Unloved Antiques: The American Old Family Bible

In this edition of “Unloved Antiques”, we’re taking a look at the venerable American “Old Family Bible.” Most families have one, often said to be “At least 200 years old,” inherited from some distant deceased relative and nearly always with a fantastic tale relating to the Frontier, Old West or the Civil War.

This “old family bible,” published in 1877 by the O.A. Browning & Co., of Toledo, Ohio and London, Ontario. It’s in fair to good condition and comparable examples often sell at auction in the $80-$150 range.

This “old family bible,” published in 1877 by the O.A. Browning & Co., of Toledo, Ohio and London, Ontario. It’s in fair to good condition and comparable examples often sell at auction in the $80-$150 range.

To date, we must have examined dozens of bibles that were said to have belonged to family members related to Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and even Abe Lincoln*. Sadly, none of them had any provenance, and nearly all were printed long after all of these notables had gone to their final reward.

Most of these bibles we receive appraisal requests for are actually very late 19th-century presentation pieces, highly ornate bibles with embossed covers, in some cases with latches that resemble something one would find in a 14th-century monastery. Quite often, these were given as gifts to newlyweds or newly ordained priests and ministers by family or friends, eventually handed down from one generation to the next. Some are inscribed with dedications, dates and names to give some hint as to their original ownership, but after two or three generations, the inscribed date is dismissed as “written in years later,” particularly if the last name inscribed is similar to someone famous—like Ulysses S. Grant—or infamous such—as Jesse James or William Bonnie (Billy the Kid).

Upon examination of the first few pages, most of these bibles will reveal the publishing date and the name and location of the publisher; most, like the example above, tend to post-date the 1870s and were made right through the turn of the 20th century. Values for these late 19th-century American Bibles can be upwards of $400 at auction, if in very good shape and printed by a well-respected publisher. But most we see suffer from 100-plus-years of being shoved into bookcases, drawers and hope chests.

The example above dates to 1877, published by the O.A. Browning & Co., of Toledo, Ohio and London, Ontario. It’s in fair to good condition¹, and comparable examples often sell at auction in the $80-$150 range.

*With such pieces, with genuine provenance to someone like the Western outlaw Jesse James’ mother can take the value of a battered, run-of-the-mill 19th-century bible from $80 to more than $3,000 at auction. If you have any doubt at all about the value and origins of an old book, we strongly suggest having it examined and appraised by an antiquarian book dealer.

¹ “Fair” describes a worn book that has complete text pages, including maps or plates, but may be missing end papers. The binding will generally be worn in spot and any defects will be noted in the description. “Good” describes an average used and worn book that still has all pages or leaves. Any defects will be noted in the description.

Previous “Unloved Antiques” articles:

Unloved Antiques: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates
Unloved Antiques: Singer Sewing Machines
Unloved Antiques: Decorator Prints
Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters
Unloved Antiques: ‘Bronze’ Flatware
Unloved Antiques: 1847 Rogers Brothers Flatware
Unloved Antiques: Hummel Knockoffs
Unloved Antiques: National Geographic Magazines
Unloved Antiques: Dragonware
Unloved Antiques: 19th Century Religious Prints
Unloved Antiques: Depression Glass
Unloved Antiques: Stradivarius-Style Violins
Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Pump Organs
Unloved Antiques: ‘Starving Artist’ Painting

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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  • I amazed at how your “unloved” stories have following my path as I clean and discard things from an estate of fifty years, where nary a thing was gotten rid of; including a triple dresser of used and unused greeting cards. As the clean-out nears the end, I too was wondering “what to do with the old family bible AND hymnals”? Thank youfor the timely input.

  • I have a small (6″ X 4″ X 2″ thk) NY American Bible Soc. bible published in 1860 and presented to a Union Captain by his wife as he went away to war. I can find nothing about this issue anywhere regarding actual printing date or possible value but I can’t help feeling that, given the provenance, family history etc. it should have some value, if for no other reason than insurance. Any recommendations?

  • Mike Wilcox

    Here’s a link regarding the history of the American Bible Society that might give you some input:


    Theses bibles are not rare and were provided for troops on both the North and South side of the Civil War. What would give value would be if the Captain in question has a traceable history to what battles he was in and proof the bible went with him.

    • I believe I have both (the dedication is in his wife’s handwriting inside the front cover). His name was Thomas M. Kirkpatrick and he was a Captain in Company E, 13th Regiment, Indiana Volunteers. I am researching his military history as we speak. Thanks for the input on the website.
      Regards, Bill

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