The Tale of Peter Rabbit

14th March 2018

Beatrix Potter's Tale of Peter Rabbit has been a firm favourite with children for over a century, but its publishing history is not a straight forward one and distinguishing a first edition from a later printing is not always a simple matter. In recent years the big screen has brought us both the story of the author's life, "Miss Potter," and a new CGI film about Peter Rabbit, which despite having approval from the Potter estate is not without its critics. These films, together with the ongoing popularity of Potters tales, have brought forward both collectors and would-be sellers of rare Potter items. This post aims to provide information for both groups by laying out the publishing history of Potter's first little book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and providing some tips on how to establish the edition of your copy. 

“I don't know what to write to you , so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits"

In September 1893 Noel Moore, the five year old son of Beatrix Potter's beloved governess was unwell. To cheer him up Potter wrote the now famous Peter Rabbit picture letter.  “I don’t know what to write to you," she began, "so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits” .  Noel was delighted with the letter and a few years later Beatrix decided to develop the story and turn it into a little book. Thus The Tale of Peter Rabbit was born.

"Don't go into Mr McGregor's garden" excerpt from the facsimile of the original picture letter

Potter approached many publishers with her manuscript but to no avail, so she resolved to get the story printed at her own expense and engaged London printer Strangeways & Sons. On December 16th 1901 250 copies of her book were ready to sell or distribute to friends.

                   The first edition privately printed Peter Rabbit

In order to keep printing costs to a minimum the book had a card cover and only one colour illustration, the rest of the drawings were black and white line drawings. "I did not colour the whole book for two reasons" Potter wrote, " - the great expense of good colour printing - and also the rather uninteresting colour of a good many of the subjects which are most of them rabbit brown and green." The format of the book was detemined by Potter's firm ideas of the type of book a child would like, it should of a size that a child could hold easily in one hand and have stout paper, making the pages easy to turn.

               Initial pages of the privately printed Peter Rabbit

Miss Potter's book was greeted with enthusiasm and she soon ordered a second impression of 200 copies. Although the format remained largely the same, there are one or two minor textual changes and the binding was of a slightly better quality. The colour was changed from grey to olive green and the spine became rounded, rather than flat. Dealers and collectors often refer colloquially to these privatley printed editions as "flat backed" or "round backed rabbits."


                      The second (round backed) privately printed Peter Rabbit

Potter, however, had not given up on finding a printer and in December 1901 she received a letter from the publishing firm Frederick Warne. "Dear Miss Potter, I must apologise for not having written to you earlier with reference to the 'Bunny Book'."  Warne offered to print the story in an edition of 5000 copies, providing Potter supplied the drawings in colour. They suggested a royalty of 1d per book, rising to 3d per book should there be any subsequent editions. "Of course we cannot tell whether the work is likely to run to a second edition or not, and therefore we fear it might not provide a reasonable remuneration for you." After some negotiations a deal was struck and Potter set to work producing the illustrations in colour. In October 1902 the first published edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was on sale in UK book shops. The books covers were either brown or grey paper boards, retailing at 1/- or in pale green cloth, retailing at 1/6. Warne suggested that brighter colours might be better sellers, but Potter was adamant that the colouring needed to be in keeping with the natural colours of her animal protaganists.


                 First published edition of Peter Rabbit 

Dating the first Warne edition isn't always easy, not least because the title page of the first edition is undated. As mentioned above the covers of the book will be either brown or grey, the publisher is listed as F.Warne & Co, Warne didn't incorporate until 1919, so copies which list the publisher as Warne & Co. Ltd are later editions. The endpapers of the first edition are a pale grey leaf pattern, rather than the more familiar pictorial ones showing characters from the books. When Warne had the idea of introducing the pictorial endpapers in 1903 they needed to reduce the page count from 97 to 85, and chose to remove four of the original colour illustrations. Thus the first printings also have more illustrations than later editions. 

The endpapers are pale grey leaf pattern 

The only notable textual difference between the first edition and later printings comes on page 51, "Peter gave himself up for lost, and wept big tears" reads the first edition, in later editions this is switched to read "shed big tears," a phrase thought to be less upsetting for younger readers.

A simple glassine type dustwrapper accompanied the book, the only letterpress being the printed price on the spine. Booksellers found the glassine jacket tore very easily and masked the charming colour illustration of the upper cover, as a result many tended to remove the jacket before putting the books on their shelves. Thus finding the first edition with its original dustjacket is now extemely unlikely, although below is a photograph of a copy we handled recently showing that at least one copy in a dustjacket does exist.

            The dustjacket of the first edition

Warne needn't have worried about the book running to a second printing for it has been in print ever since 1902 and remains one of the most popular of all children's stories. 

The value of a first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit can vary dramatically. A fine copy of the first Warne edition complete with dustwrapper may command a five figure sum, such is its rarity, whereas the more commonly encountered damaged and worn copies without dustjacket may be worth no more than a couple of hundred pounds. Some early ediitons may also be of a small value, but given that the book has been published so many times most are not worth more than a pound or two.

As one of the world's leading specialist dealers in the works of Potter we have been lucky enough to handle many Beatrix Potter first editions, signed copies, picture letters, manuscripts and original drawings. Her books are notoriously difficult to date as Warne use a dating process which is not easily decipherable.  If you have a Beatrix Potter book you would like to sell please read our selling books page which tells you what infomation we need in order to help you. If you would like to start collecting her books you can browse our current stock here or feel free to give us a ring on 01491 576427 and we will be very happy to advise you.


  • Jonkers Rare Books 25/Apr/2024 11:22

    Hi Sue, Your copy is one of the U.S. editions. We didn't cover overseas or foreign language editions in this post, but Peter Rabbit has been published in many countries and appeared in many different languages.

  • Sue Baxter 25/Apr/2024 00:19

    My copy of "The Tale Of Peter Rabbit" shows the publisher as Frederick Warne & Co., Inc. New York. I have not been able to find anything that mentions the inclusion of Inc., only Ltd. Does this mean anything to you?

  • Sam Jonkers 25/Aug/2018 19:03

    Hi Steve, The final three numbers in the sequence you mention represent the date code. So in this case your books are published in May 1955, October 1955 and December 1955. I hope that helps.

  • Steve Fazakerley 25/Aug/2018 18:54

    Please can you tell me how to date my Beatrix Potter books.
    I have printer numbers eg. Edmund Evans: 760.555 (The Tale of Samuel Whiskers) William Clowes and sons Ltd: 879.1055 (The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin) Jarrold & Sons Ltd: 920.1255 (The Tailor of Gloucester)
    and others. 'The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin' front cover has the 'BY' not centered over 'Beatrix Potter', all other copies I have seen ARE centered??

  • Denise Cribb 29/Jul/2018 22:38

    Very interesting! I have a copy of The Tale of Two Bad Mice which is dedicated to a Blanche Ryland from Auntie. July 1904 but I understood it was not published until the September?

  • b part 09/Jun/2018 15:47

    hello please can you tell me what you know about "Warne used a dating process which is not easily decipherable"?! the edition I have is numbered at 623.667

  • Catharina Holtkamp 17/Mar/2018 17:37

    Thank you so very much for sending this. It is extremely interesting and I enjoyed reading again about
    the first and early printing. I am going to check my Beatrix Potter books! Best wishes, Catharina.

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