Glimpse: Two Vintage KJVs

Over the summer, my wife and I moved into a new house — really, an old house — and I’ve set up a permanent photo studio in the basement, which means it’s easier than ever to snap pictures of Bibles. Who benefits? You do! I’m inaugurating a new feature, ‘eye candy’ with a twist. I’m calling this category Glimpse, because I’ll use it to share volumes I don’t plan to review in full, but would like to do a bit more with than just post a random photo.

Vintage KJVs - Side by Side
Above: Two vintage Bibles, side by side, representing the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth.

We’ll begin with a couple of vintage KJVs. A reader was kind enough to send me a box of various editions, including this pair of compact Bibles. One is a hardback Cambridge edition dated 1870 on the title page, which originally came with a clasp (now missing) to keep it closed, and the other is a very limp Oxford Self-Pronouncing Bible (“Brevier 16mo Black-face”) inscribed 1936 inside the cover.

1870s Cambridge KJV - Title Page

1930s Oxford Self-Pronouncing KJV - Title Page
Above: The title pages. On top, the 1870 Cambridge, and below the 1930s Oxford.

The 1870 Cambridge KJV
Let’s start with the nineteenth-century edition. This Cambridge measures 6.75 in. x 4.75 in. x 1.5 in., which is a great size. It’s marked “Pearl 8vo. with refs.” inside, and as you can see from the page spread below, that means very tiny type set in double columns and references on the inside and outside margin of each page. The hardback boards are decorated and edged in metal — brass, I think. Originally, a clasp would have held the Bible closed. A small label affixed to the inside cover reads “Watkins Binder.”

1870s Cambridge KJV - Spine

1870s Cambridge KJV - Gilt Edges
Above: You can still see the hinge where the clasp would have been fitted originally.

The thing that impressed me most about this 138-year-old Bible was that it opens perfectly flat. I wouldn’t want to have to read from it for any length of time — I don’t think my eyes would bear up — but it seems to me an excellent example of the compact Bible form.

1870s Cambridge KJV - Spread

1870s Cambridge KJV - Open Flat

The 1930s Oxford Self-Pronouncing Bible
The 1930s Oxford measures 6.5 inches tall by 4.5 inches wide, and about an inch thick. One of the covers has delaminated, which allows us to see inside. The outer layer of leather (morocco?) is quite thin, with a thin, flexible board reminiscent of construction paper, and an inner lining of what I’m guessing is a papery synthetic. In spite of the dryness of the leather, it remains as flexible as a contemporary Allan’s binding — I can fold it back on itself with no difficulty, and when I release, it springs back to its original shape. There is no stamp on the inside cover to indicate what the leather is. The india paper manifests some ghosting, as the photos indicate.

1930s Oxford Self-Pronouncing KJV - Spine

1930s Oxford Self-Pronouncing KJV - Open Flat

1930s Oxford Self-Pronouncing KJV - Spread

As you can see from the page spread, this is Brevier setting without references. I’m not a big fan of self-pronouncing text, but I find this little volume quite readable. To me, it’s a perfect example of what a compact Bible should be: a clear, readable typeface; uncluttered layout; limp, flexible binding; all in a discreet form factor.

This Bible is at least seventy-two years old. The Olympics today are taking place in Beijing. When this volume was inscribed, they were in Berlin. As I noted, the front cover is delaminated. So the last thing I’d want to do with this Bible is roll it up like a newspaper in my fist just to see how flexible it is.

But I did it anyway.

1930s Oxford Self-Pronouncing KJV - Newspaper Roll

Results? No problem. This septuagenarian is so supple it puts today’s whippersnappers to shame.

10 Comments on “Glimpse: Two Vintage KJVs

  1. I especially like the Cambridge one. Wish you could still get those new!

    • I know it’s been a few years, but you can try for a new Cambridge edition.

  2. Take a moment to thumb carefully through the bibles. I have a bunch of 19th century bibles accumulated by family members of the generations. One of the had my grandfather’s baptismal certificate tucked into it. Another had an 1880-something letter from my great-great grandfather to my great grandmother, written on a trip to Switzerland, complete with some rudimentary artwork/illustrations. Neat stuff…

  3. Oops, should have had another cup and/or proofread before clicking…please pardon the typos! It should read “…_over_ the generations. One of _them_ had…” %^(

  4. Mark,
    As you mentioned, the type in the 19th Century Bible is tiny. I’ve got quite a few Bibles and Prayer Books from the 18th and 19th Centuries and most of them are the same way. I’m always amazed at how people could read that tiny type for an extended period of time — but seeing how well used some of these volumes are, they must have been read a lot. I’ve always wondered if it was the expense of paper or simply a desire to keep the books small.
    I think the worst I’ve seen is a c. 1920 copy of the “The Teacher’s Prayer Book.” It’s a heavily annotated edition of the 1662 BCP. Aside from an unusual hardback binding, it’s the size of a typical small pew edition as was common then, but the type is about 40% (I’d estimate about 6pt) the size of standard small BCP text and the notes are at most about 1/3 the size (about 4pt). I find that I can only read it for about 20 minutes at a stretch — which is bit disappointing when using it for research.

  5. Yes, Bill, I’ve noticed that too. I have a 1918 Canadian BCP and Hymn Book that’s a centimetre and a half thick. The hymn book section is probably about 6 pt; I don’t know how on earth you would read one in the middle of a poorly lit church. (For comparison, the 1962 Canadian BCP and the same Hymn Book bought in a store today is almost five centimetres thick, with a slightly larger page size.)

  6. My dad just found an old bible in my late mother’s nightstand, almost identical to the 1930s edition above, except it also says “S.S. Teacher’s Edition” right under “The Oxford Self-Pronouncing Bible,” and it says “With Chain References” in italics right underneath “Authorized King James Version.” I am checking to see how old or rare it is, and found your link. There are also several differences in the bottom of the flyleaf, but the same emblem is used, and the information is the same. If you can help me with any info for my grieving father, I would be so very greatful. We are trying to discover where this bible came from.
    Niki Haley,

  7. Hey I found a bible in my library of books after I had moved into a new house I am not sure where it came from but it has the same front page as the 1930 bible with Oxford self pronouncing edition my cover looks like it is in better shape on the inside of the cover it say real morocco silk sewed on it and it is very soft but this bible seems much older to me. I can not find a copyright date on it. It says it was printed in Great Britain. I would love to find out more about this bible. What are old bible worth? If anybody has information about this bible I would love to hear about it.

  8. In reference to the 1930 one…i have a very very similar one, with a cyclopedic concordance…and a jewish calendar with corresponding dates of 1902, 1910,1916…but I cannot date it…any ideas or suggestions?!?

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