Welcome to Old Children's Books, selling children's literature and picture books online since 1994. We stock more than 10,000 scarce, collectible and out-of-print books, for readers, teachers and collectors.
The short answer is: You usually can't on a book published before number lines came into use.
Problems with ascertaining edition:
It is difficult to determine the publication data, especially with early picture books: the editor in charge of a particular picture book might not have followed the stated procedure of the house; illustrated title page dates may have been retained in later printings; a 1st American edition may not have been identified as such; a missing jacket may have contained printing data and publication dates; there may have been a "marriage" between book and dustjacket, which would significantly lower its value; on the other hand, the publisher may have commonly used left-over earlier jackets on later printings of that particular book. A specialist children's dealer calls on a large reference library and years of experience in inspecting the actual books.
A reliable dealer will assess publication data conservatively and call an early printing just that; he or she will be cautious of statements like "might be a first edition", "probably a first," "presumed first" etc. On our newer listings at oldchildrensbooks.com we put the justification for our printing statement with the publication data.
Children's books are usually collected in the first printing of the first edition, commonly, and confusingly, referred to as "first editions." Collectors of illustrators look for the first copy of a book published with certain illustrations: these should be called "First thus illustrated." However, illustrated copies of Bible stories, Aesop, or Mother Goose (or the Alphabet!) are often listed as first printings with each new illustrator or adapter. Undistinguished reprints by a mass market publisher should not be designated as "First thus" and are not collectible firsts, although they may be of interest to a collector who wants every version of a title.
Two references useful in identifying first printings, both listed above, are McBride's, which is inexpensive and handy, and Zempel, which is expensive but can be found at the library and contains publishers' own statements. For children's books, we rely on Zempel and our best judgement. See our Bibliography.
Double-checking edition data:
If a book is listed as a first, but not a "stated first" and is not recent enough for a number line, it is quite all right contact the seller for further information. Ask an experienced bookseller (respectfully) how he arrived at a designation of first edition. Ask a new bookseller what is on the title page, what is on the back of the title page, what price is on the jacket, and especially what books are listed on the jacket.
At that point you will have to research to see that no later books are mentioned; Twentieth Century Children's Writers, above, has reliable lists of British and American publication dates for hundreds of books. Other peculiarities, or "points" exist that will identify some other first printings: book sizes, printers, bits of text. If you are collecting one author or illustrator, it is worth buying the bibliographic reference books which specialist dealers own, for instance Hanrahan's Works of Maurice Sendak 1947-1994. Ahearn's Collected Books contains invaluable data on children's books of interest to "grown-up" collectors, and McBride's Points of Issue also lists these books.
Most children's book clubs, for example Weekly Reader, were printed on poor paper with trimmed side margins and their prices should be very low. They are not considered collectible, although you may need them to fill some holes. Junior Literary Guilds vary. Some older ones were quite nicely produced but you should still expect lower prices whether or not they say "first edition", and to be safe you should only purchase them in at least Near Fine condition. (A few of these are considered true firsts, and some constitute desirable American editions of English books, but be very cautious about your source). If you know that a book has been widely circulated in a Book Club edition, and you feel the dealer might have overlooked book club signs, it doesn't hurt to ask, especially on Ebay or Amazon.
For books, you'll have better luck with "Search Our Books" above