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HISTORY OF THE BIG BOOK: FIRST PRINTING 1939
We are bringing to you a series about the Alcoholics Anonymous basic text: The Big Book. In this series, we will be discussing much of the history surrounding the First Edition Big Book. The First Printing of the First Edition was published in April of 1939, followed by 15 more printings up until the release of the 2nd Edition in 1955. In all, there were 16 printings that each have a story to tell. Today, these books have become a significant piece of AA History and have become highly sought after collectible items as they have become rarer to find! In this article, we will highlight some of the unique details about the First Printing.
It was the Spring of 1939, AA in their infancy and the future was in doubt. AA Pioneers were broke and struggling to find sufficient financial backing to publish the book Alcoholics Anonymous. At this point, it was decided that AA would publish the book themselves through their newly established Works Publishing Inc. Their new publishing company has been selling stock certificates as a means to raise money for the printing of the book. The problem they ran into was that the money they were raising was being spent on daily living and office expenses. The book almost didn’t happen! It took a series of fortunate breaks through works of good faith from several different people.
A printer in Cornwall, NY, named Edward Blackwell, had been highly recommended to Bill Wilson. Blackwell was the President of Cornwall Press. So Bill and Hank Parkhurst(“The Unbeliever” story in the First Edition) went to Cornwall to see Blackwell. There they were told that the book would probably be only about four hundred pages when printed. That seemed a bit skimpy.
They wanted to sell the book for $3.50 per copy. That was a very large sum in those days, probably the equivalent of about $50 today, and people might not think they were getting their money’s worth. They picked the cheapest, thickest paper the printer had, and requested that each page be printed with unusually large margins surrounding the text. This made for an unusually large book. Thus, the book came to be nicknamed the “Big Book.” (The First Printing is bigger and thicker than the current one.)
Blackwell agreed to print 5,000 copies of the First printing for a down payment of $500 and on good faith he trusted that Bill and Hank would pay the remainder of the costs once they made some sales of the book.
Here is a look at the text of the 1st page of the First Printing. You will notice the large margins around the text and that Page 1 is the first page of the Doctor’s Opinion(The Doctor’s Opinion is now in the Roman Numeral section at the front of the big book and Page 1 is now the beginning of Bill’s Story)
Here is the First Printing standing next to a 4th Edition. You can tell the difference in the height and thickness of the paper.
Blackwell had an excess of red material for the bindings, so he offered them a special deal. Eager to save costs, Bill and Hank agreed. They also thought, according to some reports, that the color red would make the book more attractive and marketable.
The First Printing was the only one on which a red binding was used. All the other printings of the First Edition, except for the Fourth Printing, were in various shades of blue. The Fourth Printing, due to another overstock of binding material and thus, lower cost, was bound in blue as well as in green.
The First Printing is often referred to today as the “Big Red Book.” Here’s a look at the beautiful bright red cloth cover on the First Printing with the golden Alcoholics Anonymous:
Despite all their efforts at proofreading, there was a typographical error in the First Printing. On page 234, the second and third line from the bottom was printed twice. This was corrected in subsequent printings.
Below is the last paragraph on page 234 showing the printing error:
A New York AA member named Ray Campbell, a recognized artist was asked to design the dust jacket. His story, An Artist’s Concept, appears in the First Edition. He submitted various designs for consideration including one which is blue and in an Art Deco style. The one which was chosen was red, and yellow, with a little black, and a little white. The words Alcoholics Anonymous were printed across the top in large white script. It became known as the circus jacket because of its loud circus colors. The unused blue jacket is today in the Archives at the Stepping Stones Foundation.
You can view the art on the circus-style dust jacket above in the featured image of this article.
In the next part of this series, we will focus on the 2nd Printing of the First Edition that was printed in March 1941.