On any given day, there are over a thousand copies of The Elements of Style listed for sale on the web. Most of these copies are Strunk/White Editions, which were first published in 1959. Less than twenty of the thousand copies for sale are copies of pre-1959 Strunk Editions.
On Wednesday, January 19, 2022, there were seven copies of pre-1959 editions, the early editions of The Elements of Style, listed for sale on AbeBooks alone. Four of them were copies of the 1920 Harcourt, Brace and Company First Trade Edition. They were priced from $800 to $1,000. One copy was a copy of the 1934 Revised Edition. It was priced at $400. Two were copies of the circa 1940s Thrift Press Edition. They were priced at $200 and $400 respectively. These copies of early editions of The Elements of Style are what I have been collecting and writing about for twenty years. And for twenty years, I have been periodically checking Abebooks, other book search engines, and eBay for copies of these early editions.
The Elements of Style is the book by William Strunk, Jr. that E. B. White made famous. He wrote about Strunk and the 1918 Edition of Strunk's little book in an article for The New Yorker in 1957. Jack Case, an editor for the Macmillan publishing firm, read White's article, and convinced him to update Strunk's book for publication. Macmillan published the first of several Strunk/White Editions of The Elements of Style in 1959. Over ten million copies of The Elements of Style have been sold. I bought my first copy of The Elements of Style in the 1960s while attending high school. It was a Strunk/White Edition, and it cost me 95 cents.
I bought my first copy of an early edition of The Elements of Style in March 2001, and it cost me $35.
I was searching eBay for a copy of the 1918 First Edition when I came across an undated Thrift Press Edition. Wendell Smith, the eBay seller, had me convinced that I was buying the 1918 Edition of Strunk's little book. In his listing he wrote:
Preceeds (sic) the 1920 Harcourt Edition. This is the little book that E. B. White revised. He used this booklet in William Strunk's English class at Cornell University in 1919. It had been privately printed by Prof. Strunk. This copy I am listing was assigned to me at Cornell in the early 1940s. In 1959, Macmillan brought out The Elements of Style with revisions, an introduction, and a chapter on writing by E. B. White, and listed him as co-author. Strunk's booklet has seven chapters. Two of them, one on Spelling and one on Exercises, are not included in White's version....
I knew nothing about a 1920 Harcourt Edition. And I soon learned that I knew even less about the 1918 Edition. But two months later, on May 12, 2001, I won an auction for a 1920 Harcourt, Brace and Company Edition.
And for the first time, on rec.collecting.books, an unmoderated UseNet newsgroup dedicated to book collecting, I wrote about collecting copies of The Elements of Style. While researching the web for information about this Harcourt, Brace Edition, I stumbled upon an online copy of the 1918 Edition on the Bartleby website. The front matter of the book said that it was privately printed in Ithaca, New York in 1918. But the printer was identified as the Press of W. P. Humphrey, Geneva, New York. That meant that my Thrift Press Edition was not the 1918 First Edition. In retrospect, I should have realized that the Thrift Press Edition wasn't the first edition. On the title page, the author is listed as "William Strunk, Jr. Professor of English, Emeritus, Cornell University." The word Emeritus is the key word. Strunk retired in 1937, so the earliest year this book could have been published was 1937. On its website, Cornell listed the date of publication as 1958. But the former owner of my copy said he used it at Cornell in the early 1940s. I would need to do further research to verify what he said.
In August, 2002, I won an eBay auction for a 1934 Revised Edition of The Elements of Style.
Edward A. Tenney, another English instructor at Cornell, was listed as an author of the book as well. It had been over fifteen years since the publication of the 1918 Edition, and the little book was in need of revision. This edition is the last edition that we can say with confidence that Strunk revised. And revise it, Strunk and Tenney did.
On Monday, September 15, 2003, I performed one of my periodic checks on the web for early editions of The Elements of Style. Listed on Abebooks was a 1918 Edition of The Elements of Style. And the price was $185! I bid on it in a New York minute. The seller responded that the book was no longer available. He sold it at the Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair that weekend. The AbeBooks seller didn't mention it in his listing, but I would soon learn that the book was reportedly a proof copy, with additions and corrections for publication of another edition in 1919.
I knew the bookseller who bought the book at the book fair: Bob Riedel, proprietor of Print Matters! Used and Rare Books, in Dansville, New York. Bob was a member of an online newsgroup I belonged to, rec.collecting.books. Bob queried the group on September 29th, asking for information on recent sales of the 1918 Edition. But no one had any information of recent sales. In fact, there were no listings of sales of the 1918 Edition of The Elements of Style in the Cumulative American Book Prices Current up to 2001. A few weeks later, Bob listed the book online for $5,000! That was too expensive for me. He found a buyer in early 2004, Madeline Kripke, the Dame of Dictionaries. I wrote Madeline and congratulated her on acquiring Strunk's little book.
From November 1999 to January 2007, I displayed and wrote about my book collections on WebTV websites that I had created. This is what my Elements of Style Collection looked like as of October 2004.
My Elements of Style Collection
Strunk, William Jr. and White, E.B. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE
I LOVE THIS BOOK! It's the best little book on the use of English. I have three copies of the hardback (first Macmillan printing ) which was published in 1959. The paperback editions are 1967 and 1979; both also published by Macmillan in New York. See the next listings for the earlier editions of Strunk's Elements of Style sans E.B. White.
