How Scarce is The Alice Anyway?

 © 2001 Gordon B. Neavill

 This article first appeared as part of a thread in the Modern Library Mailing List. For a later view showing the True Source of all this, see The Ultimate Truth About the Illustrated Alice.

I reported the discovery of the Illustrated ML edition of Alice in Wonderland in MLC [Modern Library Collector] #26 in October 1993. Alice and Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with the Tenniel illustrations colored by Fritz Kredel were originally intended for the Illustrated ML, then sold instead to the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1946 for use as a dividend. Tales of Edgar Allan Poe illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg, originally planned for the Illustrated ML, also ended up instead as a BOMC dividend. Ironically, these were the only Illustrated ML titles that ever returned a profit! (Harry Abrams, the art editor for the Illustrated ML, was also the BOMC advertising and production manager. He conceived the Illustrated ML, convinced Cerf and Klopfer to go ahead with it, and remained closely involved with the series. He later became a major art book publisher.)

In 1947 Abrams offered Cerf and Klopfer 3,010 unbound copies of Alice in Wonderland that remained in the BOMC warehouse with the suggestion that they could be used in the Illustrated ML. The last four regularly published Illustrated ML titles had been published in 1946. The unbound copies were an inch taller than the Illustrated ML format, the title page gave the publisher as Random House, and pp. 39-62 were missing! Using them as Abrams proposed required not only binding the sheets and creating a clear acetate jacket but trimming the sheets to the Illustrated format, printing 3,000 copies or so of the 24 missing pages, and cutting off the tp [title page] with the Random House imprint and gluing a newly printed Illustrated ML tp to the stub. The ML's printer and binder indicated that the result would be untidy and not worth the trouble, but Cerf and Klopfer figured they could turn a small profit on the deal and decided to go ahead. The result was indeed untidy: the page numerals are located at the foot of the pages, and several page numerals were partially cut off when the sheets were trimmed--at least in the copies I've examined.

How scarce is the Illustrated Alice? We can start with the 3,010 copies Random House acquired from the Book of the Month Club. Allowing for spoilage, the number of copies actually bound and published in the Illustrated ML format was probably slightly less than 3,000. No one knows how many of those copies survive. An unknown number of copies appear to have been sold to the Philco Corp. for distribution at its national convention in January 1948 (see the Philco slipcase on; I expect the remaining copies were offered mainly to department stores. The Illustrated Alice is not a ghost title (if it exists it ain't a ghost) but it was a one-shot deal, published after new titles were no longer being added to the Illustrated ML, with the intention of turning a quick profit. It wasn't listed in ML catalogs, and if things went as Cerf and Klopfer hoped they probably disposed of their 3,000 copies within a few months.

The Illustrated Alice is far and away the scarcest ML title. I can't think of any other ML title sent out into the world in so few copies. In comparison, the Illustrated Holy Bible had a first printing of 18,000 copies and a second printing of 6,000 copies. Shakespeare's Tragedies and Comedies had single printings of 11,000 copies each in the Illustrated series. Most regular ML titles had first printings of at least 5,000 copies. Still, 3,000 copies is a lot of books; many university press titles are published today in editions of less than 1,000 copies. If a significant portion of them were distributed at a convention, there's a good possibility that a lot of them were thrown away. Many copies were probably given to children, and children's books, like cookbooks and textbooks, have a lower survival rate than most other books. They tend to be used rather than shelved unread or preserved as icons; a lot of them are literally used up. It's difficult to estimate how many of the copies survive. Fewer, probably, than most books published in editions of 3,000 copies. My guess, which is no better than anyone else's, is that there are probably several hundred copies in existence--enough, if only we could locate them and get them on the market, for every serious ML collector to have a copy of his or her own.