the 53 books in the Todd collection at Princeton, and there are around another 30 copies of it currently offered for sale on ABE, at prices ranging from £10 to £450.
The story of ‘The Marble Faun’ is set in Rome and it’s usually found illustrated with postcards of Rome. The next most common title, ‘Romola’ by George Eliot, is set in Florence and usually found illustrated by postcards of Florence. Other titles include ‘Pictures of old Rome’ by Frances Elliot, ‘The last days of Pompeii’ and ‘Rienzi’ both by Edward Bulwer Lytton, and ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ by Macaulay.
For Tauchnitz, the trade must have been a blessing, massively increasing sales of titles that might otherwise have sold relatively few copies. ‘Romola’ had been one of George Eliot’s least successful novels, when first issued in 1863, but probably ended up as one of Tauchnitz’s best selling titles after being taken up by the Italian tourist trade some 20 years later.
Not all of the Italian vellum bindings have postcards bound in. Some like the copy of ‘The divine comedy’ illustrated above, look similar externally, but have no photos. There is also another range of elaborate custom bindings, almost all on Italian themed books, that I’ll come back to another time.
One of the most intriguing titles to have been given the Italian travel souvenir treatment is ‘Childe Harold’s pilgrimage’ by Byron, which was issued in 1862 as the first book in the short series of Tauchnitz ‘Cabinet Editions’. These were, for Tauchnitz, ‘de-luxe’ editions in a smaller format than usual, nicely bound with gilt edges, and selling at a premium price. They were not a success. The series ran to only four titles, and most are now very difficult to find. Like ‘Romola’ and ‘Transformation’ though, ‘Childe Harold’ seems to have enjoyed a second opportunity when it was discovered by the Italian binders. Too small to have postcards inserted, it was nevertheless given a wide variety of vellum bindings and is now signficantly easier to find than the other volumes in the series.