Breaking:  The Parts are Sometimes Worth More than the Whole

- by Susan Halas

1839 miniatlas

Worn old atlas is ripe for breaking.

The subject of breaking is one of the touchiest and most controversial in the book world, but if you handle printed material long enough you will certainly come across books and magazines that are already broken or ready to break. They come to you in pieces or so worn and ragged that if you don’t take them apart they will fall apart on their own.

 

Look at this little 1839 mini-American atlas (see photo). It’s already missing a good 40 pages and what’s left looks so wretched that you’d think no one would want it. That’s where you’d be mistaken, because that atlas still has text, pix and maps on Africa, pre-Civil War America, and discoveries in the Pacific that are sufficiently interesting and graphic that they’re likely to find buyers by the page or section.

 

I learned how to break from my Dad. In the 1950s he’d take me along on his buying expeditions. We’d often come back with fat semi-decayed volumes of Scribner’s, Century, Harper’s, and others of the late 19th and early 20th century books, magazines and journals.

 

He couldn’t keep them all, so he took them apart and kept the parts he wanted. Work by Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, and Joseph Conrad appeared in those pages. There were also ads for beauty products, early autos, strange electrical devices, and travel to all points by train and much of it beautifully illustrated. A lot of what he broke came to me and most of it went on to new homes at decent prices.

 

You can still buy many of those same books and magazines and often for very nominal sums. One reason is that almost all of those things are now available free in digital format on the internet. Another is the people who are selling them frequently haven’t a clue as to what might be of value or why. 

 

The truth is there’s still an avid core of enthusiasts who prefer the real thing, especially the real plates as they were first issued. Years ago I worked for another dealer who bought a broken set of the Harriman Expedition to Alaska 1901. He eagerly stripped the colored illustrations and folding maps and tossed the rest into the trash.

 

I was right behind him fishing it out. He missed the photogravures by ES Curtis. Yes, the same Curtis who went on to take the celebrated pictures of Native Americans. It was lovely stuff with full plate marks tucked inside a picked over breaker and plucked directly from the rubbish bin.

 

In those days there was no internet, you just had to know. Now that the internet is permanently with us my advice to buyers and sellers is to browse for what might be interesting digitally and then look for the issues or volumes to appear via eBay or Google.