Different Bibliophile Levels of Antique

Regarding Bibles, there are really different levels of “antique”. Let’s take a closer look at how a Bible’s age effects its defined antiquarian status in the world of dealers and collectors. We will see that while some kinds of rare and collectible books, such as “Modern Firsts” of classic works, may be considered antique even if they are just a few decades old, the standard for a Bible to be antique is much higher than that.

Bibles Up To 100 Years Old

We should clearly establish from the start that any Bible printed within the past 100 years is not an antique by any recognized professional use of the term. It is important to bear in mind that the Bible is the most printed book in the world, and by a very wide margin. For this reason, English language Bibles printed between the 1920’s and today, were generally mass-produced in such enormous quantity that they will never be particularly rare or valuable, and therefore the trade does not consider them to be antique in any meaningful sense.

In fact, within the rare book industry, Bibles that are less than a century old are often referred to as “Junk Bibles”. At first glance, this term can be highly offensive to Christians who mistakenly think the reference is a slanderous derogatory insult aimed at the Bible itself… but this is not at all what is meant. Rather, this is simply a reference to the fact that modern era Bibles of the past century as “as common as road gravel” due to the extremely high volumes at which they were produced.

Dealers are also frequently approached by people wanting to sell their great-grandparents’ Bible of the early to mid 1900’s, and it can be exhausting having to constantly tell these people that their cherished (though apparently not cherished enough if they want to sell it) old Family Bible which they think should be worth thousands of dollars, is in fact worth less than one hundred dollars… and often worth less than twenty dollars.

Bibles Between 100 and 200 Years Old

Bibles of the 1800’s to very early 1900’s are, as difficult as this is for many people to comprehend, still not old enough to be considered truly “antique” by most dealers. While not as common as their ubiquitous less than centenarian counterparts discussed above; they were still generally speaking, produced in fairly high quantities to fill the popular demand for Family Bibles in America throughout the days of Westward Expansion during the 1800’s and into the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.

There are of course some exceptions, such as special editions and first editions of historically important Bibles of the 1800’s… but these are few and far between. Rather than focus upon these rare exceptions to the rule, the general rule itself remains, that Bibles less than 200 years old are in most cases not of interest to dealers or collectors.

Antique Bibles of the 1700’s - Well Over 200 Years Old

We now begin in earnest, our discussion of truly antique Bibles. One distinguishing feature of most Bibles printed in the 1700’s (in contrast to older Bibles of the 1600’s and back) is that they were printed on wood pulp based paper, just as nearly all books today are still printed on wood pulp based paper. The advent of affordable books was due primarily to the ability to make paper cheaply from wood pulp, rather than from expensive cotton. This is why, prior to the 1700’s, it was generally only the wealthy who owned books. Once cheap paper production was possible, the “common man” could afford to have at least a modest library of books at home.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the antique Bibles of the 1700’s is the technological manner is which they were printed. Prior to the 1700’s, books were made using the tedious and laborious and expensive process of the movable type press, invented by Gutenberg in 1455. Each letter had to be laid into a tray like a jigsaw puzzle. During the 1700’s however, the leap forward to “stereotyping” was made. Whole pages were etched into a single sheet of metal. This was not only quicker and cheaper, but it also allowed printers to keep the etched metal plates and run off more copies of a book later, if desired.

These two advances: cheap paper and more efficient production, made books and Bibles an attainable part of everyday life for literate people living in the 1700’s or later, as opposed to being very costly luxury items and status symbols of the affluent owners of estate homes, as books and Bibles had been in the 1600’s and earlier.

From the standpoint of the rare Bible and antique Bible collector, there are two types of English language Bibles of the 1700’s. The first is Bibles printed in England in the 1700’s. These range from standard “quarto” size editions owned by individuals and families, to larger “folio” size editions, used by churches and seminaries on their pulpits and lecterns. The next, is the far more rare and potentially valuable, Bibles printed in America in the mid to late 1700’s. Put simply, Bibles printed in England in the 1700’s can be somewhat desirable to collectors, but Bibles printed in America in the 1700’s are extremely desirable treasures. This is mostly due to the fact that American Colonists of the 1700’s imported most of their Bibles from England, and the print shops of early America had more modest equipment, and less access to quality paper. As a result, American antique Bible printings of the 1700’s are rare and highly sought after.