Strunk, William Jr. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLENew York, 1920. Harcourt, Brace and Company. As of October, 2004, I have four copies. This edition is what is known as the First Trade Edition, following the private printing by Strunk in 1918 in Ithaca, New York. This edition consists of 52 pages versus the 43 pages of the 1918 Edition. See the next listing for an on line link to the 1918 Edition.
Strunk, William Jr. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE
Ithaca, New York, n.d. (c.1940) The Thrift Press. I bought this little treasure for $35 on eBay in March 2001, believing this book to be the coveted 1918 Edition. I shall copy the words the seller used to describe the book in his ebay listing: "....Preceeds (sic) the Harcourt Edition of 1920. This is the 'little book' that E.B. White revised. He used this booklet in William Strunk's English Class at Cornell University in 1919. It had been privately printed by Prof. Strunk. This copy I am listing was assigned to me at Cornell in the early 1940s. In 1959, Macmillan brought out 'The Elements of Style' with revisions, an introduction, and a chapter on writing by E.B. White, and listed him as co-author. Strunk's booklet has seven chapters. Two of them, one on Spelling and one with Exercises are not included in White's version...Former owner's name on t.p
I discovered that the Thrift Press did not publish the 1918 Edition the very morning I won the bid for the 1920 Edition. I stumbled upon the Bartleby link which shows that the 1918 edition was privately printed by W.P.Humphrey, Geneva, New York.
In retrospect, I should have realized that the Thrift Press did not publish the 1918 edition as soon as I looked at the title page:
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE BY WILLIAM STRUNK, JR. PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH, EMERITUS CORNELL UNIVERSITY.......
The key word is "emeritus", a title given to retired professors. Strunk retired in 1937!
The only other difference in the printing of this edition from the 1920 edition is in the Introduction; the list of books recommended for further reference and study was revised. Both editions consist of 52 pages, including the chapters on Spelling and Exercises.
The 1918 Edition, on the other hand, does not include the two chapters on Spelling and Exercises. In addtion, the rules concerning Syllabication are included in The Elementary Rules of Usage Section, instead of in the section titled, A Few Matters of Form.
More news! There is another Harcourt Edition to procure. In 1934 and 1935 William Strunk co-authored revised editions with Edward A. Tenney, another Cornell University instructor, changing the title of the 1935 edition to The Elements and Practice of Composition. Cornell University has this edition listed online as well as the 1918 and 1920 Editions. Cornell has the undated Thrift Press Edition listed as well, but with a circa date of 1958. Thrift Press was in business from the 1930s on, which supports the ebay seller's statement that he used the book when he attended Cornell in the 1940s.
Strunk, William Jr., and Tenney, Edward A. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE
New York, c.1934. Harcourt, Brace and Company. Revised Edition. No date on title page but copyright 1934(1920). I don't believe this publisher would put the date on the title page because it is a "revised edition". Revise it they did, changing the format and titles of each Chapter: Chapter I. The Three Prerequisites of Writing. 1.Spelling 2.Grammar 3. Punctuation. Chapter II. Essay Writing. 1.How to Write a Short Essay. 2. Miscellaneous Conventions to be Observed. III. The Three Elements of Style. 1.Principles Governing the Paragraph. 2. Effective Sentences 3. Diction. IV. Two Devices to Promote Effective Writing. 1. The Precis†2. The Paraphrase. V. The Business Letter.
And finally, in an unnumbered section, A Short List of Reference Books.
It is interesting that in 1959, E.B. White reverted to the original format of chapter headings from the 1920 Harcourt, Brace and Company Edition, except for replacing the chapter on Spelling.
The copyright information in the 1959 edition is confusing:
The Elements of Style, Revised Edition, by William Strunk, Jr. and Edward A. Tenney, Copyright 1935 by Oliver Strunk.
To the best of my knowledge, the title of the 1935 edition was changed to The Elements and Practice of Composition. Both the Library of Congress and Cornell University list the changed title. The LOC listing adds that the 1935 edition is an enlargement of Strunk's Elements of Style and includes 48 practice leaves at the end (which are not included in the 1934 edition).
The most I paid for an early edition of The Elements of Style from 2001 to 2004 was $50. But after Bob Riedel sold his copy of the 1918 edition, prices for all of the early editions went through the roof. For the next few years early editions of The Elements of Style were listed from $75 to $350. I bought a second copy of the 1934 edition on eBay for $75 in 2005, and that was it.
In October 2006, a 1919 edition of The Elements of Style was listed on eBay for less than $200. But I couldn't bid on it. I started having heart problems in 2004, and had three stents inserted in my arteries. By 2006, I had nine stents in my arteries. My cardiologist put me on a twenty-pound lifting limit. A tray of mail weighs more than twenty pounds. That meant I could no longer perform my duties as a rural carrier for the Post Office. A Man of Letters I could no longer be! I applied for disability retirement. But it wasn't approved until 2007. We survived the year because we had excellent credit, and because I sold more than a few of my books. Needless to say, I didn't buy any early editions of The Elements of Style for a while.
On May 22, 2007, I was contacted by a person who, for identification purposes, shall be known as the "Professor of History." He had read a December 2006 post of mine about my Elements of Style Collection on the Exlibris listserv and thought I could help him. He bought a stack of books and maps from someone's trip to Japan at a yard sale. Included in the stack of books was a copy of the 1918 edition of The Elements of Style. He wanted to know what his copy of the 1918 edition of The Elements of Style was worth.
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